Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have turned 81 on October 15 of this year, but for the fact that he has been dead for more than 22 years. The implication of this is that there is a cohort of Millenials who never saw Fela at the height of his powers. His influence remains a dainty thing in popular culture both in Nigeria and across the world, but Fela is that cult figure people would rather say they know than risk being looked at as uncool. So, dear millennial, how much Fela do you know? By this, we are not reflecting on his unconventional lifestyle which was all shades of controversial. We are interested in what he left on vinyl, the music. Fela’s ascent from a schoolboy dissident highlife-jazz trumpeter to his creation of the Afrobeat fusion remains an eternal acoustic delight.
There is no better time to reflect on his intimidating discography which spanned about three decades than now as we count down to Felabration 2019. If you are in Lagos you can catch the fever every evening at Freedom Park from October 14 – 20, 2019.
So, new Fela initiate, let us welcome you with 7 Fela songs.
WATER NO GET ENEMY
Fela, as a highlife musician, waxed many tunes about the quotidian and the mundane. He sang about alcoholics, scorned lovers, witchcraft, and even about soup. But one of his finest consideration of the mundane was ‘Water No Get Enemy’.
Opening with the catchy brass sounds native to Afrobeat, Fela’s assertion is a worn one. Water is ubiquitous and germane to the existence of every living thing. In fact, every human being is about 70 per cent water. But Fela, an adroit thinker and composer, embraced binary thoughts in writing his instructive song on the importance of water. He also explores the danger of water, as well as the inevitability of our need for water. Listen
‘Lady’ is rumoured to have been inspired by a Ghanaian receptionist who caught Fela’s fancy. This tune describes, rather derisively, a self-assured woman liberated from societal shackles. She refuses to be subjected to anything that infringes on her agency, especially patriarchy. This tendency which Fela casts as a taboo in his melodious tune has become the norm.
In 2019, we all should be Feminists. And here is the irony: feminists have taken Fela’s song and spun it around for their own use. Songs like Somi’s ‘Lady Revisited’ featuring Angelique Kidjo comes to mind. These days, you will find the Lady doing the ‘Fire Dance’ far better than the so-called African Woman.
Abami Eda was wrong. Listen
Fela’s early 80s songs had the gentle kick of his heydays. ‘Power Show’ is one of those little known Fela tunes. A 14-minute spool of mid-tempo melancholia, it delves into the misuse of power.
This reflective song explores more than the misuse of power, it dwells on class snobbery and oppression. Drawing archetypes from various works of life—a post office clerk, an immigration officer and a car owner—Fela was exploring the common strain of hubris peculiar to mankind and its possessive, condescending and destructive nature.
‘Power Show’ boasts of more instrumentals than vocals and, in a manner similar to the earlier ‘Monkey Banana’, Fela recruits his female vocalists for monosyllabic responses to his call. This song possesses that groove running through most Fela Afrobeats tune: it makes you dance in spite of the grim realities that the song reflects upon. Listen
One of Fela’s songs with a bass guitar opening, ‘Army Arrangement’ is arguably Fela’s best-arranged composition. Dwelling on the bawdy commentary that begins the song will be a disservice because this song raises important issues about the Nigerian polity. Released in the middle 80s, when Fela was imprisoned for five years, it is not surprising that the villain dictator who ratified Fela’s imprisonment back then is Nigeria’s current president.
More than thirty years after, the system of political succession among the ruling class has not changed. We still have that Army Arrangement, in a new guise. The army officers have retired their uniforms for starched agbadas and Borno hand-woven hats.
But there is hope in Fela’s song. One day will come when those who loot Government coffers will meet their waterloo.
JOHNNY JUST DROP (J.J.D)
Fela’s scathing appraisal of colonial mentality is a trope that runs through a number of his songs. His consideration of returnee behaviour is quite a hilarious one. Metallic rhythms, fast-paced percussion and that laissez-faire attitude that embodied Fela’s commune, Kalakuta Republic—this song makes a mockery of those they called Been-tos and whom we now call I-Just-Got-Back, IJGB for short.
They often return to Nigeria with Western mannerisms, ideas and ideals and a huge ego cultivated by their superior sense of identity and saviour complex. This tendency has become so pervasive that short stay returnees from non-English speaking countries come home with dodgy British accents.
It was and is now fashionable to be-straddle continents. There is even a concept that describes the upwardly mobile young African immigrants who easily navigate their way around Western cities (somebody say Afropolitan!).
Fela mocks them on this tune, calling their experiences second-hand. Listen
SHUFFERING & SHMILING
Fela renounced his Christian missionary background for a more liberal worship couched in traditional African Religion. Shuffering & Shmiling is his most critical appraisal of Christianity and Islam. This is where Tiwa Savage’s 49-99 came from.
In Fela’s reckonings, these religions are weapons of intellectual slavery and subjugation. He describes people, their sufferings, and the unusual optimism with which they meet their travails. While members of the congregation suffer and smile, religious heads lavish in material gains.
Today, the Pentecostal brand of Christianity has birthed preachers modelled after American Evangelicals – charismatic pastors with coiffed hair and bespoke suits. They are spewing the gospel of prosperity and sustaining themselves with affluence best explained by church proceeds. Fela’s charge to the African is to think for him/herself. Listen
LOOK & LAUGH
Look and Laugh is one of Fela’s longest, meditative and philosophical tunes. This song engages with some of Fela’s low moments: his frequent brushes with the Law while also coming across a meditation on Nigeria’s political landscape, one of his most explored themes. Fela continually returns to the refrain of looking and laughing, because this is the most apt description of Nigeria’s failed second republic.
Nigeria has enjoyed about 20 years of democratic rule which has not been smooth sailing. Kleptocracy, inflation, poverty and corruption continues to be pervasive.
Nigeria’s political milieu still requires us to look and laugh. Listen