By: Cameron Piko

A few months ago I wrote a piece on British electronic group Coil that, influenced by Albert Camus’ 1951 philosophical text The Rebel, examined how the group practised rebellion through their music, and how that in turn encouraged self-improvement and growth.

“Rebellion in art can appear in many forms and with different intents, but can generally fall into two main varieties: a rebellion that promotes personal growth and internal change, and one that promotes an environmental or external change. As a vague framework inspired by Albert Camus’ The Rebel, let us designate the former type as rebellion, and the latter type as revolution.”

After writing on Coil, the idea was to follow this up with an investigation of revolution in music “that promotes an environmental or external change”. I struggled with this – not for lack of choice of artists, of which there are many – but because of the very framework I had set up. Camus is vehemently against revolution (as opposed to rebellion) because, without turning this piece into an analysis of The Rebel, he feels that the revolutionary elevates a certain value above humanity. This value is then used to justify a form of oppression akin to that it was trying to remove: “every revolutionary ends by becoming an oppressor or a heretic”. If I was going to continue with this Camusian lens of analysis, how was I going to find worth in music that held revolutionary values?

Revolution in Fela Kuti

“The entire history of mankind is, in any case, nothing but a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power. It is, in its essence, imperialist.” – Albert Camus, The Rebel

“Music is the weapon of the future.” – Fela Kuti

Enter Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti. Fela has a proud and fruitful, if controversial, legacy in the history of Nigeria. His music throughout the 1970s until the early 90s was politically aggressive during the periods of many military governments, and spoke out against the myriad of injustices facing Nigerian and African people. The sound of his music itself – which he described as ‘afrobeat’[1] – was a fusion of African and Western (particularly African-American) genres: highlife[2], traditional African rhythms, modal jazz and funk. Lengthy pieces, commonly exceeding twenty or thirty minutes in duration, set the stage for social and political commentary, exploratory soloing, subtle yet intricate polyrhythms (Fela’s greatest drummer Tony Allen was incredibly crucial in shaping the sound of afrobeat[3]), and earthy grooves. In a typical Fela Kuti piece, a large ensemble (often uncredited but in some instances in excess of 15) develop the groove and main motifs over the first 10-15 minutes. Thick B3 Hammond chords (played by Fela) and solos from the brass section (also including Fela), fill the space before we hear a single vocal line. The second half of the piece then features Fela singing in pidgin English and occasionally Yoruba, along with a chorus that engage in call and response with him.

Although Fela’s lyrics had their beginning in a more apolitical highlife vein, a trip to America in 1970 would change his life forever. Exposure to black power movements and leaders such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X would have a resounding effect on his politicization, and Pan-Africanism would influence and act as an important force in Fela’s later material.

“Music is the weapon” is one of Fela’s most famous quotes, even becoming the title of a 1982 documentary on his life. He saw himself as a soldier on the frontlines, using the black power salute throughout his concerts and spitting scathing rebukes at political figures throughout Nigeria and, later, all around the world. He would dismiss his surname of Ransome as a slave name and change it to ‘Anikulapo’, meaning “He Who Carries Death in His Pouch”. Fela would be beaten and jailed over and over again throughout his career, but he would always come back to the microphone angrier than ever, typically with lyrics that would describe in detail the damage done to him. In response to his mockery of the military government in 1976’s Zombie, his home would be raided and his mother thrown out a window – the injuries from this would lead to her death. Even this did not deter him.

“I be Africa Man, Original.”

Albums like Zombie and 1973’s Gentleman highlighted oppression from government bodies and colonial parties – issues not just exclusive to Nigeria, but the entire continent. Extending his outspoken message against oppression, Fela promoted Pan-Africanism as a form of solidarity with other African countries, and in particular to show it as an alternative to colonial ideology. The title track from Gentleman ridicules those who dress ‘colo’ (in the fashion of colonial gentlemen – suit and tie) in an unforgiving hot African climate. Fela also saw Christianity and Islam as colonial weapons, used to further divide and cause even more sectarian disputes between African people. 1977’s Shuffering and Shmiling and 1981’s Coffin for Head of State both show this, but from this kernel Fela’s Pan-Africanism will grow into self-parody. His spiritual beliefs lead him to hire a personal magician called Professor Hindu, who apparently had the powers for Fela to speak with his mother, and Hindu infamously engaged in a stunt that involved burying an audience member for a weekend. The 2014 documentary Finding Fela! shows that many musicians and friends closest to him started to distance themselves – or feel distanced by Fela – at this point in his career.

