Mar 19, 2015
Interview with Steven Hendel (producer of "Finding Fela")
Afropop Worldwide’s Sean Barlow recently spoke with Steve Hendel, the visionary producer behind the acclaimed, Tony-winning Broadway show Fela! and the new documentary film Finding Fela.
Sean Barlow: Steve, why don’t you introduce yourself.
Steve Hendel: My name is Steve Hendel. I have a tremendous interest in music and always felt that music was the way I got in touch with emotions, big feelings, feelings of universal brotherhood and struggle. I have been inspired by music in many ways and my whole experience with Fela came out of my interest in music and my willingness to explore and listen to music of people who I’d never heard of before.
Tell us more about what drew you to Fela, and your earliest memories of when you heard him.
Well, I heard Fela sometime around the year 2000 for the first time, and I was literally introduced to Fela by the Amazon algorithm. I was on Amazon and it popped up, “If you liked this artist, then try this artist” and it was Fela Kuti. It was an album, a double CD called The Best Best of the Black President, with this really interesting yellow and orange cover. I’m not sure what I had bought that led the algorithm to attach Fela to it but I looked at it and I read a little bit of the blurb and I said, “OK, I’ll buy that and see what it’s like.”
I remember when it came. I never download music; I always buy something physical, and while I have a turntable it’s been a long time since I used it and so I live in the CD world. I listen to a lot of CDs in my car. It’s a joke in my family that the backseat of my car has 50 CDs all over the place and if the car gets filled up, people have to be careful not to step on the CDs and ruin them. But I bought this, and I’m so thankful I bought a CD instead of downloading it because it had this amazing booklet that was written and organized by Rikki Stein, who I had no idea who he was, and the booklet explained the songs. It talked about the context and a little bit of what the songs were about, since Fela was singing in pidgin, and it also had this essay about Fela’s funeral that Rikki had written. I put the first CD on, the first song was “Lady” and within 30 seconds I was saying, “What is this? What is this music? This music is overpoweringly great!” And it just continued and continued and continued–that song and then “Shakara” and then “Water No Get Enemy” and then “Zombie” and “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” “ITT”–and as I got into it, the music, I thought, was the most beautiful, most kinetic, and most powerful music I had ever heard. And the songs, what Fela was singing about, blew my mind. “Zombie,” “ITT” and then “Sorrow, Tears and Blood,” and “Coffin For Head of State,” those four songs. Here was this person writing this genius music that I’m sort of convinced is in our original DNA as humanoids, sort of electrified and arranged like Charlie Mingus on LSD and that this was the music that we would celebrate the birth of a child, victory over a war with another tribe, killing a juicy wildebeast, this was the music of our primal roots. But what he was singing about was standing up against abusive oppression and refusing to back down–suffering, defiance, social justice, human dignity–and I just was carried away by it.
So it was both a combination of the power of the music and also the real substantive content. Were you engaged in politics as a young person growing up?
Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I grew up in the counterculture. I wasn’t in the SDS but I went to demonstrations, and I certainly have always had a progressive political orientation.
So you, of course, produced Fela on Broadway, and we’ve covered that a lot, so I want to focus our conversation on the Finding Fela film. So you had this run on Broadway and you toured the country, and even took it overseas and to Europe and Nigeria. So why make a film?
First of all, that’s a very interesting question. One answer to that is, film is a very different medium than a theater piece and when we created the musical, what we had to do was to create something that had a lot of entertainment content. We couldn’t tell Fela’s story. What we could do was create an impression; we could create an event, around Fela’s story. But it had to have a lot of great music, a lot of great dancing, great visuals, and we told a slice of the story. We really told the story of 1977, with some flashbacks and then made-up trips to the underworld, meeting his dead mother and all that stuff. So our purpose in making the musical was to create a great theatrical event, and I think everyone connected with the making of the musical had a life-changing experience. But we didn’t tell the story of Fela. When we made the musical–we created the musical from scratch in rehearsal rooms through a process of improvisation, and artistic creativity led by Bill T. Jones. I could see that what we were doing had the potential of being something really special and I kept saying to myself, “My gosh, I have the rights to tell the story of Fela Kuti and use his music and the man who is leading the artistic creation is America’s greatest performance creator and greatest performance artist and what I can see happening is sort of unique.”
