Fela: The Beatification of an Embattled Saint: Taking a Glance at “Fela: This Bitch of a Life”

Posted on

Fela is legendary and influential, but is he, perhaps, overhyped? Is our love for the artiste hooked on his pure musical genius, or are we simply enraptured by the legend he built of himself? Can we separate the man from the legend and maintain a reverence for the musical crusader? Have we, like Peter Okoye implied in his recent criticism of Seun Kuti, been too reverential?


Shortly after Paul McCartney of the Beatles was accused in 1973 of “appropriating” African music, McCartney reached out to Fela who invited him to the Shrine. In an interview 40 years later, McCartney would describe the experience at the Shrine as “a wild experience” in the “depth of Africa.” McCartney recalls that he was one of the very few White people in the crowd that day, and he ended up weeping when Fela played. McCartney said that listening to Fela was “one of the most amazing musical moments of my life.”

Fine-cut African print trousers, long-sleeved shirt, hose-sized wrap of weed in one hand, a clenched fist raised to the heavens, trumpet slung over his shoulder—this is quintessential Fela. His signature aesthetic would live on decades after him. Fela’s musical, ideological and sartorial style can be seen in hundreds of artistes, some of whom readily acknowledge his influence.  Asides from his sons, Femi and Seun, and his grandson, Made, other prominent musicians including Erykah Badu, Nas, Wizkid, Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage, W4, Kunle Ajayi, Wyclef Jean, and Mos Def have each paid homage to Fela.

Carlos Moore, Fela’s personal friend and biographer, does well in Fela: This Bitch of a Life to stick to Fela’s natural speech pattern. The book has been translated to six languages, and inspired the Broadway musical, Fela! A 2019 documentary film, My Friend Fela (Meu amigo Fela) was also inspired by Moore’s biography of Fela. Fela’s phrases in the book are only as free-spirited and liberated as he is. His biography bears a similar trait to the free-spirited and uncensored voice in Jay Z’s 2010 autobiography, Decoded. With a democratised use of expletives, and abundant, almost needless vocatives, the first-time reader of, or listener to Fela knows only too well how freely and unashamedly he recorded his thoughts. 

For Fela, a fearless rebel, the language of his message is as important as the message itself, and he was ready to be imprisoned for every word he said. In Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Moore describes Fela as “a rebel with a cause,” and as “one of the twentieth century’s most inspired and flamboyant artists.” However, Moore does not exclusively praise Fela. Important, for instance, is Moore’s criticism of Fela’s relationship with the Ghanaian spiritualist, Kwaku Addai, as well as his judgement of Fela’s frequent sharing of his material wealth which Moore claims was naïve. The biography is honest: Moore puts forward a veritable and sufficient testament of Fela’s life that can serve as a treatise for future inquiries.

Fela is legendary and influential, but is he, perhaps, overhyped? Is our love for the artist hooked on his pure musical genius, or are we simply enraptured by the legend he built of himself? Can we separate the man from the legend and maintain a reverence for the musical crusader? Have we, like Peter Okoye implied in his recent criticism of Seun Kuti, been too reverential?

And while it is true that the love of many for Fela is simply due to the love and respect most people have for him, critics cannot excuse Fela’s musical talent, for throughout his career, he was intentional about effecting societal change. Fela achieved greatness for himself because he passionately advocated for an awakening of African consciousness and identity. Fela asks, “Do I want to leave an imprint on the world? No. Not at all. You know what I want? I want the world to change. I don’t want to be remembered. I just want to do my part and leave.”

Fela was flawed in several ways, as all other humans are. While he openly shunned fiscal corruption and morally bereft political leaders, Fela had his own un-progressive ideas. Many of Fela’s positions were bereft of innovation that could drive both himself and Africa forward. Several of his ideas (for instance, his acquisition of 27 wives and his blatant sexualisation of women) were archaic and retrogressive, too. Many will argue, and I agree, that Fela, as simple as he was, only wanted to live a simple life, without the hassles of new, more progressive ideas. True to my friend, Bamidele Tijani’s criticism of Fela, while Fela only accused the sitting government of doing nothing to make the life of Nigerians better— save for his ‘“Chief Priest Say” columns in the 70s and his run for Presidency under the Movement of the People Party—he offered no practical methods of counteracting this. Owing to Fela’s combative and radical posture, the Movement of the People Party appeared dead on arrival. Usually, it is only best to take the difficult route out. Sometimes, the only practical solution to defeat the oppressor is to join their ranks and fight from within, to be political and defeat the beast by pretending to be one. Fela did not see this as an option. There are several instances of this shown by Moore in the book.