Ironically, his call for African solidarity and giving a voice to the masses morphs into a regressive form of neotraditionalism. Michael Veal – who himself played in Fela Kuti’s band in the 1980s – analyses Fela through Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in his own book Fela Kuti: The Life and Times of an African Music Icon:  “In Fanon’s schema, the work of the native intellectual is marked in its first phase by a strong identification with the worldview of the colonial master, usually following a period of education in the colonial center. The work of the second phase is a reaction to the first, during which the intellectual uncritically celebrates his native society rejecting anything associated with the colonizing culture. Finally, in the third phase, the native intellectual outgrows the romanticization of the previous phase, sharpening his critical apparatus and directing it towards his or her native society.”

The issue is that Fela seems stuck between the second and third phases by holding onto traditional African values strongly, yet uncritically. Alongside all of this powerful and critical political rhetoric, beautiful music and sense of African solidarity, there this other side to the man. Peter Manuel describes him as “a paragon of contradiction”. Fela’s loved his mother (Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a champion of women’s rights) dearly, and yet Fela’s views towards women (excusing towards his mother) seem incredibly problematic and misogynist. “Lady” from the 1971 album Shakara, seems to hold within it both these contradictory views, explaining how the song has both been interpreted as misogynist and feminist. Similar to his mockery of the man who dresses up ‘colo’ in “Gentleman”, Fela seems to satirise African women who demand to be called ‘Lady’ (“She go say im equal to man / She go say im get power like man / She go say anything man do, imself fit do”). Whilst this is easily read as Fela’s neotraditionalism striking again (believing women need to occupy the traditional African roles), the lyric “If you call am woman / African woman no go ‘gree / She go say, she go say, I be lady o” describes women in a newly Westernised Africa defining themselves independent of labels given to them by men[4]. Shingai Shoniwa’s powerful performance of “Lady” from last year’s Felabration definitely highlights this latter interpretation.

 

There are plenty of other issues with Fela, a fair few analysed critically in both Veal’s text and Finding Fela, such as his homophobia and denial of AIDS (despite later dying of the disease in 1997) that combine to leave us with a problematic icon. Whilst his attacks on political corruption and colonialism made him a respected figure with left-wing audiences, there was an awkward nature to his performances in the West where the image of the man clashed with the reality. As Veal writes, “those who expected a progressive, leftist ideologue experienced instead an authoritarian, neotraditional polygamist”. Turning back to Camus, this Pan-Africanism and its subsequent neotraditionalism are the revolutionary values for Fela that, once elevated above everything else, stop being a powerful tool against colonialism and injustice, and instead become authoritative. Music might be the weapon, but with that comes the responsibility to target your enemies wisely in order to not strike yourself and those close to you. With all of that in mind, let’s look at some important and powerful instances where Fela Kuti spoke out against oppression.

He Miss Road, Expensive Shit (1975) and No Agreement (1977)

Fela’s early music with his band Koola Lobitos (and subsequently with the Nigeria 70) rarely dabbled in overtly political lyrics, but after his aforementioned trip to America in 1970, he would find himself quickly becoming politically aware. Thanks to muse and guest vocalist Sandra ‘Akanke’ Isidore[5], Fela was introduced to Black Nationalist writers like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, along with the concept of Pan-Africanism. It would take a few years before Fela would fully incorporate these themes into his music, but he seems to always have had a critical eye. Veal describes Fela’s early music as fulfilling the traditional role of West African musicians as a ‘social critic’, using the example of 1972’s ‘Go Slow’. While on the surface the song is just a commentary on the near-perpetual gridlock on the roads of Lagos, the traffic functions as “a metaphor for the entire nation and its difficulty in adhering to a vision of national unity”[6]. Fela’s extensive usage of metaphors in his lyrics was presumably initially used as a method of getting away with critiquing the government, but also displays the creativity and wit that would be present in all of his best work.