I made arrangements. I asked our projection designer Peter Negrini, who is a wonderful artist, if he knew any documentary filmmakers who could come and film the process of the artists creating the show and he recommended a young woman, a lovely, talented young woman named Nara Garber. When she was free and they were working, she would come when she could and she would spend the day, just as a fly on the wall, watching the creative process and Bill was gracious enough to wear a mic so by the time the show was off Broadway, I had 250 hours of film of the show being created from scratch, the creative process from 2006 to 2008, including the off-Broadway show. When you go on Broadway, it’s union and they have all these rules. It’s really counter-productive, the rules, in terms of filming and things like that. Really in my own opinion it’s a disservice to the project and to the performers, frankly. We couldn’t film it. The cost was too high. When Femi Kuti came to the Broadway show and went on stage and told the audience what his feelings were, which might have been the most dramatic moment of the entire run, we couldn’t film it. But anyway, I had 250 hours of footage, and I had the good fortune of being invited to perform in Nigeria and having spent all this time filming.
Invited by whom, by the way?
We were invited really by the Governor of Lagos, by the Governor Tinubu, the ex-Governor of Lagos. We had a few other sponsors, but that was the prime sponsor. I wanted to have it filmed. Because I knew it would be amazing to go Lagos with the original cast and mount the original production. And when I say mount the original production, when we left Broadway and I took the set, I didn’t put it in a warehouse somewhere in the United States, I put it on a container ship and literally sent it to Nigeria because we were taking the original set, the original costumes, the original projection computer and the original cast and we were going to do eight Broadway shows in Lagos and we were also, before the Broadway shows in Lagos, doing a special command performance for Femi Kuti and Yeni Kuti and the family at the New Afrika Shrine, and I wanted it documented. One of the people who was a big fan of the show, who was previously in documentary film community, had arranged for a bunch of documentary film people to see the show, one of whom was Alex Gibney.
No, on Broadway. They had loved the show and I had been told that Alex Gibney would love to possibly do a documentary about it. So I spoke with Alex. I was introduced to Alex by this woman, and Alex said that he thought taking the Broadway show to Lagos could make for a very interesting film and he’d be interested in directing it. He suggested a line producer named Jack Gulick, and Jack Gulick brought along one Alex’s top-notch international film crews and so I took a film crew with me to Lagos where, over the course the two weeks or three weeks we were in Lagos, we filmed over 250 hours of footage. We filmed the concert version of the show that we did at the New Afrika Shrine and we filmed one of the full Broadway shows that we did at the Echo Exhibition hall and we interviewed all the cast members, all the people involved in the production, we interviewed Femi, Yeni, and Seun Kuti in their homes, we went on a tour to the Shrine, we went on a tour to Kalakuta, and we had a Nigerian film crew at the same time. And we had 250 hours of footage of the experience of being in Lagos. We did not have a film about taking the show to Lagos. We did not film the whole setting up of the production.
Flying on the airplane or whatever…
Well, we had footage of the cast flying on the airplane but we don’t have footage at four in the morning of them setting up the lights and the projections because it was very logistically complicated. It was a very challenging experience getting the show up and getting the tickets up and getting everything going so we did not film that. And coming back, Alex and I sat and talked and that’s really when I made Alex aware that I had the 250 hours of footage of making the Broadway show. We thought about it and we thought that what we should do is get an archivist–and Jack Gulick was part of the discussion–and start finding all the footage we could about Fela and tell the story, tell the full story, because in a film you can tell a much more extensive timeline story than you can in musical theater presentation where you’re trying to provide a tremendous amount of music and entertainment. So for several years we scoured the world for material, and eventually Alex went and interviewed again many of the key figures in Fela’s life, interviewed the family, but we ended up in the end having 1600 hours of footage.
That’s a lot of logging to do.
A lot of logging to do. And we restored footage that we found and a young woman named Lindy Jankura spent two years in an editing room, distilling it down, and then distilling it down, and then distilling it down.
