One day for the owner…: An edited version of Sefi Atta’s introduction to the Felabration Colloquim on Oct 14, 2019 (Long Read)
Sefi Atta, award winning novelist and playwright gave this opening address at the FELABRATION 2019 colloquimwhich proceeded under the theme – Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense and featured Ugandan opposition politician, Bobi Wine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Akala, and Prof. Akin Oyebode.
My name is Sefi Atta. I am a writer and an Afrobeat fan. I also happen to be married to Fela’s nephew, Dr Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, who is the second son of Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s elder brother. But this has no bearing on why I’m here today and why I’m most honoured to pay tribute to a man who, to my mind, is Nigeria’s greatest musician: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
By the way, I initially thought my job would involve actual moderating, but apparently, all I have to do is give a twenty- to thirty-minute introduction to the debates, which really aren’t debates at all, because the panellists will present without responding to each other. I don’t know how you feel about that. I, personally, appreciate the fact that it takes the pressure off.
Members of the panel, I greet you. I was invited, as you were. I don’t make the rules, one of which is that guests can interact with the audience in any way they wish. Thank you for observing the usual format.
Members of the Kuti family, I greet you, too. It is hard to contextualise Fela’s contributions without referring to yours. He was an exceptional man, but his legacy is part of a family continuum which didn’t begin or end with him. It is also important to recognise, as we celebrate him, that you loved him, supported him, cried for him and with him. I’m fairly sure his actions puzzled some of you and drove you crazy once in a while. Even our dearest ones are bound to. But I’m here to talk about him as an artist.
Before I begin my introduction, I’m going to give a brief definition of Fela’s Afrobeat, after which I’ll address an issue regarding his message that is kind of related to the topic of today, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.
As all of you know, part of Fela’s legacy is that he created Afrobeat, which is more than just a fusion of music. It’s also a merging of customs – a way of dancing, dressing and speaking; a way of engaging with the public and communicating with our ancestors, and creator. It is grounded in history and tradition, yet it is radical and progressive. It shuns commercialisation, when necessary, to preserve its integrity.
Afrobeat is a counterculture that is Afrocentric in its approach, pan-African in its vision, and its main focus is the education, emancipation, empowerment and unification of all African people, including those in the diaspora.
Afrobeat was futuristic before Afro-futurism came into being. It was transformative before transformative politics became part of regular discourse. Fela was the change he desired, and the women of Shrine – the Queens, Yeni, Sola and others – were always Afro-fabulous. They were just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
Now, I have to admit that I was never a Shrine regular, but I could say I’ve accidentally developed into an Afrobeat storyteller, and I’ll tell you why. I started writing in 1997, before Fela died, after which his music became more available. At the time, I was living in Mississippi, where I’m still based most of the year, and as I was going through a process of deconstructing my biography, decolonising my mind and defining my audience and orientation, I was listening to Fela’s music. His Afrobeat, apart from informing my process, guided my principles and ideas. It even influenced my views on feminism. I’m not a “Lady” feminist. I don’t want to be equal to “Master”, who is elitist, greedy and selfish. His standards are beneath mine. I would rather do the fire dance, as Fela called it, with like-minded women, and men, so equality can spread.
There’s a lot to learn from listening to Fela’s music. I’m therefore not surprised that so many artists claim he influenced them. Some are sincere, others less so. A few are not quite as well-informed as they should be about him, and of course there are those who exploit his legacy. You will find all these artists in the performing arts, as well as the visual and literary arts. What we have in common is this: it is very easy to say Fela influenced you, but it is damn near impossible to walk in his shoes.
This is an artist who remained highly productive in the face of relentless persecution. An artist who said his music was secondary, that his message was more important, and that, in fact, he used music to spread his message. When I heard him say that, I thought, How can that be? You’re a musical genius. You clearly love to compose. But this is also an artist who refused to play his past hits at concerts. Tell me, which musician today can get away with that?
The Kutis have long tried to dispel the notion that Afrobeat is the same as Afrobeats, the latter being the music that contemporary Nigerian artists make. Since the two are separated by a mere letter, we should not forget to keep adding the ‘S’. Because some of us can tell the difference between genuine and affected consciousness; between grassroots activists and social media warriors; between music that was rehearsed with a band for months and beats that were created on a computer in an hour.
