Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a very popular and controversial Nigerian musician that died in 1997. He used his music to promote human rights and raise awareness of societal issues. He was popular in the real meaning of the word because despite his music not being allowed on the radio, they were ubiquitous and people knew the lyrics by heart, sang along, and quoted them in everyday conversation. This continues to be the case up till today, and he is now regarded as one of those few people that lived way ahead of their times. His music has transcended the country and continent and frequently heard in pubs on the streets of major European cities. Perhaps, what is most striking is the originality of his personality, image, performance and style of music. Both his voice and “dressing” are unmistakable. The music is an original mixture of jazz and highlife. The lyrics are whatever is on his mind. I was even shocked to learn that he actually wrote them down.
He was also controversial in many ways too. Since his music was targeted at criticising the then military administrations, it earned him a lot of harassment, beating and imprisonment. His lifestyle was really something to write home about. He married 27 women on a single occasion; he was known to smoke weed; and he appeared on stage almost naked except his string pants.
It is difficult to be indifferent to Fela, so any film about him was going to attract a lot of attention. This is especially because, as an “outcast”, not much was officially shown about him on TV except when he got arrested for one thing or the other. So much was known about him from rumours and gossip, except those who were lucky enough or risked intimidation to get to know him personally.
The film Finding Fela was premièred last week at BFI Southbank in London. I don’t remember the last time I went to a film and was not willing to look away from the screen for a minute. The film tried to captivate every aspect of his life including his music, his women, his philosophy, his delusion, and very personal moments with real and rare footages. The background was heavily rich with his music, and a lot of the events provided food for thought: what kept him going despite all the intimidation? What was it that inspired him so much that made him unstoppable? How was it possible for a rascal as Fela to demand perfection in music?
Being a very controversial personality, the film gives you all the information to draw your own conclusions and judgement. Here is a man who had everything that could make him a Bob Marley but he chose to be a Fela. He wanted his music to be the way he wanted it rather than something that would sell. For example, he could have chosen to sing in proper English as he was British trained but chose instead to sing in pidgin English – the lingua franca in west Africa. The songs were extremely long sometimes up to 45 minutes making it difficult for radio stations to decide which three minutes of the songs to play. Ironically, despite all of these, his music continue to be a cross-cultural international phenomena, especially judging from the audience in the hall. The film is heavily entertaining judging by the number of times the audience went into wild laughter and giggle.
The amazing discovery is that there is a musical dynasty following Fela. His son, Femi, is doing very well musically. His grandson, who was on stage for the post film Questions and Answers session, talked about his impending musical career as he is about to start a course at Trinity College where his grandfather started. He is definitely one to watch! The audience got the impression that political and activism music will remain alive with the young generation. As it turned out, his name FELA has been transcribed to mean For Ever Live Afrobeats!