She was the editor?
She was the editor.
Which is really in a way being the director?
Well, let me say that she was great. She did an amazing job and then she was finished and then what she did was she took a three month vacation and when I next saw her she looked so young and beautiful and so refreshed, I couldn’t believe it. But yeah, she would bring stuff to Alex and Alex would make her go back and make it better. And Alex was very involved but it was a very full process. We took the 1600 hours and we distilled it down to 2 hours worth of material.
Were you involved in that?
You were commenting on all that footage?
Sure, I was involved. I was commenting. I’d come once every couple of weeks and look at the footage, look at the edit and as it got to where we had a four-hour version, they got it down to three hours without showing me and then we got it down to two hours and 30 minutes and there were certain things I wanted in the movie. I wanted the movie to be more than just a biopic of Fela, and more than just a series of YouTube clips of him performing. I wanted it to be about the power of legacy, the power of creativity. I mean, here’s this man. He lived in Nigeria, he died, and a decade later this group of artists were inspired by him and created a work inspired by him on their own–I’m talking about the Broadway show–then we brought it to Lagos and we redefined his legacy in Lagos. So I wanted it to be about inspiration, creativity, the transference of ideas and influences and emotions between continents. Because it’s an amazing story–this young African man who travels, he gets to L.A. in 1969, he meets a woman who introduces him to the ferment of black political and social thought, it opens his mind, he goes back to Africa a different person through the experience of being exposed to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and Nina Simone and what’s going on in the States and he creates this politicized, social content music that’s also inspired by James Brown and jazz and Miles Davis and then it goes back to the United States where this group of artists and musicians create this seething Broadway show and I thought that was part of the story.
So the film tells the story of Fela. It’s impossible to tell the whole story of Fela. I hate reading reviews where the reviewer says, whether it’s about the movie or it’s about the Broadway show, “Why didn’t they do more with this? Why didn’t they do more with that? Why didn’t they tell this part of the story? Why didn’t they mention this?” Well, yeah, I always say to myself, “Look, buddy, contact the family and get the rights and do your own movie or your own musical and you can tell whatever story you want.” I mean the human attention span is shorter now than it ever was. The documentary is two hours long, it’s actually like one hour 59 minutes and 30 seconds. Most documentaries are 90 minutes. The attention span for a documentary filmgoer is frequently challenged after 90 minutes. I think we made a film that flies and I think that most people find it incredibly compelling so I’m very proud of that, but you only have a certain amount of time to tell the story that you want and Fela’s story is monumentally complicated, it’s monumentally rich. It’s, in a sense, the story of Nigeria. His family, from his grandfather through to his kids is the story of Nigeria. It has huge themes, besides musical themes. It has the themes of colonization, dehumanization, Christianity, Islam–Christianity and Islam as vestigial remains of the colonial powers–true indigenous culture, all the musical themes, the theme of the American civil rights movement, the disappointment of independence, military dictatorships, oppression, struggle.
The oil economy.
The oil economy, the Biafran civil war, And then the cost of losing his mother and being oppressed. And the cost wasn’t just going to jail or being beaten or losing all your money but the cost turns out to be being taken advantage of by fakes and losing your livelihood, losing your band, and then losing your balance, your mental balance. Being incapable of understanding the disease that’s killing you. Really, the cost of what he did is the last 30 or 40 minutes of the movie. The price he paid. And it’s a price that unfolded over two decades. Anyway, that’s the story of how we made the movie. We opened at Sundance. It was so much fun.
Did you fly out the cast?
Yeah, I flew out Yeni Kuti, Sandra Issadore, Sahr Ngaujah, the originator of the role on Broadway, came. The Fela band played. And then everyone in my family wanted to come. All my kids wanted to come. My daughter who has three young children, she said, “Look I want to see it.” And she came for the opening. And I remember afterwards, she looked at me and said, “I thought that what you were doing was crazy but now I see what the movie is and oh my God, it’s so fantastic.”
Are there plans to screen the film in Nigeria?
We’re having a theatrical run in Nigeria. We passed the Nigerian censors with no cuts, no issues but we are rated R, which is fine.