Fela’s music was meant to engage the masses and stimulate their thinking, not to dull their minds or lull them into a state of escapism. That was why he had a cult following, and not a mainstream one.
But now that we worship the cult of celebrity, and now that celebrity involves adding activism to your bio to promote your brand, and every artist has to have a platform on which they stand, and going viral with a soundbite is more important than the substance of what you say, I would like to make a plea: Please be careful how you handle Fela’s message.
I understand why, as far back as the 1960s, he spoke about the dangers of commercialism, and why he never compromised his expression for it. If you’re an Afrobeat artist, commercialisation can look like a beast, of no nation, especially in a globalised world. Its father, capitalism, at times resembles a monster, and its champions, here in Nigeria and elsewhere, occasionally masquerade as socially conscious artists.
We see them in all the arts – visual, literary and performing. Seun would say they carry the spirit of the oppressors. I haven’t discussed what I’m about to tell you with him or his siblings, so I speak for myself, as an Afrobeat fan, when I say some of them are using Fela’s music at the expense of his legacy. They borrow his compositions, titles and lyrics. They namecheck him at every opportunity – which is fine, so long as they keep his message straight.
I won’t mention names because I’m too old to get into online fights, but when, in the same song, you sympathise with the masses and glamorise designer clothes and luxury cars, and you claim Fela influenced your song, you are confusing his message, regardless of your intention, because not everyone is discerning enough to distinguish between your attempt to market popular music as political and his commitment to social justice and equality. You are teachers who are teaching a whole lot of nonsense.
Fela’s legacy is not one to tamper with or exploit, and I believe his music will always resonate with critical thinkers. But the champions of commercialism never know when to stop. So, I would like to make another plea, this time to those who are in charge of his intellectual property: Protect his message as well. It’s just as important as protecting his copyright.
Now, let’s talk about the topic in question: Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense. The first time I heard the song was on television in England. I can’t remember the year, but it was a broadcast of the video of Fela and Egypt 80 at the 1984 Glastonbury Festival.
I’d actually lived in a boarding house in that town. My school was in a neighbouring one and the year I arrived there, 1978, a few Nigerian students who were older than me said that Fela had performed at the festival before. I still have not been able to confirm whether this is true, but in the video, Fela says his song is an explanation, in his own words, of why Africa is low.
He rails against European countries that imposed their systems of government on Africa and roundly condemns democracy – meaning systems that have democratic underpinnings.
To be honest, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” is not one of my favourite Fela songs, and before you ask who am I to say that, it’s a measure of how brilliant and prolific he was. He wrote far better songs. Although he and Femi did play memorable solos in the video, the combination of music and lyrics wasn’t quite as catchy as other Fela songs and there wasn’t much storytelling in it either.
Fela was a natural storyteller. He knew when to show and when to tell. He paid attention to metaphor and simile. He used wordplay and irony. A song that exemplifies all these literary techniques is the second one he performed at Glastonbury: “Confusion Break Bone”. However, the issues he raises in “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” remain relevant.
This song is about why our government is dysfunctional and our economy is inefficient. Fela argues that they are systems derived from Eurocentric ideas which are culturally incompatible with Africa and Africans.
On the subject of our government, he does have a point. Look at the decadence of some of our governors and first ladies, and the shenanigans of our senators and representatives. Consider the judiciary, the executive office of the president and our fourth estate. I don’t need to expatiate. Democracy in Nigeria is indeed a demonstration of craziness.
In the song, he breaks down his thought process for listeners. Fela always simplified complex issues, and the Nigerian dilemma is unquestionably a complex one, which I myself have attempted to simplify to understand it better. Forgive me if this is too basic for you, but it can be explained by the motives of our leaders. A core group of individuals – agents of neocolonialism, if we must use established political terms – who have no ideas and no plans, other than how to gain money and power, and hold on to both, at any cost, including the destruction of Nigeria.
