Dear millennial, let me introduce you to Fela Kuti – Dami Ajayi
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
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’.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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)
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-fare 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.
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.
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!).
mocks them on this tune, calling their experiences second-hand. Listen
SHUFFERING & SHMILING
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
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.
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
an affluence best explained by church proceeds. Fela’s charge to the African is
to think for him/herself. Listen
LOOK & LAUGH
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 the Nigeria’s failed
has enjoyed about 20 years of democratic rule which has not been smooth sailing.
Kleptocracy, inflation, poverty and corruption continues to be pervasive.
political milieu still requires us to look and laugh. Listen