May 17, 2011

Reflections on Fela

The first time I met Fela, he said something to me that I can’t repeat here, but I wasn’t offended. It was 1986, I was twenty-two years old and could well have been a ten-year-old girl in the presence of a black superhero. Fela was James Brown, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. He was “Palaver” on Sunday afternoons, album covers that looked like porn, and every swear word I was not supposed to use. On occasion, he was a revolution.

My husband, Gboyega, who was then my boyfriend, had taken me to Shrine for Sunday Jump. Gboyega had introduced me to Fela and laughed, as I did, at what Fela had said. Then as we walked away, Gboyega shook his head and with a smile said, “Man, why did he have to say that?” Fela was his uncle and he was embarrassed. It occurred to me that Fela was just a regular family member to the Ransome-Kutis, but at the Shrine that evening he was greeted like a god when he stepped on stage. The crowd cheered, “Baba!” and raised their fists. He called out, “Everybody say ‘Yeah, yeah,’” and after they responded, it was almost as if they were expecting a miracle instead of a show.

The smell of igbo was all over Shrine and Gboyega had once told me that growing up, he was called a mu igbo, a pothead, because of his family name, so he vowed to be a Ransome-Kuti who could categorically say he was not. He had good reason: he had just graduated from medical school and was working at Lagos University Teaching Hospital. He did not smoke igbo and neither did I, but anyone who saw me that evening would have thought otherwise.

Not many musicians could make me hold my head as if it was about to explode. Fela did throughout Sunday Jump. He and his band, Egypt 80, performed “Beast Of No Nation” and two other “tunes,” as he called them, that he regrettably never released: “Big Blind Country” and another whose title I forget, but the chorus went, “E no easy to be Nigerian.” I held my head and yelled. Fela had to be the only musician in the world that could blow a person’s mind with lyrics like, “A.P.C., Terramycin, Paracetamol, Nivaquine.”

To me, Fela looked energetic performing, but Gboyega told me Fela was not as strong as he used to be. He also said the atmosphere at Shrine was not as charged as it was during the seventies, in Fela’s heyday. Fela had recently been released from jail by Babangida’s regime and Gboyega’s father, who was once a professor of pediatrics at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, was working for the regime as Nigeria’s health minister. Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was an advocate for government reform as well, but in the field of healthcare.

After Sunday Jump, Gboyega and I headed back to Ikoyi where we both lived. Women from our end of town didn’t go to Shrine. My friends regarded me as risqué, also for dating a Ransome-Kuti, though I often teased Gboyega for being straight-laced. Whenever I suggested we go to Shrine after that, he would warn me about police raids, which I had to admit were a possibility, despite his father’s position in the government.

Fela continued to criticize military rulers, but it was his younger brother, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, a human rights activist, who was detained a few years later under the Abacha regime. During Babangida’s regime however, we saw Fela perform many times at Shrine, National Stadium and Jazz 38, run by Fran Kuboye, the daughter of his only sister, Aunty Dolu. Fela played highlife and jazz on the keyboard and saxophone at Jazz 38, and Gboyega and I were regulars there.

From the late eighties to early nineties, Gboyega and I lived in London and we went to Fela’s concerts at Brixton Academy. Fela came to our engagement ceremony in 1992, and though he had performed at Shrine the night before and was worn out, he led our guests in a song. He also made a brief appearance at our wedding reception and again stole the show. Once in a while, he dropped in on my in-laws and I got to see him as Uncle Fela, sitting at their kitchen table. In 1994, Gboyega and I moved to the United States and we learned that Fela was ill, then he recovered, then he fell ill again. We had just relocated from New Jersey to Mississippi when Gboyega’s father announced Fela’s death in 1997.

I was never a Shrine regular, but by then I was a huge fan of Fela’s music, which became more widely available after his death. I did not appreciate his genius until I started to write full-time in Mississippi. I was listening to his music as I was finding my voice. I began to understand Fela’s journey: how he’d freed himself from colonial mentality and reeducated himself as an African, his resistance and message, the poetry of his lyrics and the complexity of his compositions.

Fela created his own form of music, a language in which he alone was fluent. I started to see his music as a chronicle of Nigeria’s history and his autobiography combined. In his unique Lagos voice, he communicated with Nigerians first and then interpreted for the rest of the world. He protested about the trials that Nigerians faced, but never from the standpoint of a victim. Fela did not seek sympathy; he demanded respect. He was often irreverent—if his music was a weapon, his humor was a shield—and as an artist he always maintained his integrity.

These are qualities I aspire to as a writer and as a woman, though I have been uneasy about Fela’s relationship with his “wives,” I have also been moved by the bond he had with his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who is recognized as Nigeria’s foremost feminist. Her contribution to the nationalist struggle in Nigeria is an integral part of the family legacy. It is easy to forget she wasn’t actually born a Ransome-Kuti; she just married one.

On March 16, Gboyega and I went to see Fela! on Broadway with our daughter, Temi. Now, a Broadway show is really not long enough to accommodate an artist of Fela’s proportions, but the story was faithful, the band was tight and the cast and dancers were vibrant. Above all, Fela! was so much fun I disgraced myself while attempting to dance. Temi was mortified. She is more into hip-hop, so months before, when I’d told her there was a sh about Fela on Broadway, she’d mumbled, “Cool.” I’d then mentioned that Jay Z was a producer and she’d exclaimed, “Hey!” She is fifteen, about the age I was when I discovered hip-hop, and like hip-hop, Afrobeat is more than the music or a way of talking, dressing and dancing. It began as a counterculture.

It was strange to see Fela! on Broadway. Fela himself never courted mainstream. He turned away from his bourgeois Nigerian roots, for which bourgeois Nigerians never quite forgave him. Even when they remember him fondly, they don’t consider him a hero; he was more a troublemaker, a mischaracterization, which he seemed to accept with grace. He was one of a few Nigerians crowned by the people, the only Nigerian I’m aware of that transcended the nature of his death. Like many Nigerian writers, I pay tribute to him in my works and the spirit of his Afrobeat is on every page.

Written by Sefi Atta for the


Sefi Atta:

Sefi Atta was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1964, to a family of five children. Her father Abdul-Aziz Atta was the Secretary to Federal Government and Head of the Civil Service until his death in 1972, and she was raised by her mother Iyabo Atta.

She attended Queen’s College in Lagos and Millfield School in England. In 1985, she graduated from Birmingham University and trained as a chartered accountant. She moved from England to the United States in 1994 with her husband, Gboyega Ransome-Kuti, a medical doctor. They have one daughter.

Sefi began to write while working as a CPA in New York, and in 2001, she graduated from the creative writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals such as Los Angeles Review, Mississippi Review and World Literature Today.

Her debut novel Everything Good Will Come was published in the United States, England and Nigeria in 2005. Her short story collection News From Home was published in Nigeria in 2008, England in 2009 and the United States in 2010. Her novel Swallow was published in Nigeria in 2008 and in the United States in 2010. Her books have been translated into several languages.

Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage play The Engagement was staged at the MUSON Centre in Lagos in 2005.

In 2005 Sefi Atta won the International PEN David T.K.Wong Prize for Short Fiction for Twilight Trek. The award was judged by David Lodge (Chair), Caryl Phillips & Eva Hoffman and is accompanied by a prize of £7,500. In 2006 Everything Good Will Come won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, accompanied by a prize of $20,000. In 2009 News From Home won the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, accompanied by a prize of $10,000.

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