They work with two groups with whom they have mutually beneficial relationships. The first are foreign governments, including the Western powers that applauded our return to democracy. Individually, their main aim is to use our leaders as pipelines to funnel our natural resources to their countries. Some of them have been known to cause and exacerbate political instability to get what they want. They’ve also been known to neutralise threats to their interests and to back coups in which African leaders who are hostile to them are overthrown and assassinated.
The second group consists of Nigerian one-percenters, otherwise known as the elite. Or, as I call them, the inept. Their purpose in the system is to image and money-launder for the core group. They include big bankers who invest stolen funds for corrupt politicians; mega-church pastors who accept gifts from them, and pray for them; newspaper publishers who lie on their behalf and judges who take bribes from them.
They own oil blocks. They sit on the boards of major companies. They host arts and culture festivals. They get involved in charity and activism. Some of them are great liars because they’ll say anything to justify what they do for a share of that money and power.
I’m very familiar with this group, so trust me when I tell you this: You don’t have to be rich to belong. Once you accept patronage from our leaders, in any form, you join it. You can’t say a thing against those in power anymore. If you do, your credibility has already been compromised, which is their design. And the truth is, if you don’t play their game, in one way or another, you will not survive Nigeria. This country will kill you too soon, as it did Fela.
Now, whether or not you care to admit it, once you become part of the second group, you’re helping to create confusion for the third group, the masses, who look at you and think, well, if only we can get into your group, we, too, will be okay. To do that, they work their fingers to the bone, and break their backs. They analyse our country’s problems based on the evidence they have about the state of our infrastructure and economy: no water, no light; no money in the country. Or they classify our problems as regional and religious-based on the news they are given, caused by Niger Delta militants, Biafran separatists, Boko Haram, Fulani herders, cultists and Yahoo boys.
These are just symptoms of the problems that arise from our leaders and their exploits. Their money and power are unearned and undeserved, yet the masses, who have nothing to gain from them, have no choice but to vote for them in our democratic system. And here is the dilemma: only people from the core group can successfully run for political positions, and they get to choose their successors, who have the same motives.
Winston Churchill, a leader I admire only for his quotability, once said this about the imperfections of democracy: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
Living in America, I’ve seen the imperfections in the system there. I thought it was strong enough to protect citizens from rogue leaders. I was wrong. Over here, we have a system that never protected us from our leaders because they don’t follow it correctly. They pick and choose which aspects of democracy suit them. They consistently select what they care about most: votes. They ask for our votes, we give them some. They steal as many as they can, allegedly, after which, they don’t want to hear from us until they need our votes again.
There is still no freedom of speech in Nigeria, and I don’t think it serves us well to get into Twitter spats with our leaders as Americans are now accustomed to doing. But we should be able to exercise our right to express opinions on how they run our country between elections.
So far, however, if we occupy Nigeria, they settle with labour leaders to end our movement. If we ask to break away from the country, they drive us into exile. If we make negative comments about them online, they can arrest and imprison us. If we call for protests against them, their state security service can invite us for questioning, detain us and charge us with treason, especially when we use the word “revolution”.
Imagine if we’d used the word on our poster today and in our advertising for the Fela Debates this year. Could the organisers be invited for questioning?
Notice I said their state security, not ours, because we know who state security services. It’s the same with our other security forces. They rarely go after people in power – well, maybe one or two, such as Dasuki. Instead, they harass fake public enemies – gay Nigerians, young Nigerians, Nigerians with dreadlocks. Bobrisky.
What is even more troubling is that they have so muddied the waters that we can’t say for sure whether our revolutionaries are working for us, or for an insidious cause. This is how democracy functions in Nigeria. Yet we’re expected to accept it on principle, as citizens of Western countries do. That is the craziest part.
We are not, as Fela said, in the same category as Western countries. And you don’t have to know where Nigeria places on the poverty scale to recognise how wide our wealth gap has become. You just have to look around you for indicators. For example, the recent incidents at Shoprite malls. You know the Yoruba saying, “Every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner”? Well, the way I saw it, the lootings were not responses to the attacks on Nigerians in South Africa. They were manifestations of deprivation, the masses seizing the opportunity to be owners, as our economy isn’t working for us either. I say us this time, because no matter how rich you are, you will lose if the Nigerian economy fails.