In 1978 Ghana, during the regime of General Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, Fela convened a group of university students in his hotel room and gave them a lecture. This event is narrated directly in the book. In the lecture to the group of students, Fela is shown to speak to them against Western industrialisation and technology, sidelining these as what would destroy the world in the coming decades. He says to the students: 

Industrialization? We don’t need it unless it’s industrialization the African way. That’s what I told them. Technology, industrialization, the machine, they’ve all brought about a progressive loss of respect for life, for nature, for the environment we live in, man.  And Africans worship nature and life. Technology’s killing the spiritual things.  Now, how can that be called modernization?  No, man. That’s regression.”

Fela failed to recall in his arguments that he, like everyone else, was a beneficiary of technology’s blessings. But he simply throws the baby away with the bathwater. 


The Contrarian Politics of Fela

While Fela nurtured good intentions for his people, his ideas were somewhat naïve, dogmatic, and nothing short of sentimental. It is, in most part, this very sentimentalism from us even today that keeps his image fresh and reverred in the minds of many who knew and did not even know him. Fela gave his personal money to the poor, and Carlos Moore is quick to describe this as one of the causes of his eventual poverty. His idea of absolute spirituality as a panacea to societal problems could also be called to question. His charismatic charm drew in many, but charisma would never be enough to promote solid ideologies except it is backed by intelligent, well-researched, objective ideas. In Nigeria, this is however not the case. Since there are, and have been, very few people who stand up to defend our rights, many Nigerians love the outspoken, and more so, those who speak for them. However warped their ideologies, these speakers usually gain cult followings. In Nigeria, when a man’s name is said too often, he becomes a god. Odumegwu Ojukwu, Nnamdi Kanu, Naira Marley, Sunday Adeyemo, Omoyele Sowore, Hush Puppi, etc, all rose to prominence because they had the loudest voices or raised the most dust. Fela falls somewhat into this category, too. His ideology was humane and even strangely prophetic but stifled by the very miseducation he sought to correct.  I hold that Fela was a positive man who had few things positive, really, to say. Is it not rather interesting that none of Fela’s songs congratulated any sitting government of the even little achievements it made? There were definitely congratulatory performances by the government if only Fela looked beyond his personal ennui and disillusionment.

Fela’s marrying of his 27 wives was needless since it largely was done to prove a point. His multiple marriages were synonymously corrupt with the government he fought against. It then turned out tantamount to a man worshipping the very god he fought against. Or was it mere chance that all these women were barely past their teens and had no clear path for their future than to be with Fela who they carried as their father and lover? A Guardian article notes that, “Till date, when articles are written about them or when they are interviewed, there is nearly always, only a curiosity that does not trouble itself beyond their sexual histories with Fela. There is hardly ever interest in who they are as human beings, the kind of life they led before him, choices they made with him, and their role in giving power to a music genre, the world now knows.”

It can be argued that, Fela, a classical patriarch and chauvinist, controlled, and in a sense, objectified his wives in the very same way the government of Nigeria which he fought against used and exploited its citizens. It would have been better if Fela had enrolled some of these young women to formal schools, or admit the musically oriented ones in professional music schools in Nigeria or abroad. The young wives were also objectified as sexual tools. In chapter 18 titled “My Second Marriage,” Fela, in a wild show of disregard for sex and his women, says:

What attracted me to each of them? Sex! I thought they were sexy and fuckable. That’s what attracts me to a woman first. Some came to my house on their own. Others, I had come. Why? ‘Cause I wanted to fuck them. That was all. I wanted a house where I could be fucking, and I had it”

He goes on to narrate in the book thus: “…sometimes  it’s  necessary  to  give  my  wives  some paf-paf-paf-paf-paf-paf.  …  I  slap  ‘em.  Yeah.  You  see,  when  you  talk  ‘bout women,  you’re  talking  ‘bout  something  else,  man.  A  woman  has  to  respect her  husband.  If  she  don’t,  I  feel  sorry  for  you.  They  need  you  to  show authority,  man.”

Moore himself narrates that, “The  queens’  first  objective  is  to  keep  their  husband  satisfied.  Failure  to  do so  may  mean  their  being  refused  the  sharing  of  his  bed  when  their  turn comes.”

Fela’s perspective towards life was simple, and to women, it was with an attitude too gruesome to be true. Interestingly, little else is known about these women asides from their being Fela’s “Queens.” Some were drummers, dancers or disc jockeys who only wanted to be Fela’s wives. Asides from their canonisation in Afrobeat(s) popular culture, how much greatness rubbed off on them by being Queens? How much of them are known today, relative to Fela’s vast prominence? The women could have achieved more, been more than they are today. 

Fela was superstitious, and many have attributed his death to his overreliance on the existence of the surreal. When Fela came down with AIDS and his skin began to shed off shortly before his death in 1997, Moore is noted to say in the book that Fela was induced to interpret the mysterious lesions as concrete signs of his ongoing “spiritual transformation.” 

