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Method After Fela

by Akin Adesokan


“You reckon a guy just goes and cuts down a guy of timber. You gorra do it proper man or you won’t live to cut another log. Dead men tell no tales kid. Until that guy is sawn up and turned to a bench or table, the spirit guy is still struggling inside it, and I don’t fool around with him see, ’cause if your home was cut down you sure gonna be crazy with the guy who’s done it”
– Say Tokyo Kid, The Road


I. Periodic embodiment of archaic energies

The archaic energies inhabit a different body, but they do not recognize their relations or acquaintances. Finding the remains, the spent ashes of a recent enervation in old, dying orders, so-called traditional institutions of ritual and office, the re-born powers confront the remains of conservatism with a virulence that is wounding, that is intended to wound. The old orders also react, dismissing the new representative of archaic powers as unruly, destructive, vulgar and incapable of decorum. Such is the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He burns bright in the luminous wholeness of articulation. He strikes his time with a strange fire; he is ruthlessly denounced by the military and clerical authorities. He pays them no mind. He gives total, uncompromising voice to the corruptions of power of the time. The tolls begin to be exacted. He slips irremediably into the spent ashes of conservatism, the self-consuming fire of his own origins.


II. The celebrity as the messiah

Mediated and so serviceable, the language of politics and commerce masks the continuities between the self-exhibiting figure of the celebrity and that of the messiah – the one anointed to be self-sacrificing or self-effacing. Yet the one is the other. The standardisation of taste achieved in the appetite for the next new thing – fad, not novelty – was differently articulated in the sameness of socialist republics behind the Iron Curtain. An uncanny equation: Rita Hayworth as Josef Stalin. Sade. Seal. Che. Cher. Oprah. Usher. Tupac. Rihanna. The facile structure of the bureaucratic vocabulary of rolling or Five-Year Development plans speaks to Harry Potter This and That. Die. Die Hard. Die Harder. Die Harder Still. Bruce Lee Willis. Then comes an epitome of spectacular cunning who resists standardisation by singing out of time, out of tune. Who, after a lifetime of sold-out concerts, reclines and retorts, ‘Motown is Mo ta’hun. Meaning, I sell voices. No, my voice is not for sale.’ In his theoretical passages which attempt to explore Fela’s doubleedged personality in relation to contemporary theories of subjectivity – Freudian, post-Marxist, and so on – Tejumola Olaniyan comes quite close to a critique of the cult of the celebrity. To speak, Frantz Fanon writes early in Black Skin, White Masks, is to exist for the other. Fela’s self-regard was a public performance of little value without the possibility of being regarded. He was heroic and, alas, an archaic clown, as the artist Suzanne Wenger describes him in her fetching vocabulary of Jungian psychoanalysis. Given the thoroughness of his analysis, Olaniyan’s case against Fela on this point seems almost unanswerable.


III. Relaxed aesthete of the belligerent tune

Fela’s contribution to music is beyond dispute. The political underpinnings of the long-song form, the consciously relaxed extension of a track’s duration beyond a measured five minutes, suggest more than a radical strike against the entrenched forces of commodification. As the musicologist Wolfgang Bender argues in an essay on highlife music as handmaiden of independence, the multinational economic rationale of the 45-r.p.m shellac single which limited playing time of a track to the commercial radio slot had to succumb to the national ethos of self-governing. The nationalisation of the record industry made it possible for musicians to press long-playing records in three to four tracks, whereas under the shellac they used to have more tracks with shorter playing time. Bender thinks that the straitjacket of the shellac single was an economic imperative, and that the new sense of time accorded more toward an African temporality. ‘What would [Fela’s] compositions sound like if they could not build slowly in pace and rhythmic density?’ he wonders. The opportunity for the long-song was an unusual case of the meeting of Commerce and the Commons; it was to the independence-era musician what GSM is to the lumpen who can afford the SIM-card. Apparently the African work of art would rediscover its aura because, not in spite of, the antics of mechanical reproduction. Those antics, let them age if they like. Or let them wait. Commonalities of an emergent aesthetic are visible between Fela’s long-song, the unexpected, jarring decomposition of time in Gaston Kaboré’s classic film Wend Kuuni (1982), and the understanding of sequence framing the narrative in the artist Lamidi Fakeye’s autobiography (1996). Seeing them as a whole requires the kind of attention to different discourses enjoined in Sola Olorunyomi’s study of Fela’s patterns. This will take time.