FelaKuti_HeMissRoad

One of the best albums showcasing Fela Kuti as a social critic is 1975’s He Miss Road. Produced by Cream drummer and Fela enthusiast Ginger Baker, the sound of this album is utterly breathtaking. Fela plays both saxophone and a lush sounding B3 Hammond throughout the album, and the tracks themselves are a great introduction to the loose format that Africa 70 pieces follow. As the lyrics here consist mainly of amusing looks at aspects of society in Lagos, it’s the music that steals the show. The performances here by everyone reveal how tight a group the Afrika 70 were, as guitars, bass, drums and horns lock into their own separate polyrhythms but still keep the music going. The third and final piece on the album, the 17-minute ‘It’s No Possible’ is the highlight of the record. Like the absolute best of Fela’s tunes, you can easily focus on just one instrument and enjoy listening to how it sits in juxtaposition with everything else. The bass plays an almost reggaefied African rhythm that is simply gorgeous and Fela’s B3 wouldn’t sound have this much power and clarity again until the 80s.

FelaKuti_NoAgreement

The lyrics of ‘It’s No Possible’ – focusing on the detriments of double crossing and not being honest – are like a depoliticized version of a piece that will appear a few years later, the similarly musically astonishing ‘No Agreement’ from 1977. By this point, the Afrika 70 have perfected their own genre and are playing even tighter than before, if that was possible. After a series of brilliant jazzy solos over funky grooves, in ‘No Agreement’ Fela explains that the need for agreement – finding common ground with the people – is a matter of life and death, saving people from starvation and homelessness. It subtly attacks the single vision of totalitarian government, telling those who are listening that the decisions made by the government can and will have life-changing effects on the Nigerian people. As the lyrics only appear 11 minutes into the piece, the music has already got you hooked; now you have to listen to what he has to say.

FelaKuti_ExpensiveShit

He Miss Road is often compiled with Expensive Shit, released earlier in 1975. This record is far more actively political, and the title track has an amusing story as to why. Fela Kuti had already made many vocal attacks on the military government and was becoming an irritant. The Nigerian police ended up raiding Fela’s home and planting a joint on him, the idea being they could then arrest him for possession. Fela responded in turn by swallowing the joint and was placed into custody until such a point that the police could sift through his waste to find the marijuana. They found no evidence of drugs (most likely due to the help of fellow inmates), but the whole fiasco cost so much that Fela gave his shit the album’s title. The title track unsurprisingly laughs at the whole situation amid a cheerful and driving rhythm, ridiculing those who spend their time sifting through someone’s excrement. The other track on the album, ‘Water No Get Enemy’, is a metaphysical look at the state of Nigeria, featuring cerebral lyrics that directly contrast with the explicitly terrestrial subject matter of ‘Expensive Shit’. It’s a much more laid back tune than its companion, with Fela ruminating on how essential water is – even if it killed your child, you would still drink it. He then compares this with the Black Power movement, and how it’s pointless to fight against it. Both songs are considered classics, with the band in top form and finding Fela increasingly unwilling to let any injustice slide.

 

Zombie (1976)

FelaKuti_Zombie

Zombie is perhaps Fela’s most well-regarded record as well as one of the best entry points into his discography. The CD release of the album features two extra tracks, bringing the total to four pieces each between 12-15 minutes in length. All of these pieces work together and lyrically focus on how people act under a dictatorship. In the most famous piece, the title track, Fela mocks soldiers who mindlessly follow orders: “Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think”. The backing vocalists chant “Zombie” over and over amidst one of the most propulsive, driving beats the Afrika 70 have put to tape. The stop-start nature of the horns, the shifting percussion mimicking the “left, right, left, right” orders Fela barks, the ending saxophone line bastardising a militaristic bugle call… it’s no surprise that the Nigerian military were insulted by the success of the song. Their response was brutal, ransacking Fela’s commune the Kalakuta Republic[7] and beating Fela and among others, his mother, whose injuries would prove fatal.

‘Mister Follow Follow’, as one may discern from the name, deals with similar themes to that of ‘Zombie’ but with a different tact. Through a much slower, contemplative groove, Fela asks the people to not follow blindly, but open one’s eyes: “look am go your way”. The bonus tracks on the CD – live recordings from the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978 – look at the value of speaking out on oppression (‘Observation is No Crime’) and how the government must acknowledge their mistakes in order to learn from them (‘Mistake’). With relatively similar ideas being espoused over long tracks, it’s the music’s role to keep the themes relevant and interesting. Each track uses different techniques, even if they follow the basic structure of Fela tunes I described earlier in this piece. Both ‘Observation’ and ‘Mistake’ bring the jazz element of the music more to the foreground with lengthy sax soloing, along with some interesting percussion on the latter track. Yet the audience in Berlin on the whole could not understand what was going on: the Afrika 70 are playing a jazz festival, but Fela is only playing chords on the organ, and while stylistically the saxophone soloing undeniably comes from the jazz world, Fela and his cohorts are by no means attempting to sound like Coltrane. Almost whenever there a moment of silence, the audience responds in equal parts booing and cheering, yet Fela (at least on the recording) seems unperturbed.