No kids under 17?
No kids under 17 admitted without their parents? I don’t know what it means in Nigeria but we’re going to be commercially in the movie theaters there next week. And over the next course of time we’ll roll out the film in other countries. We’re going to be on video on demand I think October 31st in the U.S. We’re going to be on iTunes in November. We’re going to be releasing a DVD in January. I think we’ll be on Netflix at some point in 2015. We’re doing screenings across the country for events, like your event–so in Portland, OR, as a fundraiser for Afropop, we are donating the film for a screening.
So are the screenings going to be one by one, or simultaneously?
As we have opportunity. For updates we have a Finding Fela Facebook page, with a list of all of the screenings. And the website findingfela.com will have the listing and use the hashtag #findingfela. We’ve partnered with Give A Hope Foundation to bring the film and introduce audiences to Fela’s culture with screenings, music and culinary events at some of the most popular Nigerian restaurants across the country, so if you’re a Fela fan and you’d like to attend something like that and learn more those are going to be wonderful events.
And Give A Hope Foundation is an American nonprofit or is it a Nigerian nonprofit?
It’s an American nonprofit. This is in the U.S., these are U.S. screenings. We’ve partnered with Tugg, an innovative company that allows the fans to bring the screening to their city or their community venue and use it as a fundraiser. So the site is tugg.com/title/finding-fela and visit the website there and click on host or screening. We’re looking for people who want to host and sponsor and work on a Tugg screening. If you live in Charleston, WV, Birmingham, AL, Akron, OH, Montpelier, VT, Eugene, OR, this film is not likely to be playing at your multiplex and you mostly likely don’t have an arts film presenter presenting it so if you want to see the film, you contact us on our Facebook page or our website and say “Hey, I’m here and I’d really like to help organize a screening,” and we’ll work with you to organize a screening. Just so people understand, in many places where there are multiplexes and there are these monster franchise films, designed for 22 year-olds, they only go to the movies on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday is dead time, so if we can organize enough of an audience, we can rent the theater inexpensively and we’ll show Finding Fela at a cinema at 7:00 on a Monday or Tuesday night instead of seeing the latest Disney animation film. So we’re trying to get film out there in all sorts of ways…
There’s something great about seeing this movie in a real movie theater because it’s two hours long and it has one hour and 53 minutes of spectacular music and the visuals are amazing.
You feel a much bigger impact if you’re in a theater.
Yeah, this film has a much bigger impact if you’re in a movie theater. I guess most films do, but this film…. And then you have the collective experience with an audience that gets drawn into the subject matter and the presentation the way you do.
So we talked a little bit about this, in terms of thinking about the film, what went into it. Of course there’s the archival footage, which you so diligently, as you described, hunted down and made look as good as possible. There’s the footage from the Broadway musical, and then there’s the behind the scenes, Bill T. Jones talking about …
And there are the interviews.
Of course, there are the interviews with Fela’s kids. And that leads to my next question, because a lot of times with children of famous people–artists, politicians, whatever–it’s not easy to be a child of a really famous person sometimes and they can tend to be pretty protective, pretty reticent, like, “Why are you bugging me?” So I’m just wondering how you saw the process. First you invited Fela’s kids to come and see the show on Broadway and then, I think that was one of the most successful parts of the film was listening to Femi, Yeni and Seun because they are just such a moving manifestation of their father and how funny and incisive they are. But did you see a process where first they went, “Who are you?” but then getting more and more comfortable talking about their father, really, and their memories. And being comfortable being filmed so that they would be able to be in the film. Describe that process.
First of all, it’s one of the most wonderful aspects of the film–one of the most emotional aspects of the film–the way the family embraces what the film is. By the time I started working on the film, I had a relationship with the family because they had seen the musical several times and we had developed a relationship. And I think the family came to see the musical as this vehicle that just reawakened interest in their father and in the family and in their grandmother, and in the story of what the family stands for and what happened to the family in a way that nothing else had been able to do, and that it had been done it with respect and authenticity and consideration. So the family developed a relationship with me and with the artists where the foundation was that they trusted our approach to the legacy of their family and you know, Femi said, and has said, that when his father died he wanted to get his father’s legacy known to the world and be preserved.
