Jul 31, 2012
An Unspoken Part of Fela Kuti’s Legacy
Everybody remembers the first time with Fela. I was a preteen and it happened with my family. We were crossing Lagos’s famous Third Mainland Bridge at night on the way to the airport in Ikeja from my uncle’s house in Ikoyi when Fela’s song “Water No Get Enemy” began to play on the radio.
There is something amazing that happens when a Fela song begins to play. First the alert of blasting horns and your head rises. Then the web of polyrhythms from pounding drums that take the body in one direction and then the other so that even while sitting you begin to dance. And finally Fela’s voice, so distinctive that you have no choice but to pay attention to the words sung in its sometimes sweetly melodious, sometimes scratchy, sometimes off-key, but always moving baritone. No matter where you are, people stop what they’re doing for a moment and listen.
Fela is often called Nigeria’s conscience, but maybe he was both a little less and a little more than that. When he was alive he spoke truth to the numerous powers that were, or might have been—legions of military dictators, businessmen, even the disgruntled and sometimes despondent public—often to his own peril. He ended up in prison more than once and his mother was killed during a military raid on his house. His numerous songs from “Authority Stealing” to “Zombie” are direct and unsparing in their criticism of government. Some of them are playful in their detailing of the contradictions in Nigerian life. They are all as unflinchingly authentic as Fela himself was and perhaps the reason why Nigerians love him so.
His vocabulary has become cultural idiom—my uncles still his lyrics “shuffering” and “shmiling” to speak about day to day hardships in Nigeria—and the power of Fela is so strong some 15 years after his death that it was invoking his spirit that masses of Nigerians took to the streets earlier this year to protest the removal of petroleum subsidies. For Fela, nothing—nothing—was sacred except the ability to point out contradictions in the way that we live. And in many ways it’s fitting that one of the biggest contradictions of his existence was how his silence about the illness that killed him helped to spark a nationwide discussion about the presence and role of HIV/AIDS in Nigerian society.
If we all remember our first time with Fela, we all remember exactly where we were when he was buried. I was 14 and watched the whole funeral procession in which more than a million Lagosians marched on the small TV in my Uncle’s apartment. The reception was fuzzy, but you could see him in his bright orange suit, his body resting in a glass coffin while the masses danced around him to pay their respects.
It was his brother, a former minister of health, who announced that Fela had passed from Kaposi sarcoma, a form of cancer closely often seen in patients with HIV infections that have progressed to AIDS. The disbelief was palpable. To this day, there are people who would deny that Fela Kuti—our Fela, the people’s Fela—was HIV positive. I remember the whispers “They say it’s AIDS oh!” and the response “So this thing is real” because Fela made everything real, in death still speaking truth to the powers, both governmental and public that wanted to deny the existence of the epidemic in Nigeria. Some people I spoke to called Fela’s death our “Magic” moment, referring to Irving “Magic” Johnson whose brave decision to be open about his positive status helped to change the conversation about what it means to have HIV/AIDS in America.
But the fact that Fela has been dead for 15 years and that Magic is able to provide us with what might be the most entertaining movie-going experience at his line of eponymous theaters (everyone should try watching a summer blockbuster at the Magic Theater in Harlem) also speaks to something – HIV/AIDS is an eminently livable disease if you have the resources to live with it. Those resources were not really available in Nigeria when Fela left us. And though people are working hard to change this, they are still not as widely available as they should be today.
By all accounts Fela was not an easy man to deal with or define, and I find it interesting that the current popular portrayal of him in the media, on Broadway is one that smoothes over the roughness and eliminates the contradictions in his life that he so viciously pointed out in ours. Where would we be if Fela hadn’t succumbed to HIV/AIDS—who knows? But the greatest contradiction is that his silence about and death from the disease ultimately gave the rest of us a lot to talk about and perhaps, a better shot at living.
Wall Street Journal, written by Uzodinma Iweala on 28 July 2012