If Fela were still alive, he would have been 79 on October 15, but he’s not: he died on this day in 1997. I remember that day clearly, the news broke on a Saturday evening, my dad had gone out and he was just returning home when we heard the announcement on the radio, Raypower 100.5 FM, I believe it was. My dad, equally a huge fan of Fela, said, “so this man eventually died”. It had been reported that Fela was sick and had been hospitalized. We heard reports that he had become stable and was showing signs of improvement, no one knew which hospital it was, all we could do was wait in anticipation, but sadly on August 2, the one who held death in a pouch passed away.
For about a week or more, the spirit of Fela engulfed Lagos and indeed Nigeria. A Fela-frenzy was witnessed just about everywhere. His music was on rotation on practically all radio stations. Even government-owned radio stations, which refrained from playing his music because of his often-caustic reference of government officials, joined in celebrating the passing of one of Africa’s greatest musicians. Television stations played his old performances; I can’t remember Fela ever producing a music video. Particularly interesting was an old interview of Fela and the late Mee Mofe-Damijo, one of the few Nigerians to have such an up close and personal interview with Fela. There was so much material on Nigerian media that it was hard for anyone to miss the passing of such a colossal figure.
Growing up in the barracks, it was hard to escape the infectious rhythms of a Fela album, which many of the soldiers would often play with their speakers turned up and they and neighbors would sing as loudly as their voices could go. His protest lyrics resonated with all of us. He spoke the mind of many Nigerians, even soldiers. His music was a soothing balm for the downtrodden and oppressed and many times it was a call to action. Looking back now, it’s ironic that the very same soldiers that Fela condemned in songs, were equally big fans of his music.
Beast of No Nation has to be my favorite Fela track; it was the one that got me hooked. I remember my dad playing it repeatedly on his stereo. The brash and fearless way Fela called out the hypocrisy of the UN Security Council and leading western nations like America and Britain concerning the apartheid government in South Africa as well as the injustice he suffered at the hands of the Buhari/Idiagbon government was intriguing.
It’s been twenty years since the passing of Fela and it almost feels like all he did was retire from releasing new music and performing. One gets the feeling that Fela is still with us and still fighting against the corrupt, inept and high-handed Nigerian government he fought against so many years ago. It’s almost like Abami Eda is still talking about social ills, still serving as Nigeria’s and Africa’s moral compass, still driving home his message with his lengthy, vibrant, upbeat and heavily percussive music.
Fela was a genius. Themes of many of his songs were so profound that even if you were not an admirer of his lifestyle, you would find it extremely hard to disagree with many of the subjects of his songs. He said of his music. “Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing s**t. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.” Sorrow, Tears and Blood, remains one of his most poignant characterizations of the average Nigerian.
Fela spoke up for the ordinary Nigerian at great danger to himself and his family. He did it even when he didn’t have to. He was born into a privileged Nigerian family and could easily have assimilated the lifestyle of the Nigerian middle/upper class and not worry his head about many of the things he concerned himself about, but that would have robbed the world of this enigma. Fela was arrested over 200 times; one of those times saw him spend over 20 months in prison for currency trafficking. Fela had and fought many adversaries, but none can ever attain his acclaim or stature, no matter how they try to remedy their life’s work.
Truly Fela will never die; he will continue to carry death in his pouch. His legend has grown bigger since his passing twenty years ago. His music foretold the future, provided us with a manual to fix many of the social and cultural problems we face in Nigeria/Africa. His life and music has influenced many around the world. Afrobeat, the music genre which he helped create, now has following around the world, influencing so many musicians and artists in Africa as well as other continents.
In Nigeria, Fela’s children, Femi and Seun Kuti still carry the torch for Afrobeat. Femi Kuti, particularly has done a great job of bringing the genre into the modern era, producing music which carry the protest message of his father, but can easily be played on radio. Fela’s popularity in Europe and America was limited by his refusal to make shorter versions of his songs that could be played on radio. Femi tours the world very regularly, has worked with many global musicians such as Mos Def, D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Brett Dennen and Jaguar Wright. He has been nominated four times for the Grammys, the last coming in 2014.
His brother, Seun Kuti, is also producing music in the Afrobeat tradition, he also leads Fela’s former band, Egypt 80. Bands like Antibalas, the Chicago Afrobeat Project, Nzila Afrobeat Project and Newen Afrobeat have further brought Afrobeat to global attention thereby cementing the immortality of Fela.
Someone once said, “A man is not dead until he’s forgotten.” This statement can’t be truer for Fela; his legend will continue to grow for a very long time to come…. Continue to reign, Prophet, Philosopher, Politician, Activist, Social crusader, Musician and Black President!
Aduratomi Bolade manages Cool FM, Wazobia FM & Nigeria Info in Port Harcourt