Through Femi as an artist?
He wanted to do it through him as an artist, but he wanted the world to know who his father was, what his father had done, what his father had gone through, how his family had suffered, what his family stood for and what had happened in their country and the situation of the country. And I think he saw that that was beginning to be achieved through the musical and that progress and that process could be moved forward through the film. And I think all of the family members participated feeling the film was another step and another way of making their story known to the world. And I think the level of participation and embrace and extension–you know the film in many ways is really their film, and not my film or Alex Gibney’s film.
It’s a portrait of Fela and his family.
Yeah, in the truest sense of the word, it’s really their film, and the reason why you get that sense and how the film achieves that level of legitimacy is because they made it possible for the film to represent the family in the world. You’ve seen the film–am I exaggerating?
No. For me the strongest parts of it were seeing Fela over time, through video documentation that I’ve never seen before and hearing him speak. You know, I’ve seen him on the stage several times. I saw him perform maybe three or four times. But it’s different when he’s actually talking on a topic. But then I think the most powerful thing is hearing his kids, who obviously love him and respect him but he’s such a complicated figure, you know? He’s not your normal dad.
No, no, no, and the kids are carrying on the family’s legacy. I mean, now it’s their legacy. They are out there with the message of social justice, commitment, dispossession, human dignity, and doing it both through their music and through their presence and their spokesmanship.
But think about what I was saying about being the son or daughter of a famous person. I can’t say I follow Ziggy Marley. I was a huge fan of Bob Marley, and we all know how hugely influential Bob Marley was and still is. I think Fela’s in the same league as Bob Marley as an artist and global force.
Well, look, I think it’s very complicated. I think it’s a huge responsibility, it’s a huge burden. I’m sure that Femi and Seun and Yeni, and she’s not a musician the way that Femi and Seun are, I’m sure they carry that burden of being Fela’s son and being musicians as well, it’s monumental. And I think they’ve managed, with a great deal of effort on their part–physical, mental, and psychological–to carry that burden as part of themselves and have their arms around that burden, but I’m not sure that it was a straight line getting to that point, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what they’ve done because it’s harder having that burden than not having that burden, for sure. To me, the legacy of Fela is profound. I mean Fela literally sacrificed his life to stand up for the voiceless in Nigeria and Africa, OK?
And all around the world.
And all around the world. He literally died to do that. He refused to ever leave Nigeria. He refused to ever back down. I mean, what always blew my mind when I was thinking about the whole thing at the beginning was, “What kind of person was this?” This guy was the greatest musician, the greatest composer, the coolest guy. He could have gone to London, Paris, New York, L.A. and been a hero of the world’s record industry, film industry, pop culture. He could have been a multimillionaire selling out Madison Square Garden having groupies, hanging out with Bono, political figures, whoever he wanted to. I’m just making this up a little bit but, you know, instead, he was basically in Nigeria, living in poverty, putting out another record telling the oppressors that they’re evil and that he will not back down, and getting the shit kicked out of him, only to do it again. What kind of person would do that? And in the end he gave his life doing that. So to me, it’s the biggest story of a musician in my lifetime. I mean, it makes me very emotional, but I don’t think I’m overstating it. You know, there are other musicians that have stood up and been counted and suffered and been exiled but nothing of this intensity.
We could go on and on about this, but we don’t need to compare him to other people. I mean, it is interesting to think, though, what made the difference?
Well, it’s also that he and Marley, as you mentioned, they’re the two leading world music figures.
Leading figures who are really talented, and had a political consciousness, and connected to people.
And the main incident in their lives, the formative event where the rubber hit the road between the music and the social content, took place in 1977. That’s when Bob Marley was shot at and had that famous concert in Kingston (with rival politicians on stage) and went into exile and that’s when also Kalakuta in Lagos was burned to the ground.