IV. Eminence is rare

Rarity determines value; eminence engenders envy. Easily available, within reach of anyone who dares to seek him out, Fela is nevertheless endlessly fresh and fascinating. Everyone wants a piece of him; opinions of him are an all-comers’ game. Why is this so? It is hardly conceivable that students and scholars of Fela declare an intellectual interest shorn of a biographical peg. Witness to political violence and over-democratised sexuality, Fela passes on, ensuring that the twin-prism outsiders use to gaze into the everyday fortunes of the African continent he makes his subject offers only one vision. The high-minded political musicianship comes down on the side of practical number-crunching. Imagine how many African lives would be saved from the HIV-AIDS pandemic, the sociological imagination speculates, if Fela were to use his musical talent to preach against unprotected sex!


V. Sex, Sex, Sex

The commune, haven of the cult of personality and licensed sex. There was a popular man in Lagos, once upon a time. His name was Immanuel Odumosu, better known as Jesu Oyingbo. He was a messiah, head of a commune where sex exercised a potent force. It is not unfair to think of Fela in the same context as this phenomenon, all peculiarities acknowledged. The medium of the original sin, as Fela espoused, is really the sign of the Antichrist. In a fine essay titled ‘Crossroads Republic’, Brent Edwards examines a musical encounter between Fela and the trumpeter Lester Bowie, an unusual sounding of diaspora undertaken by artists in dire straits, the outcast and the wanderer, Esu pressed to make the best of the consequences of his misbegotten cunning. There is no room here for a different aspect of Esu, the lord of women who trade, wise in the unpredictable ways of the market, the polyforum, the crossroads, and who, possessing the XX chromosomes, are that which pubescent men desire. Profit is the point of trading and money is its symbol. Before naira and kobo, before the manilla, there was the cowrie shell of the Asian mollusc, treasured cash of the slave trade, the money you got in exchange for humans, but which the captain of the berthed ship would not accept if you wished to buy rum or gunpowder. If you look at a cowrie shell, the scholar Saidiya Hartman notes in Lose Your Mother, you will see that its face very much resembles the female genitalia, the aperture of procreation and destruction, the depthless third dimple of erotic energy. A variation on the legend of the black widow, the spider which devours its mate as/at the end of copulation, the unequal relation of conventional sex, in or out of the commune, imposes on the celebrity in polygamous marriage a curse which is socialised in abusive songs.

Musically, then, and with regard to the place of sex and its various modes of expression and repression, Fela is a local curiosity. Afrobeat might be different from the myriad urban forms – apala, fuji, juju, sakara – in terms of the quality of its politics, but Fela shares much with the conservative exponents in the quality of his practice as a masculinist. Let’s add a crucial point to the ruthless critique of the gendered nature of the African postcolonial state shown in Fela’s work. It is standard to understate the connections between Fela and the urban forms on the basis of oppositional politics, but this approach can do with an update. The embarrassing sexism of ‘Lady’ is a warmed-up version of the highlife song ‘Lady Academica’ (Adeolu Akinsanya), now stripped of its genteel veil in the brazen abuses of Ayinde Bakare (‘Ojowu Obinrin’ [Jealous Woman]), Ebenezer Obey (‘Oju Ni Maalu Nro’), and Ayinla Omowura’s late tirades against women. Witness, then, how the artist Sokari Douglas-Camp mocks Fela’s amatory greed: ‘Open and Close, Chop and Quench’, the kinetic sculpture in the shape of a woman tropes on the title of two of his popular songs, and is staged to open and close its legs, in the dancestep that Fela’s song teaches. But the sexual meaning of this gesture is grounded in the suggestion of the danger of untrammeled sexuality in the age of HIV: Chop and Quench, Nigerian Pidgin for ‘eat and die’.


VI. Pedagogue of the oppressed

The uniqueness of Fela as a political artist, Olaniyan argues in a stimulating analysis, lies, all told, in his role as a pedagogue. He not only uses his songs as teaching tools, he is also concerned, and even more pointedly, that the point of his teaching is understood in its entirety. It is the coda of the storyteller or the folkloric moraliser, except that, like the structure of the long-song, the code is broken before the ruse is enacted.

Make you hear some important things wey dey-o
Wey our big gofment dey hide from us-o
We go expose dem-o
Gbe won sita…
‘Shey our leaders dem like us or dem like demselves…?
Shey dem be good leaders or shadow criminals?
Shey all na plan or no be plan?
I get my own answer: Dem be original criminal!
All na plan-nio!
Dem like demselves!
Oh yes…
‘My argument: Botha na friend to Thatcher and Reagan
Botha na friend to some other leaders too,
Together, dem wan dash us human right…

The rhetoric of ‘Teacher’ says the rest.