Coffin for Head of State (1980) and Unknown Soldier (1981)

FelaKuti_CoffinForHeadofState

The 1977 attack on Kalakuta Republic was dire. Whilst Music is the Weapon and Finding Fela both talk about it as an upsetting pivotal moment in Fela’s life, Veal’s book really hones in on how disturbingly violent the event truly was: “Fela later alleged that he was dragged by his genitals from the house, severely beaten, and sexually mutilated by the soldiers, only escaping death following the intervention [of a] commanding officer. His mother (then seventy-eight years old) suffered a broken hip when she was thrown through a window, and his brother Beko was so severely beaten that he spent several months in a wheelchair.” The official response was the attack was performed by ‘an unknown soldier’, and thus no person could be reprimanded for the action.

Within the month, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died, and Fela was not going to let this tragedy slide. In protest to his mother’s death, Fela and the Afrika 70 placed a symbolic coffin on the steps of the Dokan Barracks in Lagos.  Funmilayo, an important educator and political figure in Nigeria, should have been running the country. Coffin for Head of State.

Despite the obvious link of the artwork and title to Fela’s protest, the 22-minute ‘Coffin for Head of State’ doesn’t start out as one would expect. The music is unusually sombre for a Fela piece; the uneasy atmosphere created by the friction between the laid back drums and propulsive bass and guitars. Instead of detailing the story of the protest and the attack on Kalakuta, Fela – ten minutes in – starts by speaking about the negative influences Christianity and Islam have had on Africa. Everywhere he goes, Fela sees African people struggling daily and these institutions succeeding: “It is a known fact that for many thousand years/We Africans, we had our own traditions/These money making organizations/Them come put we Africans in total confusion”. It’s only at the end of the piece that Fela speaks out against the government and General Obasanjo (who he held personally responsible for his mother’s death).

 

FelaKuti_UnknownSoldier

The 30-minute ‘Unknown Soldier’ (titled in reference to the government’s official response) takes things further and finds a Fela fully unleashed. The music has a bounce to it compared to ‘Coffin for Head of State’, and features some of Fela’s most impassioned, heartrending vocals. His voice strains and cracks as he sings “Them kill my mama” over and over like a mantra. But the song doesn’t just focus on the personal, as he highlights the fact that by attributing the Kalakuta attack to an ‘unknown soldier’, the government are able to get away with anything they like.

These two excellent recordings are often bundled together in one CD, and reveal Fela’s astonishing ability to cry out in the face of his oppressors no matter the cost. Finding Fela and Veal both agree that the loss of his mother, along with the numerous beatings he received over the years, would mark the beginning of a downward spiral for Fela. He turned to mysticism, believing he was able to converse with his mother’s spirit. He also spoke of his previous bodily incarnations in history, dating them back to ancient Egypt. This mysticism in tandem with his perpetual focus on African solidarity would lead to Fela changing the name of his band once more for the new decade: the Egypt 80.

Beasts of No Nation (1989)

FelaKuti_BeastsofNoNation

With the new Egypt 80 behind him, Fela’s band expanded in size and the songs developed an extra layer of sophistication. This sophistication does not seem to be lost on Fela, who began describing his music as an African analogue to Western classical music. The added compositional complexity also seemed to add to the duration of the songs, with more pieces passing 30 minutes than ever before.

Over the course of this musical development Fela was as outspoken as ever, and in 1984 was sentenced by the Buhari government to 5 years imprisonment under the pretence of some trumped up currency smuggling charges. While in prison, Fela was visited by the judge who sentenced him. Fela said that the judge apologised and explained he only acted as he had due to pressure from the government. The judge supposedly wrote a letter to President Babangida, and Fela managed to be released from prison after 18 months in 1986.

