Fela Kuti fearlessly proved the human spirit is stronger than any government
Kuti may have died 15 years ago today, but his fight against corruption and colonialism is still an inspiration for Nigerians
Today makes it 15 years since the death of one of the greatest men ever to come out of Africa. Fela Kuti invented a new musical genre and lived life on his own terms, as depicted in an eponymous Broadway musical which has successfully toured the globe. Bafta-winning director Steve McQueen is currently working on a film about his life. Fela deserves the attention. He was a giant.
Born into a well-to-do family who sent him to England to study medicine in 1958, he chose instead to enrol at the Trinity College of Music. After returning to Nigeria in the late 60s, he created Afrobeat, blending African rhythms with jazz and funk.
Fela’s lyrics were scathing denunciations of Nigeria’s socioeconomic reality. He focused on corruption, abuse of power, mental emancipation from colonialism and the need for Nigerians to stand up for their rights. He complained that when a pauper is caught stealing, he is labelled a thief and promptly jailed. But when a minister pockets millions from state coffers, it’s explained away with fancy-sounding words to bamboozle the uneducated, like “mismanagement” and “inquiry”.
Fela, on the other hand, hardly minced his words when criticising the government, referring to corrupt VIPs by name and christening them “vagabonds in power”. There were consequences: harassment, imprisonment, beatings. But Fela said this only made him “stronger”.
Audaciously, he declared his sizable compound in Lagos an independent country, “Kalakuta Republic”, complete with its own constitution and a free health clinic. Kalakuta offered sanctuary to the homeless while students trooped in to take part in debates on Africa’s future. Marijuana, a key part of Fela’s diet, flowed freely. Kalakuta was a libertarian’s dream and a dictator’s nightmare.
In 1977, a thousand soldiers invaded the micro-republic, beating, raping and killing many of its inhabitants before razing it to the ground. Fela was almost beaten to death while his 77-year-old mother was thrown out of an upstairs window. She died soon after.
But this didn’t break Fela. After recovering from his injuries, he married 27 women in a single ceremony – saying they were jobless after Kalakuta’s destruction so he would take care of them. Fela’s marital arrangements and sexual politics continue to draw criticism – the mass wedding was followed by a mass divorce 10 years later, and Kuti often dismissed Aids and contraceptive protection as “un-African” – but at the time many Nigerians were enthralled by Fela’s defiance.
He went on to establish a political party, continued to lambast the authorities and suffered beatings and imprisonment. In 1979 he ran for presidency, but the military torpedoed his candidacy.
Fela also criticised his countrymen for what he saw as their exaggerated reverence for authority and cowardice. “My people are scared of the air around them, they always have an excuse not to fight for freedom,” he sang.
When men live in a system that does not even try to camouflage its injustice, they react by becoming radical or cynical. Radicalism costs, as Fela’s example showed, so most Nigerians opt for the safer option of cynicism, a useful mask to hide fear.
The truth is that many Nigerians were – and continue to be – scared silly of their police and army, who don’t hide the fact that they are in the business of subjugation, not protection. So despite Fela insisting that “a police uniform is just a piece of clothing sewn by the same tailors who sew your clothes”, he was never able to charm away that fear.
His views on mental emancipation from colonialism leave me with mixed feelings. Yes, I agree Nigerians should cultivate their own original identity rather than ape the west in its tastes and fashions. But I don’t accept Fela’s utopian view of African traditions. He slammed Christianity and Islam as foreign religions, imposed on Nigerians to exploit them, and seemed to think the panacea to all of Africa’s ails was a “return to the roots”. How exactly reverting to traditions and religions practised centuries ago would help Nigerians solve their problems today is less clear.
A smart society is one that steals the best from other cultures, thus enriching its own, rather than rejecting a custom or idea outright just because it originated elsewhere.
Personally, I don’t think Fela would have made a good president – radicals rarely do.
But for those of us who have experienced Nigerian government, Fela will forever remain our beloved hero for having had the guts to stand up to those who would treat us as slaves. He once said “the human spirit is stronger than any government or institution”. And he proved it by example.