VII. He has death in his pouch

Anikulapo, the earthy, Africanised self-naming collocates itself, in mocking logic, with its twin, Kuti. This introduces a redundancy. However translated, the two names mean one thing: triumph over death. Capital, illiterate Capital, intuits this, and brands Fela as it would a Cher or a Björk. Fela Kuti. Is it not the same language as originates Anikulapo and coins the saying that the hunter’s death is couched in his pouch? Dede Mabiaku was the most fulsome of the claimants to the Fela throne in the dazzling explosion of saxophonists in post-Abacha Nigeria. At any number of concerts this musician declared, ‘Because Dede dey, Fela no go die!’ However, the apotheosis is restored in the musician whose apparent temperament least resembles Fela’s: Lagbaja, in the song ‘Abami’, a narrative of deification.


VIII. The fox, knowing all wisdom is partial, makes a virtue of difference

The story of deification that inspires Lagbaja is that of Sango, the African god of thunder. Again, the irony is uncanny. Sango’s favorite stimulant is the bitter kola, the principle of indivisible knowledge. Treasuring this wholeness, the thundergod displays awareness of a key rival, the many-lobed kolanut, which reveals only partial truths but in a controlled manner, and is thus useful in the management of intelligence in which the custodians of algebraic clairvoyance are adept. The truth, always partial, always situated, is a lie. Sango detests lies. Hence the staccato tone, the fragmentary eloquence of bata drum, Sango’s other medium of communication. To be totally truthful, to be all knowledge gathered in one sacred gourd, is to dare. The exponents of the urban forms know this, so they play safe. Standing on the shoulders of Christopher Waterman, scholar of the juju form, Veal makes much of this conservative outlook. Fela sings:

Zombie o Zombie…
Zombie no go talk unless you tell am to talk…

And Ayinde Barrister, the fuji exponent and retired staff-sergeant, makes it his business to post a rejoinder:

E yee pe soja ni Zombie…
E ma so pe’wo lo kan mi nbe
E ranti pe, Once a soldier is always a soldier…
[Stop calling soldiers Zombies
In case you wonder why I feel called upon
Remember, Once a soldier…]

There is more to the denunciation of the embodiment of archaic energies than a reactionary, self-interested jostling for power and privilege. The revelation of the whole truth is a betrayal. Fela breaks rank, gives the game away. An affront to Power. But Power exacts its toll, and the political musician feels his energies ebb:  ‘I told Beko [his activist brother] to leave their politics alone.’ And this at a time when Ayinla Kollington, another fuji maestro, strikes a tone of moderation:

Ilu le koko,
Ogagun Sani Abacha
A mo pe e ngbiyanju, omi lo po j’oka lo…
Esi ibo ti a di tele la fee gbo o…
[Times are tough,
General Sani Abacha, you’re facing tough odds, though…
We’re interested in the outcome of the previous election…]

The energies ebbed, and how shallow the sandy shorelines. The bright, brash noise of Army Arrangement gave way, in the early Nineties, to soft satire in the never-released ‘Clear Road for Jagajaga’. Sure, the hustings of Nigeria’s endless transition drew the kind of laughter only locals, understanding context, could afford, where politicians were called out by name, but what was the point of it? ‘Guerrilla journalism’ was having a field day, and the musicman, part-inspirer of the politics of human assertion that informed disobedient newspapering, mouthed caricatures without fire, without even touching the saxophone in a long night of prowling the stage. True, Fela stands largely on principle, and one shaped by personal woes. The transformation of the late businessman, Chief Moshood Abiola, into the patron saint of bottle-feeding democracy and rallying point of annulled elections tops the list of poignant ironies that is contemporary Nigerian politics, more so for how little it figures in critical consciousness as a case of low morality. (Properly speaking, of course, morality and realpolitik are strange bedfellows.) Chief Abiola was a powerful tycoon, beloved of the country’s brutal military big men who eventually neutralised him. As chairman of multinational Decca Records, he was alleged to have acted against the interest of the musician, who never tired of skewering him and General Olusegun Obasanjo as the execrable duo, lackeys of Western imperialism – ‘to steal money like Obasanjo and Abiola, International Thief-Thief!’ The greasy practice of realpolitik that made this transformation possible has not been probed with a cool head. It is at the core of public conduct in the national space, where piratical power-mongering remains the order of the day. Does this explain the paradox of Fela’s apotheosis – deification at home, commodification abroad?