If imprisonment was supposed to pacify Fela in any way, Lemi Ghariokwu’s artwork for Beasts of No Nation reveals this to be a complete failure. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and South African president P.W. Botha are horned beasts with blood dripping from their mouths; the judge lays at Fela’s feet, seemingly begging forgiveness; protestors hold signs saying ‘Human Rights is Our Property’ while similarly horned soldiers look on; rats sit at the table of the United Nations.

The title track asks the question: if there is a ‘united’ Nations, how come Argentina and England warred in the Falklands – aren’t they both seated in the UN? America and Libya, Israel and Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, the cold war – they’re all supposed to be united together, and yet they fight. Fela describes the leaders of the world as ‘animals in human skin’ as although they rule over humans, they don’t seem to act like they understand them at all. The music simmers over a quiet yet funky groove and features fantastic guitar and saxophone solos, sounding jazzier than ever.

The companion piece ‘Just Like That’ is far more complex than other Fela pieces. The chorus of backing vocals intertwine with horns throughout the piece, bouncing back and forth with Fela’s own vocal, along with several multi-layered (the liner notes list 12 brass players!) horn sections. The lyrics are less scathing than ‘Beasts of No Nation’, but still focus on Fela’s main themes: the urgent need for Africans to unite together, speak out against power and retain their traditions.

Conclusion

In The Rebel, Camus writes that “art and rebellion will only die with the death of the last man on earth”. In a sense, Fela is the perfect example of this. No matter how many times he was put down, beaten and experienced tragedy, he still stood up and spoke out against oppression where he saw it. Yet he was far from a perfect figure, as Veal eloquently puts:

“On the one hand, [Fela’s] insistence on male superiority, his championing of despots such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, his essentialist conception of African identity, and his romanticized conception of the precolonial African past seemed detrimental to his ultimate goal of African progress. On the other hand, his belief in transnational African unity, his fearless running critiques of corrupt and dictatorial regimes, and the political orientation of his popular art all contained critiques crucial to the survival of healthy African societies into the twenty-first century.”

Looking back over Fela’s extensive legacy, not only is the music immensely enjoyable, but one can follow the politicization of a man fed up with the myriad of injustices that plagued Nigeria and the greater world. But if Fanon’s schema of the ‘native intellectual’ and my analysis of it is correct, Fela Anikulapo Kuti sat between the last two phases – his neotraditionalism finding him yearning for a precolonial Africa (including its problematic values), and yet still being able to be incredibly critical of native governments and policies. Music can indeed be a weapon, and as Camus closes the book that started this whole lengthy mess in the first place, he speaks of the ideal rebellion as “an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free”. It’s a shame that by his death in 1997, listeners were not able to witness him growing beyond his romanticised past and onto to the third and final phase.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Peter Manuel, in his book Popular Music of the Non-Western World, makes clear to point out that this use of syncretism (“the borrowing, refashioning, and integration of foreign cultural forms into their own cultural framework”) is but one example in a lengthy history of similar musical appropriation in West Africa. That is to say, afrobeat is but one of many musical fusions to be found in the melting pot of West Africa, and far from something that can be solely accredited to the mind of Fela.

[2] Highlife (the name referring to its original association with the aristocracy) is a typically uptempo genre that developed in West Africa. Some variants of the genre focus more on the ‘palmwine’ guitar style that arose out of coastal West Africa, and others also incorporate big band jazz elements.

[3] Michael Veal: “Like Tony Williams’s pivotal role in Miles Davis’s ”second great quintet” of the late 1960s, Allen’s role behind the drum set in Afrika 70 often rivaled that of Fela’s in influencing the dynamics of a performance.”

[4] For a more in-depth feminist analysis of ‘Lady’: http://www.msafropolitan.com/2013/08/african-feminist-analysis-fela-lady.html

[5] 1976’s ‘Upside Down’

[6] This metaphor would be extended further for 1975’s 25-minute epic ‘Confusion’.

[7] Veal: “The newly fortified Kalakuta Republic was fairly self-sufficient, with farm animals, a free health clinic , for treat erectile dysfunction use generic cialis , and facilities for rehearsing and recording. Fela’s declaration of Kalakuta’s independence was a symbolic act calculated to express his dissent from the prevailing climate; in no realistic sense could his Kalakuta be seriously considered an independent “republic.” Nevertheless, as a popular symbol, it was an affront to the country’s rulers.”

Pin It on Pinterest