Likewise, when Fela was visited by Senegalese historian, Cheikh Anta Diop, Diop asked Fela how he thought the Egyptian pyramids were built. Fela, characteristically, responded that they were built through “mental telepathy and levitation.” Moore notes that, “He (Fela) further informed Diop that the ancient Egyptians had spacecraft that traveled to other galaxies and returned with extraterrestrial scientific knowledge. Instead of conventional fuel, these spacecrafts were propelled by mental energy.”


The Man, The Music, And The Music Business

A day after Fela’s 24th death anniversary, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, in a Guardian column titled, “Fela the Spirit @ 24,” corroborates this when he noted that, “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?’”

In Fela, to draw a comparison as regards the influence of their music in their national and black activism, Moore draws a parallel between Kuti, James Brown, and Bob Marley. Moore notes that, “Marley’s  antiestablishment  reggae  had  tapped  a  worldwide  market  while Fela’s  equally  defiant  Afrobeat  remained  cloistered  in  the  steamy  slums  of Lagos.” He also says that, “Brown and Marley were the only twentieth-century musicians to have electrified the world with explicitly antiestablishment and unapologetically ghetto-inspired black music. But the Godfather of Soul and the Pope of Reggae confined their subversive onslaught to metaphorical allusions.  Marley’s attacks on Babylon were couched in cryptic philosophical  allusions.” In Moore’s honest analysis, Fela, although largely good-willed and kind-hearted, proved too naïve and undiplomatic for a— and I must add — Western-educated Nigerian. Governmental as well as musical politics, whether corrupt or not, goes side by side with diplomacy, and Fela was not ready to understand any of that. Moore describes it in this way: “Fela’s  continuing  refusal  to compromise  with  the  demands  of  the  international  music  cartels  was  a significant  factor  in  preventing  those  tours  from  having  global repercussions.” Fela viewed Bob Marley’s global success as an “anomaly.”

Perhaps, if Fela was less unyielding and more practical, he would not have suffered so much, and he would have gained much more than he lost. Moore notes further that Fela died “a poor man.” Before Fela died, Moore revealed that he ended up “a tormented pessimist who, during his appearances at the Shrine, looked tired and haggard.” This should not have been the case of Africa’s biggest, most vocal and humane musical voice who would contribute so much to global music in the coming decades. However, this predicament is attributed largely to Fela’s reliance, at the tail end of his life, on his Ghanaian spiritual consultant and instructor, the mystic, Kwaku Addai, also known as Professor Hindu, who gains more success in enchanting Kalakuta Republic with querulous spectres, notably Fela’s recently deceased mother, Funmilayo. 

Fela’s biography ends on a round of prophetic notes. Starting with the pseudo and legitimate prophesies by Fela’s wives, we come to a climax in Prophet Unarmed where Fela, in a flurry of thoughts, enters into a trance. In it, he predicts what the future of the earth would be. 

[I]n that trance I saw the tide will change, that this whole earth was going to change into something different, into what people call today the Age of Aquarius.  I saw that … [it] was going to be the age of goodness where music was going to be the final expression of the human race and musicians were going to be very important in the development of the human society. And that musicians would probably be presidents of different countries. The artists will be the dictators of society. The mind will be freer, less complicated institutions; the revelations to less complicated technology…

It is easy to think — going by Fela’s penchant for strong herbs—that his words are only a product of a dulled mind. But to a great extent, Fela has been correct about a lot of things he predicted about the country and the world, such as the devastation of global warming, and the Nigerian government that have grown worse in its corrupt practices. And yet, he could be wrong about many other things, too. Five years before his death in 1997, Fela prophesied that he would never die, anchoring his prophecy on the somewhat ludicrous assertion that his ancestors told him so. His name, unsurprisingly, is Anikulapo, the one who holds death in his pocket. Today, Fela, the embattled saint, still lives on. 

In the same article, Uzoatu proceeds to say: “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.”

American music journalist, film director and drummer, Ahmir Khalib Thompson, says of Fela in an interview some years ago that, “He (Fela) has no fear, and communicated like he clearly had the ear and the adoration of the people.” Thompson goes on to say that, “Not many people are willing to suffer for their craft.” Indeed, only few were.

Nzube Nlebedim is a Pushcart-nominated Nigerian writer, critic, essayist, and editor. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of Africa’s premier literary journal, The Shallow Tales Review. He is also the managing editor of Afrocritik. His works appear in The RepublicBusiness DayNative SkinTaint Taint TaintOlongo AfricaCounterclock JournalBrittle PaperThe James Currey Anthology (Vol. 1), African WriterIsele MagazineAfritondoThe Lagos ReviewAfapinenThe JournalThe Kalahari ReviewEntropy Mag, and others. His novella manuscript, A Cry Within, was longlisted for the 2018 Quramo Writer’s Prize. His short story, “The Tale of ‘Alvine’ Chike” was among the winners of the 2017 Ecuador-Nigeria Young Writer’s Prize. His work has been translated and anthologised in Nigeria, the UK, US, and Ecuador. He lives and writes from Lagos.