Thursday, August 2, 2012

FELA 1938 - 1997 - A MAN WHO JUST WOULDN’T TAKE SHUT UP FOR AN ANSWER (First published in NOSEBLEED issue 17 – 1998)

Look at Ice T or WASP or loads of other rockers, rappers and punkers - does anyone really believe their attempts to shock to be anything more than a pathetic pantomime, a marketing decoy to camouflage bland music. Maybe someone like G.G. Allin was actually sincere about his atrocities ... but he was hardly inspirational (you certainly won't catch me eating my shit or ODing on heroin) and was a threat to no one but himself; just a fool with a stool. Now and then however, ya get a genius - someone who astounds with their innovation and talent and shocks and inspires with their courage and charisma. Fela Anikulapo Kuti was such a phenomenon and when he died last year in his native Nigeria, well, I was sadder than Elton John. In Africa, he is a legend. One million people smashed thru police barricades to attend his funeral in Lagos last August. He had the charisma of a car crash, the courage of a cockroach, the creativity of a big bang and a lust for life that makes Iggy a constipated nun. Just seek out a video of the man in concert... he'll be the one wearing nothing but silk bikini knickers and a saxophone, a hyper-sexed, hyper-vexed hurricane gyrating and lollollolling with the 27 dancing girls that he married in a mass ceremony in 1978. Marvel at this volcanic vibrator of a man and hurl yourself into the mad regal celebratory mixture of jazz, funk and hi-life that he named 'Afro-Beat'. And ask yourself if you'd be actin' like such a contagious case of catatonia if your country's military leaders had imprisoned you, tortured you, sent 1,000 soldiers round to beat up your friends and burn down your house, and got the local coppers to throw your mum out a high window to her death.

For 28 of its 38 years of independence, Nigeria, home to over 200 million live nipples, has been ruled by military dictators and they don't like to be fucked with ... just ask Ken Sero Wiwa or Wole Soyinka (both writers condemned to death - Sero Wiwa was hanged in 1995, Soyinka lives in exile). But Fela fucked with them, even when rich and famous throughout the world, he denounced their oppression and corruption with albums like "Authority Stealing", "Vagabonds in Power" and "I Go Shout Plenty". Through his concerts and many of his 124 albums, he incited the poor to get politically aware and active, not to accept their subjugation (as in "Why Black Men dey carry Shit?” "No Agreement", "Give me Shit, I Give you Shit" and "Teacher, don't teach me Nonsense"); he was a spokesperson for Blacks all over the world (in his 1984 album, "Beasts of No Nation", he slams Thatcher and Reagan for supporting Apartheid in South Africa). He was the first major African artist to sing in Pidgin English so that street people all over Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana could understand.

 He didn't have to get himself into trouble. As a middle class kid, he could have earned a respectable living... after school in Nigeria, his parents had sent him to Oxford to become a doctor - but good 01' Fela bounced straight off the plane and enrolled in music instead, causing his angry pop to cut off all financial support. So Fela lived from the band he set up, playing straightforward jazz. After a few years working in a radio station back home, he headed for the States, attracted by the music of James Brown and the way that Black Americans were using European instruments to innovate and make 'black music'. Even though (or perhaps because) his mum was a radical feminist nationalist in Nigeria, he was never interested in politics until confronted with racism in England and when he befriended Sandra Smith of the Black Panthers in America, he began to see the potential of Black Power and adopted this as his rallying call for the rest of his career.

He returned definitively to Nigeria in 1973 and began his crusade to use his music to arouse people in as many ways as possible - it's sexy and relentless, hypnotic and bombastic. He changed the name of his club to 'The Shrine' and people piled in not just for the mesmerising music but also his 'yabbis' - lessons on black history, politics and music. He was on a mission to change the mentality of the poor majority who had been brainwashed by the experience of colonialism to believe that they were 'supposed to be poor'. He was a preacher but no sanctimonious saint - he got through more grass than a mad cow and slept with more women than a necrophiliac undertaker (even with 27 wives, he couldn't stay faithful!). A permanent rider on the Excess Express, his compound in Lagos was always burstin' with friends, family and wives ("I love them all, I spend every night with at least 3 of them" he revealed in one interview when aged 54!). The people loved him. And he loved people ... and hated dictators that get rich by keeping them poor and ignorant.

The dictators hated him too. So Fela and his merry entourage went toe-to-toe with a succession of evil soldier greed heads for 24 years before the artist finally died. The following are just highlights of the half absurd, half-tragic history of their clashes: In 1974, just a year after coming back to Nigeria and becoming a star with his band Afrika 70, the authorities were already looking for ways to shunt this Iippy upstart out of public view: he was arrested for possession of dope... then released after 2 weeks in prison ... 2 days later, the Filth raided his house again and found more grass... which Fela swiftly swallowed... so he was brought to the copshop and forced to shit in a dish which was then whisked away for analysis –nothing came of this and Fela released an album entitled "Expensive Shit" to commemorate the experience! 5 months later, the police stopped by his house one night and beat him up, hospitalising him for 9 days. In December 1975, the miffed military authorities concocted some farcical kidnapping charge and arrested our hero. The charges were then dropped but Fela had to fight for months to get his instruments back and two of his group spent 9 months in a squalid jail cell. In February 1977 came Fela's biggest and most bitter clash with authority: dictator Olusegun Obasanjo sent 1000 armed soldiers round to the funster's gaff... they battered his brothers, mates and passing journalists, and then threw his 82 year old mother out her bedroom window and raised the whole place to the ground. His mother died shortly afterwards and an enraged Fela and friends stomped past armed guards and placed her coffin on the doorsteps of the seat of parliament. His next album is called "Coffin for the Head of State". In 1981, he is arrested for knocking the hats of 2 traffic policemen... while holding him, the police decide to charge this mega-rich superstar with... armed robbery! The case is dumped out of court.

Then in 1984, the government accuses him of smuggling foreign currencies; he was condemned to 5 years in Nigeria's worst prison. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience but he floundered for 17 months in some dark dungeon before another coup d'etat overthrew the leader that put him there. In 1993, he got another chance to sample Nigerian prison hospitality after a man was found murdered in his club. He was released when the trial finally came to court... Fela had not even been in the country at the time of the murder. In 1996, still peeved that they've never managed to shut the bastard up, a gang of policeman fire randomly into Fela's house ... six people were seriously injured. His final clash with the police came just 5 months before his death when he was already languishing sick in his leaba: the government ordered police to go search his house and arrest him if they found any grass, knowing full well that ol' Fela always had an ample stash. He was awaiting trial for this when he popped it. Sure, the likes of Public Enemy and Hiphoprisy and many others have castigated a go-go and pointed their fingers and waved their fists ... but US and European leaders are about as dangerous as Rolf Harris when put alongside some of Nigeria's glorious fuhrers – the bould Fela was huntin' goddam dragons.

It was AIDS that finally did what no authority could do - shut him up. And when I hear that one of Africa's biggest singers of the moment - Senegal's Youssou N’dour, demands the equivalent of 25,000 quid to play 5 songs at a concert promoting consumption of African products instead of imported ones, I realise how unique the great Fela was. (Incidentally, I just read in my paper today that his brother, Beko Ransome-Kuti, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in ‘96 for plotting to overthrow General Abacha, is dying in prison due to lack of medical attention).

..........FR. DOYLE 1998

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