I think they would have enjoyed each other. OK, we talked about the kids. Something that’s interesting, as you said, the Fela on Broadway had the main motivating priority, it has to be entertaining, it has to have a lot of music, a lot of dancing and so on, and the film platform allows a lot broader storytelling and in fact, if it was all singing and dancing it would not be very interesting, but I’m sure you’ve read this before, there’s some things that are revealed in the movie that are not revealed in the musical. For instance, the fact that Fela was battling AIDS and his brother/doctor who said, the day after Fela died, that everyone should know Fela died of AIDS. So some critics of the Broadway play, as I’m sure you’ve heard, say that there’s important aspects of Fela’s life that were not covered, as in AIDS and so on, but was the movie in a way your answer to that criticism that you wanted to tell a broader story?
Well, again, the question of Fela’s death by AIDS and the musical was something we wrestled with from the beginning to the end, literally. And there’s a way we could have dealt with it. We could have just put up on that last projection that he died of AIDS. And we chose not to, because, first of all, the musical was not a biopic of Fela. The musical was a theatrical expression of how Fela’s legacy and music inspired us. And the legacy of Fela is not that he died of AIDS. The legacy of Fela is that he had this vision of using music as a weapon to fight for justice. That was the legacy of Fela. And I felt very strongly that adding his death of AIDS would detract from the focus on the core legacy. You know, AIDS is less of an issue now, but there’s been a historical question of issues of stigma. AIDS is a complicated thing.
Especially in Africa.
And it was more complicated in 2008, when we first performed the show off Broadway, than it is today, but I just didn’t want to detract from the core message of the show. We were criticized for that and I understand it, and I particularly understand it because one of the great moments of the show was when Columbia University School of Public Health did a fundraiser and alumni team-building effort at the theater and a magnificent professor, Professor El-Sadr, who has used the school as a platform for leading AIDS prevention and AIDS treatment in centers throughout Africa spoke and she said that when Fela died of AIDS, it was a wake-up call to Africa, more than when Rock Hudson died of AIDS here. Because it wasn’t just that a famous person that all Africans knew died of AIDS, but Fela Anikulapo Kuti, he who has death in his pouch, who nobody can kill, who the government of Nigeria could not kill, AIDS killed. And if AIDS could kill Fela, it can kill you. And it had a different message; it was really more significant. And maybe leaving it out…maybe we should have put it in that context. But in any event, for the movie, it gave us a chance to include it. It’s a very interesting story. We had amazing footage. I mean that scene where Fela’s brother describes it, you see these men in the audience standing around hearing it. You watch them shift the weight on their legs, you look at the expression on their faces. It’s like “Holy shit!” I mean you can see that–it’s really very subtle but really there. You know I think it’s an example of what you can do in a film that you can’t do in the musical. If I had to subtitle part of the film, I would say “The Price Fela Paid.” The musical was about the legacy and there’s none of the price Fela paid. I mean obviously there’s part of the price he paid in the musical.
Being in detention and so on.
Well, I think really the price he paid in the musical is the loss of his mother, which is the emotional center of the musical and that’s part of the price he paid. But the film has 20 years of the price he paid and look, they’re companion pieces in many respects. I think roughly a million people saw the musical. I’m hoping more people over time see the film. I think Alex Gibney and the team did a wonderful job. I think it will be the definitive documentary about Fela, although I don’t want to discourage other people from making documentaries about Fela because I think it’s an amazing subject and I certainly would admire and support anyone who takes it on.
And wish them good luck.
And wish them good luck.
So I can see that whole course you were talking about, it’s complicated. But I see your motivation to keep it focused on Fela and the price he paid and the musical legacy. And certainly if you hadn’t included it in the film, that would have been an absence, but the film deals with it. When I’ve seen Femi in concert, he basically talks about it “OK, all you kids out there, if you’re going home tonight with someone, be sure to use a condom.” So he’s, I think, extending that part of his father’s legacy that was not in his father’s performance but he’s making sure it’s in his performance.
