Fela the Spirit @ 24

by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

Let’s just begin by stating that Fela the Spirit transformed into a higher spirit on this day 24 years ago.

There can be nobody else like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The icon is quite simply indescribable and can never ever be written about in the past tense. He lives forever.

Not so long ago, live on Broadway in America, FELA LIVE!, a musical, set the world stage on fire and broke all the records.

There was a time we were doing a story on the Kuti brothers for the defunct THISWEEK magazine, and we asked the eldest Kuti daughter, Dolupo, to describe each of her three brothers. She said Olikoye was a gentleman while Beko was a diplomat. As for Fela, all she could yell was “yayoyoyooooo!”, because there was no word in English language to describe the phenomenon!

On August 3, 1997 Olikoye Ransome-Kuti addressed a press conference at Fela’s Afrika Shrine at Pepple Street, Ikeja to announce to a startled world that Fela died of AIDS-related complications the previous day. My great buddy and brother, Adewale Maja-Pearce and I decided to take some of Fela’s band boys who were our friends out to drink. In the course of the drinks one of Fela’s boys unaccountably exclaimed: “Na God go punish that Fela sef!” We were shocked at his utterance and asked him to explain what he meant. The distraught fellow lamented that Fela had no business dying thus leaving them, his band boys, stranded on earth. The guy explained that Fela ought to have taken the Western medicines that could have saved his life; after all, the saxophone he was fond of blowing was equally made by the white man!

I write now against the background of the beats of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s album ITT, where the iconic musician starts out by stressing that from the very beginning Africans never used to “carry shit”. The corruption of Africa’s original values that came with the arrival of the white man led to Africans staining their hands with shit. Fela makes his case by giving the names of the original shit-holes used by a very diverse range of the ethnic nations of Africa.

The advent of colonialism elicited in its sweep the abandonment of the old African way of passing faeces. Metaphorically, the “carrying of shit” has progressively led to the corruption of the entire cosmos of the African peoples. To underscore the validity of his conviction, Fela had to swear by most of the deities across Africa such as Edumare. Fela of course does not kowtow to the Godhead of Christianity as can be seen in his many songs such as Shuffering and Shmiling.

The local comprador elite would in the course of time team up with the white colonisers to loot their own country as exemplified by Obasanjo and Abiola whom Fela audaciously named in the music. The failure of the society is therefore anchored on the lack of rootedness to the real values of the traditional society, Fela powerfully argues.

It can be said that the great man died for his beliefs. Fela was not afraid to dare and die, believing that what is not worth dying for is not worth living for.

Fela can be an uncommon fun to be with. How can one ever forget the nightly rides with Fela in his Brother Beko’s ambulance upon his release from prison in 1986? Those days, I would always accompany my friend Abdul Okwechime who used to live with Fela in Kalakuta Republic to visit with the music maestro at the Imaria Close, Anthony Village place of his younger brother Beko, where Fela had his temporary abode then. Fela would give us a ride in the ambulance all over Lagos at night, before ending up at his cousin, Frances Kuboye’s Jazz 38 club on Awolowo Road, Ikoyi. At every police checkpoint the policemen on duty would hail and rejoice once they see who was behind the steering-wheel! Then Fela would tell them: “Yeye people, una dey here dey suffer while oga dey deal with una wives for house!” The policemen would then give him more ovations for insulting them! That’s Fela for you.

Many of Fela’s ideas are simply out of this world. He once told me that Nigeria could win the World Cup by placing a very mighty drum behind the opposing goalkeeper! I told him FIFA would not allow that, and he replied me thusly: “But how would FIFA see it?” I kept my mouth shut, not knowing how to argue with him any further.

Ah Fela, son of Kuti!

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