As a ’90s kid, I have very vague recollections of many events that transpired in the first ten years of my life. Even when I couldn’t immediately zero in on certain happenings, I knew enough to understand, by the reactions of people in the community at the time, that something significant had happened on the 2nd of August, 1997.
The force of nature known to many simply as “Fela” is a figure that passes this path once in a lifetime; they don’t make ’em like that anymore! His life was relatively short but impactful. He seemed to know what he was born to do at a very young age and he stubbornly went for it. In death, he had become more alive than ever.
Interestingly, while doing research work some time ago, I found out that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti once released music under a label known as Coconut Records. Of course, it seemed rather fortuitous but the metaphor wasn’t lost on me; I quickly drew a straight line in my head to the ‘coconut head’ generation. Abami Eda, as some called him, was really a ‘coconut head’ – e no dey hear word! His music wasn’t just art; it was a weapon. I imagine Fela tweeting today, “Dem go worry me! Fela, wetin you go sing about? Man pikin don see baba nla nonsense!” with all the shenanigans going on. He was a rebel with a cause, his message was counter-cultural and most importantly, didactic.
Afrobeat: The House Fela Built
Thanks to music connoisseurs like Gboyega Oyedele, better known as Afro Logic, I get to relive not just Fela’s amazing discography but also listen to the back stories that you won’t find on the internet. Every Sunday from 3pm on Classic 97.3 FM feels like a masterclass on radio as I follow him on “A Journey into the Beats of Afro and the Soul of Global Grooves.” Fela’s music remains evergreen because all he sang about over two decades ago haven’t changed much: terrible governance, epileptic power supply, abysmal public education standards, terrible roads, inflation, high unemployment rate, low incomes of the middle class, the criminalization of the poor and weaponization of poverty, gagging of free speech and press etc. One thing was clear, in hindsight, we see he was ahead of his time and so many people didn’t appreciate what he was doing then.
Pioneering and popularising Afrobeat wasn’t happenstance; Fela drew inspiration from the sounds around him and infused his rich musical knowledge into birthing a genre that would resonate even beyond the shores of the African continent. His stagecraft, his eccentric dance routines, signature outfits, brilliant music composition and his mastery of various musical instruments altogether made him larger than life. He was a thorn in the government’s flesh, his music was fuel for the movement that resisted the obnoxious policies of the then country’s leadership – he played the underground spiritual game with lyrical finesse.
The ‘Kalakuta King’ laced his songs with jabs targeted at the “opposite people”, criticising the regular trademark and anti-democratic tendencies of the country’s leaders. Music was his soapbox. He believed strongly in the equalisation of “trouser and pant.” His activism endeared him to the people, earning him the title of “Black President.” To imagine that he propagated his message so effectively without social media still leaves me gobsmacked. He walked so that many of our music superstars today could fly. Whatever path they tow now, Baba 70 had been there, done that and had gotten many wraps of 420. He was a very ‘blunt’ person – literally and metaphorically. Socially-conscious songs have become a thing these days but we should always remember Fela and his famous ‘basket mouth’ that was always leaking.
The Kutis: They Always Understood the Assignment
There are very few families one can stick out the neck for around here because many patriarchs and matriarchs of most dynasties know little about legacy, so you just have to give the Kutis their flowers. Fela didn’t just drop from the sky, he was born into a very active family. His mother was a political activist, Fela himself identified with the struggles of the people, two of his sons have also made their marks both in music and activism. Even his grandson is on top of his game. I got this epiphany last October that at least four generations of one family have been fighting for a single cause, another reminder that this is not a sprint but a marathon. We are not just dealing with bad people but effectively a bad system.
Many of us are realizing that the bubbles we live in cannot save us, everybody will eventually eat this breakfast currently being served because there is enough to go around. This dysfunction, if it remains unchecked, will touch everybody las las. For a family that are relatively well-off, they have a shared sense of duty and consciousness that recognizes that a rich person in the midst of many poor people isn’t rich. That the rich won’t sleep well when the poor are awake and the poor won’t sleep because they are hungry. They teach a very powerful lesson about the consequences of indifference that most privileged people fail to see – that until we make the society a better place for all, our tall fences won’t be enough to protect us. Go and listen to Fela’s Ikoyi Blindness and tell me if that song released in 1976 isn’t what is happening in 2021.
The 2021 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame
This is quite a big deal because for more than thirty years, the Rock Hall inductees are chosen by an international voting body of over a thousand artists, historians and selected members of the music community. This isn’t just some random recognition, it’s an elite and exclusive club of very distinguished musical geniuses with outstanding catalogs and it’s about time we got Fela into the Class of 2021 and in style too. Whilst the top five artists make up the fan ballot, we need to make a statement by putting our senior man rightly where he belongs and that’s at the top of the table with the highest-grossing votes!
Sometimes we wish we could pull a ‘Thanos’ and snap Fela back into 2021 but alas, the Infinity Gauntlet is not within our reach. This, however, is a very little way of appreciating the legacy and greatness of the man that inspired a whole generation. In a very polarized polity, very few things unite us and get a consensus across the spectrum. As today’s coconut head generation, we need to get into the same WhatsApp group on this one. No Patriarchy FC vs Feminist Coven, at this point we don’t care whether e choke or e restrict our airflow, we certainly couldn’t be bothered about religious, tribal sentiments or differences in geopolitics – we all need to do the needful.
So go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website, and vote for Fela from the array of sixteen nominees. You can vote only once a day but if we can galvanize others, especially those with large following to spur their bases to vote every day until the closing date, Fela could easily end up as the pick of the litter with our numbers when inductees are announced in May 2021. Thanks to Fela, afrobeat is now an international staple! Let’s make the ovation for him very ‘loud’ – just as he would love it. Like the man who had death in his pouch would say, “ara ra ra ra, oro ro ro ro!”