What I should also mention is that we have a soundtrack album. I said the film has an hour and 52 minutes of music. Well, the film has music from the beginning until the end and the soundtrack has really the arc of his entire career. There’s some very fun things on the soundtrack. The “Zombie” version on the soundtrack is done by the Broadway band, which is sort of fun. And the finale of the film, which was the encore of the musical performed at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, and Femi playing the sax solo. On the soundtrack is the full 18 minute encore version of “Colonial Mentality.” And I have to say, for me, I think it’s the most exciting 18 minutes of live musical performance ever recorded. I’m obviously too close to it, in part because he talks about the show and he talks about the cast.
I saw the movie but, no, I haven’t heard the full version.
You should listen to it, and then let me know what you think. I mean it is so f**king hot. It is so cool. And then periodically he just talks and talks about how Fela has blessed everyone who’s come and what the show means.
Femi’s very impressive.
Oh my God …
He’s just so smart and funny…
And he understands the biggest picture as well as the nitty gritty. That big picture–it’s such an impressive family. This family is literally at the forefront of speaking out for justice in Africa.
So you told us about what’s next for the film going through Africa and I guess one question I thought of is, besides telling the story and getting it out there to young people, what do you hope showing this film in different African countries in 2014-15 might accomplish?
Well, I believe in social justice. I believe that people should be treated with human dignity. I think that vast inequalities of wealth are bad. I think that corruption is bad. I think people have a right to demand that they be properly treated, properly governed and that society function in a way that’s beneficial for everybody. Now this is not specifically an African comment, because I’m talking about everywhere. One of the reasons I was motivated in the first place is corruption in Nigeria, how different is it than corruption in the United States. We’ve got this whole thing called K Street. And it’s pretty blatant out there–“I want this in the law, because I’m gonna make this money if I have this in the law and therefore I will give contributions to these politicians who will invite me to have special sessions with them if I give them more money, and I will have certain things done in the law that benefit me. And when the politician leaves office, the politician can go work and use his Rolodex to funnel money from business through to the politicians. I mean, it’s sort of corrupt, you know? I mean, I don’t know where it compares on the corruption scale to other places but it seems to me to be a form of corruption and qualitatively doesn’t seem to have a much better smell, so I think that the message of Fela to me is working for a better society and inspiring people to demand what they should be entitled to.
Tanzania is a pretty clean country, with a democratically elected president. The thing that people don’t realize is that some African countries have gotten a lot better in terms of true democracy. Of course there’s always this kind of stuff, like influence peddling, but still, the vote is the vote and it’s improved.
It’s improved, and it’s not all the way there but it’s making progress in the right direction.
But some of these countries, I’d think they’d be threatened by “Finding Fela.” The authorities would look at it and go, “Oh, I don’t know if I want our young kids looking at this thing.”
Yeah, they may feel that way. I don’t know. I mean, look, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that, you know, since we brought Fela the musical to Lagos, the government has rehabilitated Fela. The government of Lagos spent money and renovated Kalakuta and turned it into a museum.
That’s a surprise.
Yeah, with restaurant and a hotel. You know, there was a piece of theater a week ago in Lagos about Fela in Kalakuta, recreating or dramatizing Kalakuta, and there’s a statue in Lagos right now of Beko (the brother of Fela.)
The brother. Is he still alive?
No, he’s dead. Look how politicians, how governments relate to Fela–unfortunately they have to. I guess the communist Chinese can put away an inconvenient truth, but Fela, he’s a musician, people hear the music, they know the music is out there, the music’s really compulsive, there’s YouTube and everything. And he was flawed. I think that comes through in the movie. He was complicated. I always sort of think that the flaws come in part because of the isolation and pain of sticking with it. All I know is, I couldn’t be arrested 200 times, I couldn’t spend much time in a Nigerian jail, I certainly wouldn’t like to be beaten up more than once in my life.
Or your mother …
Or have my mother thrown out a window. I mean, where did he get the courage? Where did he get the stubbornness? I don’t know, and the cost of having it … I understand not being able to back down. I understand that to leave a beating or an arrest or a confrontation, and leave it a beaten person. And have all those people that counted on you realize that the government had finally broken you, and the loss of respect you might feel for yourself or you realize the cost of what that is, I understand that. But you know, he just did something that had a tremendous cost.
Thanks Steve for sharing your thoughts on the making of “Finding Fela.”
Thanks Sean. I appreciate it.