I’m not asking for an original Nigerian school of economic thought. But one would suppose that in a country like ours, which has so many postgraduates in economics, our current administration would long ago have recruited economists who could produce a set of policies to manage our economy better. They just got around to it last month, when they replaced the Economic Management Team with the Economic Advisory Council.
No doubt, the EAC will be in favour of liberalising our economy, again imbibing what they were taught without consideration for what it means here. Our teachers tell us markets are always right; we say, “Yes.” Our teachers oppose regulating markets; we say, “Fine.” Our teachers recommend privatising the public sector; we say, “Good idea!”
Let me tell you what freeing our economy means to most Nigerians, using a couple of our past and present experiences as examples. It means that when the government floats the naira, and leaves it up to the foreign exchange market to determine its value, it sinks. It means that we get phantom bills from our electricity distribution companies, yet we still have frequent power cuts, which sometimes last for days.
The only water we can drink safely is water we buy, and we can’t even trust that it’s clean. Imagine if our water supply was privatised with the same result. Our public education and health services have practically been abandoned. Imagine if all we had were private hospitals, schools and universities, which didn’t cater to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised Nigerians: poor children.
Look, I don’t know much about economic theory. I took classes in college and can barely remember what I was taught. But markets can’t be right if they result in gross inequality. Deregulation will only lead to a new level of capitalism without accountability, and there is no demarcation between the public and private sector in Nigeria anyway because the only people who can afford to invest in privatised utilities are the very people who, with their cronies, ran down the public sector in the first place.
Same faces, different sectors. To top it all, we have the Western powers that encouraged us to free our economy turning a blind eye to its failings.
At least in times of military rule our teachers occasionally listened to our complaints. Now, they have problems of their own: how to Brexit; how to monitor Islamic terrorism; what to do about immigration in their countries; and Russian interference in their elections. Add Ukrainian to that. Then there’s China, which has become such a threat, they worry about its impact on their economies and its investments in Africa more than we do. Besides, Western powers can no longer take the moral high ground as they once pretended to. Those days are over.
In “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense”, Fela asks a rhetorical question: Why aren’t our teachers correcting us, as good teachers should?
Presumably, he’s suggesting that Western powers never had our best interests at heart, and we shouldn’t look to them for answers. So, after simplifying the system, and giving thought to the issues he points out in the song, and taking into account the support we get from the non-governmental sector, which steps in where government fails, I’ve come to the sorry conclusion that in a democratic system which functions the way ours does in Nigeria, the public really has no recourse working within it.
I believe the only way forward is homegrown transformative change, through peaceful collective action, which will disrupt the systems we currently have and ensure they function in more progressive ways. Our leaders will of course respond with reactionary tactics, but our biggest threats would be self-interest, and conflicting interests – ethnic, religious and otherwise – and our instinct for self-preservation, which are so ingrained that collective action is unlikely to happen, or to last. It is like the call for a Sovereign National Conference, which I’ve deliberately ignored because it detracts from Fela’s message: we will continue to disagree on how to agree.
What I foresee instead is that, as our oil resources run out, the masses will seize more opportunities to be owners, incidents of anarchy will increase nationwide, and our security forces won’t be able to contain them.
The previous time I was at the Fela Debates, I ended my presentation on a positive note. I quoted lyrics from a song he never released, “Chop and Clean Mouth”. It is a lesson on Nigeria’s post-colonial history in which he swears that our leaders will never, “lai-lai”, succeed in destroying us, as long as Shrine, the temple of his message, exists.
These days, I’m less optimistic. I doubt we’ll survive our leaders, which is an absurd statement to make, considering they’re only a few thousand and we’re hundreds of millions. Mind you, I’m a realist.
Fela was a visionary, and we need more of them to give us hope. However, in 1984, he openly condemned democracy. I’m not sure what his position was when he died in 1997, but now that June 12 is a public holiday on which we celebrate democracy, I wonder about the Nigerians who championed it, which included the likes of Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s younger brother, and his mother, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who fought for our independence. Where would they stand on the system we have now?
I honestly don’t know. But then, I have more questions than answers, which is why I write. So I’ll leave it up to the panellists to enlighten us on where they stand on the topic.