Nigerians born from 1995 upwards probably know more about Felabration than they know about Fela.
Felabration is that week-long global celebration of Fela, statutorily fixed for the week of Fela’s birthday in October.
Although there are satellite venues at Freedom Park, Raddison Blu Hotel and in the Diaspora, the main action happens in Ikeja where an endless roster of musicians, mostly of the Hip-Hop persuasion, grace the Afrika Shrine stage all week long.
For some, it is a time for commingling with people from different walks of life united by the love of marijuana and erm, Fela’s protest music.
While October takes the fan-fare, August remains indelible in our memory and left mostly for private introspection.
August 2, 1997 is the day Fela took his final breath at a private hospital in Lagos, having succumbed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Aged 58, that maverick musician whose career began as a Highlife trumpeter, who threw out ‘Ransome’ in his surname and replaced it with Anikulapo—the one with death in his pouch—passed away giving his larger-than-life existence an undeserved mortal end.
Those who were old enough remember the chaos that Fela’s death unleashed. Lagos was shook. The streets became riotous; opportunistic thugs used this period to dispense mayhem.
The traffic gridlock was massive and people trekked long distances to the soundtrack of their sufferings because, for once and for ever, Fela, that beautiful intercessor, had passed into the void.
Fela was born into the family of Ransome-Kutis, a middle-class Nigerian family with a long history of patriarchs who were Christian missionaries and musicians. Fela became a musician in the fashion of family tradition but his religious beliefs would be later inflected towards his strong Pan-African beliefs.
Fela started out as a Highlife musician who wore his American Jazz influences rather exuberantly. His earlier oeuvre, completely bereft of political consciousness, was dance music about love, soups and trivia.
It would take a tour to America and a chance meeting with a Black American lady, Sandra Iz, who was a member of the Black Panther, for Fela to be transformed into the firebrand he became.
On his return from America, he began to play protest music that was critical of government but with a groove that made dance inevitable. He would set up his own nightclub, Afrika Shrine, and a living commune, Kalakuta Republic. He would become a chain-smoking hedonist whose preferred poisons were marijuana and maidens.
He was a thorn in the flesh of the government and he suffered for it; several incursions into his living space, several arrests and beatings but he always came out of it, victorious with a new tune to lambast the government of the day.
Fela is the greatest musician to have ever worked the Nigerian space and condition. Please don’t compare him to Wizkid or 2face. He was a consummate musician with prowess in playing the horns, drums and piano. He was an astute composer who midwifed a genre, Afrobeat, into existence.
Google him. Read about him. Watch his interviews and let his life be a lesson for you.