Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: The Primary Man of an African Personality
by Jawi Oladipo-Ola
Frontpage Media, (Nigeria), 2011, 142 pp., ISBN 9789784998635
Some books are so badly written that they deserve to be read if only for their sheer ugliness. In this way, a critic has something to sink his/her teeth into. More important, such books demonstrate what must be avoided in order to write good books. Another reason bad books sometimes deserve grudging attention is that they may stand as a bastion against encroaching ennui and bad humour. Oh yes, read a bad book to store up your flagging spirits, read something so horribly bad to crack your ribs.
In this sense, Jawi Oladipo-Ola’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: The Primary Man of an African Personality: The Narrative and Screenplay fits the bill. Something that is immediately evident from the first pages of the book is the portrayal of Fela Kuti as an ideologue or better still a philosopher of black consciousness. In adopting this commonplace approach, it is often forgotten that what primarily gained Kuti fame was his music. So, rather than focus on the uniqueness of a musical form that fans such as Brian Eno have called one of the preeminent beats of the 1970s, Oladipo-Ola dwells basically on Fela Kuti’s pan-Africanist beliefs without giving a cogent explanation as to the wherefores of their evolution. It is important to reaffirm that he dwells on those beliefs rather than offer an insightful critique or re-appraisal of them.
The structure of the book itself is curious. There is a longish introduction focusing on Kuti’s well-known pan-Africanism. But rather than illuminate this strand of thought to highlight why it is distinctive and truly radical, we are overburdened by pages spouting platitudes, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods. And then there is a screenplay that begins with the most unimaginative way possible, in a classroom. Later on, there are well-known photographs of Kuti. These photographs do nothing to present a different view of the man. So, in terms of basic structure, the book is muddled. Is it meant to serve as some sort of biographical excursion? Or can it pass as a workable screenplay? On both counts, the book fails woefully as even the most significant milestones in Kuti’s life are omitted. It is difficult to imagine which credible filmmaker would agree to turn the script into cinematographic reality. It would be difficult to film because of its heavy didacticism and poor scenic development. And as a biographical engagement, the figure of Kuti is lost to entanglements and obfuscation. Thus, in trying to be a movie script and biographical essay at the same time, it fails woefully at both.
Nonetheless, Kuti’s stock as an artist of global repute is increasing each year. The well received Broadway musical, Fela!, mounted with the support of A-list Hollywood actor Will Smith and successful rapper Jay-Z, did a lot to re-inscribe the achievements of Kuti into the consciousness of different global audiences and generations. So instead of being portrayed as a narrow-minded ethno-centrist and misogynist, he becomes an exemplar of universal justice and constructive dissent. There are many Fela Kuti tribute bands in existence, such as Underground System, The Family Kuti and Antibalas. Afrobeat, the form developed by Kuti, has truly become a recognisable global brand. So, rather than his ideas on pan-Africanism, it is the infectiousness of his music than continues to win new fans. Oladipo-Ola completely fails to appreciate this fact. Instead, he concentrates quite crudely on attempting to foist an unsupportable degree of philosophical respectability on Kuti. Indeed, Oladipo-Ola is not alone in this undertaking. There have been quite a number of dissertations written on what some have termed ‘Felasophy’. Most of these often unduly eulogistic works privilege blackism as a philosophy of consciousness and action. But they often fail to critique ultra-nationalism and its possible ravages as a virulent form of ethno-centricism. It is rather troubling to note that the connections between pan-Africanism as a kind of essentialism and discredited manifestations of nationalism are never really addressed. This omission not unexpectedly leaves a latent fascism looming in the background. Many acolytes of the Kuti mythology put his pan-Africanism on the same level with African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara. In making such lazy associations without the necessary accompanying elaborations, they lose sight of what makes him a compelling, visionary musician.
Oladipo-Ola’s notion (can it really be called that) of pan-Africanism flounders on a waste of anachronism and on the margins of modernity and globalisation. As a result, rather than being a way of embracing the future, it comes across as tasteless romanticism. If we go by his view, the African continent would only end up wallowing in the cloud of atrophy it seriously needs to shake off. Ideologies of blackness need not necessarily be reductive or even repulsive. Oladipo-Ola does not engage with noteworthy conceptions of blackness such as negritude or the thought of important black thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas or Frantz Fanon. Indeed, pan-Africanism and other similar ideologies have a long engaging history; merely putting up Fela Kuti as a pan-Africanist without locating his value within a precise niche in that tradition can appear rather lame. Kuti preached a strong and consistent message of black empowerment and achievement yet he was never at ease with Nigerian officialdom. In fact, his frequent brushes with authority almost cost him his life many times. In a way, his stance as a figure of black resurgence is somewhat contradictory: he could only appreciate the glories of the African past and not the contemporary political moment, with the notable exception of his admiration for Kwame Nkrumah. Viewed in this light, his blackism becomes qualified, limited and perhaps also problematic as a concrete progammme of action.
At many levels, Oladipo-Ola’s efforts are lame for the reason that they can neither serve as critique nor illumination. It is perhaps necessary to cite some of the passages (and indeed there are many) that illustrate the poor quality of the book :
‘Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Malcom X and Kwame Nkrumah have one burning desire, one goal; the salvation of black people all over the world and the total liberation of black world from oppression and subservience dependence’ (p. 2).
