Welcome to the classic Fela Buffet, where everything from percussion to greatness is on the menu. You could pick one sample of Afrobeat, top it with a dash of chanting, get a side of marijuana, and leave the activism and you have yourself a big plate of Fela to help your career with.
Last week, the annual celebration of Fela Kuti held at the New Afrika Shrine. Across 7 days, the city of Lagos got to witness numerous artists go on stage to pledge allegiance to the legacy of Fela Kuti and perform their songs in honour of his memory, his life and everything he stands for. Everything except one thing: “Activism.”
20 years after his death, the influence of Fela Kuti stretches beyond the shores of Africa. In his home country, Nigeria, his words serve like an enduring prophecy. Everything he preached against and put his life on the line for is still in existence. Systemic corruption is crippling the potential of Nigeria, the colonial mentality that he vehemently fought against can be found ingrained into the culture.
But that isn’t the part of Fela Kuti that is generally being imbibed. You see, Fela offered a lot. His association with Marijuana became the defacto validation for a lot of creative people who use the substance. They point to the legend as the glowing exemplar of its consumption, and justify it with his greatness.
But that is trivial. The main course of Fela’s life is Afrobeat, the music he pioneered and made popular throughout the world. Today, that genre still stands as the source material for a lot of creatives, who study its interacting rhythms, fusion sounds, and call-and-response technique to create new content. Artists pick his work apart, from his dancing, to his imagery, to his expressions. All of that is used mostly for personal benefit by many of these artists.
But activism is mostly beyond their powers. Fela’s protests are imbibed in his music. It is impossible to scan through his catalogue without experiencing it as the essence of his art. All of his albums and projects contain historical pointers to the injustice in our society and the poor state of governance and how it disempowers the people. This is what made his music tick. This is how he was able to inject a layer of the soul into his art. He was the pulse of the people, and at his death, over 1 million people marched past his coffin to pay their last respects.
These days, it is cool to pay Fela Kuti respect by stripping away the activism and utilising his sound for everything and anything. The two military dictators who suffered and persecuted him for his art, Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammad Buhari have both been brought back into power to rule in civilian governments. What does that say about us a people?
As a society, we haven’t moved much from the days of Fela. Life in Nigeria has not improved, neither has the quality of governance. But with each Felabration, we celebrate a man who stood for the people and called for an improvement, by refusing to carry on the torch he lit.
And yes, there’s a huge reason why musicians can’t criticize the government of today’s Nigeria. But much of it has to do with sacrifice. Activism comes at a price, and Fela paid dearly for it. He didn’t do that to supply Africa with a genre of music. He did it to improve the lives of his countrymen.
So yes, welcome to Fela Buffet. Please be sure to enjoy your serving of Afrobeat, activism-free of course. Happy digestion.