IX. Let the uncanny speak its name

In eight frightening pages floating out of the depth of The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah lays bare the omens confirming the proneness of Kumase, seat of the Asantehene, in the face of a march that cannot be stopped. The incredible comes to pass. Prempeh’s Golden Stool succumbs to wormwood in 1874, although the work of termites is steady and long and without drama. Some twenty-two years later, further east, Ovonramwen’s Benin goes the way of the old order. The world remembers the Punitive Expedition not so much from the preserved image of the quiescent Oba, captive of a British officer, as from the traveling exhibition of the Loot, represented in the majestic Queen Idia, emblem of Festac ’77, the characteristically unplanned commemoration unfolding after eighty years. In a brilliant sentence, Veal reverses the logic of the imperial conquest as the postcolonial repression, linking the Punitive Assault on Fela’s Kalakuta Empire by Nigeria’s military the week after Festac to the Benin one of 1897, the Loot that produced the jewel in the crown of African Art, but which had to be borrowed from the looters to stage the extravaganza that Fela decried. Armah’s catalogue of fearsome omens has other affinities, in art and life. There were no marigolds seen in the fall of 1941 because quiet as it’s kept Pecola is carrying her father’s baby. Beloved is the ghost that returns to haunt 124. But incest is a younger horror than ‘the unspeakably dark, guilty, erotic past’ of James Baldwin’s sensing when a father sells his son down the river, and a mother smothers her daughter in a fatal embrace, the choice of two evils, in the face of the trade around which all life revolves, from the savannah to the coast. In a controversial essay called ‘And After the Narcissist?’ Wole Soyinka writes of the avatar of his creative principles, Ogun, in a register so compelling the avatar’s dissolution lies in the contravention of a sexual essence: Ogun loses the creative essence when he succumbs to the effeminacy of self-regard and becomes a homosexual. The Nigerian artist and scholar, Moyo Okediji, has a painting, Fela and Ogun in Mythopia, which imagines the musician and the deity as jointpursuers of heterosexual pleasures. The painting has to be understood in relation to another, Fela in Mamiwataland, depicting Fela in mythic associations with the sexuality of marine animals. Okediji suggests that the first painting explodes the myths of Fela’s sexuality, but the framing of the second confirms some of Fela’s self-authenticating, re-Africanising gestures.

What’s going on here?

Two influential black men in the New World (the place, not the time), the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and the choreographer Bill T. Jones, are connected with some of the extrapolations here: Appiah articulates the ethical questions of cultural patrimony and Jones dimensions of Fela’s life within the matrix of neoliberal commodity form. Both men have something else in common, though. They are openly gay men. Imagine that a century ago, the homosexual act was forbidden by law in most countries of the world. Imagine that in most African countries, homosexuality is still forbidden, and punished as a crime. Imagine, also, that one of the most uncomplicated embodiments of Ogun in the New World (the time, not the place) was the Afro-Cuban musician, Lazaro Ros, a gay black man. There was more to Oggun: The Eternal Presence, Gloria Rolando’s splendid documentary about Ros’ life as a devotee of the god, but Ros’ understanding of his work, like Appiah’s or Jones’, was such that that needn’t be visible. In moments of psychic perplexity, the African legatee of the god worries, What is the will of Ogun?


X. Coda

What does it mean to be seeded with a germ that will derail one’s pursuit of perfection? How can this magnificent embodiment of archaic energies depart so sharply from the requirements of revolutionary discipline, in effect sharing more in common with the corrupted elite he wishes to discredit? How can the Chief Priest plausibly invoke the gods while in the same breath smoking Indian hemp? In Esu Elegbara, Ayodele Ogundipe gives a remarkable portrait of a priest of Esu she encountered in Ibadan in the late 1960s: ‘[He] was not an easy man to know; although I talked to him through other informants and found him courteous, he kept his distance. He was an ascetic Ifa priest and a deeply religious man who had taken the vows of poverty; his house was bare and he did not drink or smoke.’ Fela’s commitment was legendary; he did not need a vow of poverty. It was not clear, though, that he had a true grasp of what the gods were about. He appeared  to have confused the originality of his perspective with the morality of the gods. On the way to his own apotheosis he wasted much effort on making himself into a worshipper. But what did he worship?

The tolls begin to be exacted.

He gives total, uncompromising voice to the corruptions of power of the time.

He slips irremediably into the spent ashes of conservatism, the self-consuming fire of his own origins.

He prefers all the gods.


“Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is The Boss”

Hear it!
One more time
First thing for early morning
Na newspaper dem give us read
First thing for early morning
Na newspaper dem give us read
The oyinbo wey dey inside
Petty trader no fit to know
The oyinbo wey dey inside
Market woman no fit to read
The oyinbo wey dey inside
Na riddle for labourer man
Inside the paper
Lambastical dey
Inside the paper
Ipso facto, dey that one na Latin
Inside the paper
Jargonism dey
Inside the paper
Youth delinquency dey
Who be delinquent?
Na dem be delinquent
Who be delinquent?
The oyinbo talker delinquent
Who be delinquent?
It no be me o

(Fela Kuti, 1975)

 Akin Adesokan is the author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and a collection of essays, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. He is a contributing editor of Chimurenga.  

“Method After Fela” first appeared in print in Chimurenga Vol.15: The Curriculum is Everything, a textbook of alternatives to prevailing educational pedagogy. Through fiction, essays, interviews, poetry, photography and art, contributors examine and redefine rigid notions of essential knowledge.

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