‘The spirit of Fela’s music is the essence of the big difference in human culture and thought, between rational and aesthetic experience. Fela’s ingenuity is his universal attempt to express the African personality’ (pp. 2-3).
‘Fela is not a bohemian. He is a liberal hedonist who celebrates perpetual youth without being exuberant. His [sic?] glorified his own virtues. He was a nonconformist, an unrepentant renegade but he has a cause: African unity’ (p. 6).
‘The African society is communal. It embraces individual growth towards a [sic?] group welfare. An African society, which seeks the wellbeing of the community in the context and welfare of the group will defeat colonial mentality. Fela’s will to fight political subjugation, economic exploitation, educational and social backwardness propels the functions of his music’ (p.6).
There are many reasons to believe that a secure grasp of the English language eludes the author. In one instance, Oladipo-Ola writes: ‘Though Fela despises utopia, to him it is catastrophic, it is bad for creativity and human life’ (pp. 7-8). One is forced to ask, does Oladipo-Ola really know what utopia means? If Fela truly hates utopia then would dystopia do for him? As mentioned several times already, he writes terribly, which makes the task of reaching the end of the book quite laborious. In addition, the ideas contained in the book and their depth leave much to be desired. It is necessary to seek out competent interpreters of Fela Kuti’s work who are also able to separate what is important and what isn’t worth spending too much time upon. As such one should allude to books such as Trevor Schoonmaker’s Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (2003) and also his edited volume, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway (2003). Tejumola Olaniyan’s Arrest the Music (2004) is also deserving of mention as well as Carlos Moore’s Fela! This Bitch of a Life (1982). The tomes just mentioned do much more to separate the man from the myth while at the same time placing his music in its proper perspective.
Oladipo-Ola ends up adding more wool to the Fela myth rather than illuminating his life and achievements as an artist. By any standard, Kuti’s life was extraordinary in terms of how he was able to create a fresh musical idiom and also the political struggles he waged. But in focusing on primarily his perennial conflicts with the Nigerian Establishment and not his invention of Afrobeat, the obfuscating mythology beclouds the line separating fact from fiction.
There is often a strident effort to present Kuti as an atavistic ethno-centrist. But in the end, the Kuti appeal has taken on a universal dimension in which observers are able to draw parallels between his life and those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Leonidas of Sparta and Che Guevara. However, Kuti’s espousal of a form of Egyptology and African spirituality towards the end of his life contradicts the underlying universalism of his musical vision. In fact, many non-Africans find a large dose of his eclectic spirituality quite alienating. Initially, it was not Kuti’s intention to create divisions among his audiences. In 1958, he had traveled to London to study music at the Trinity College of Music where he moonlighted digesting the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Back home in Nigeria, highlife was the dominant form of music with E.T. Mensah, Cardinal Rex Lawson and Victor Olaiya as its main proponents. Kuti’s early bands, the jazz quintet and Koola Lobitos, wouldn’t play straight highlife and so it took a while for audiences to latch on. He turned to his mother, who gave him perceptive advice: he had to play something his audiences could understand. Tony Allen, a key figure in the evolution of Afrobeat then took on a more visible role in incorporating indigenous Yoruba rhythms into a highly potent mix of highlife, jazz and funk. It was at this moment that Kuti found his voice and the necessary musicians, such as Lekan Animashaun, to support him. Before then, a major experience that led to his moment of aesthetic self-discovery was a trip to the United States in the late sixties. There, he met Sandra Isidore who turned him to ideologies of blackness advocated by the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Thus, two things combined to form his essential palette: a philosophy of blackness and a carefully selected assortment of musical ingredients that could bear his ideological message. Once he had accomplished this distinctive creative self, the conservative Nigerian social and political classes began to take notice. It wasn’t long before his numerous arrests and harassments by law enforcement agencies commenced. He and his entourages were frequently beaten and hurled into detention, culminating in the sacking of his commune, Kalakuta, in 1977. During that particular assault, his aged mother, a noted feminist and political activist, was thrown out of a first floor window. She died of her injuries a year later. His singers and dancers were raped and mutilated and Kuti himself was almost clubbed to death. In the decade after the burning of Kalakuta, his global fame grew as he concentrated on entertaining and educating the regular devotees who visited his shrine weekly.
True, Kuti upheld pan-African views until the end of his life in 1997. But what is often forgotten in books written by unperceptive acolytes such as Oladipo-Ola is that the journey that led to the discovery of his singular musical vision is often more interesting than the unduly repetitive mouthing off of secondhand ethnocentric beliefs. What makes Kuti great, we must never forget, is his music. Fans of his such as Oladipo-Ola, on the other hand, tend to be more taken in by the paraphernalia of showmanship which does very little to explain the greatness of the art form. Also absent in Oladipo-Ola’s book are the key moments and experiences in Kuti’s life – such as his introduction to the thought and activities of the Black Panthers in the United States and his re-discovery of his indigenous Yoruba music roots – that eventually made him the kind of artist he was. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are quite a number of works on Kuti that hit the mark in grappling with complex components of his art. Finally, there are also more accomplished efforts – such as the recent Broadway musical – that throw useful light on the power of the Kuti mythology without undermining the hypnotic quality of the music.