“Time Travelin’,” the opening track to Common’s brilliant new recording Like Water for Chocolate, is dedicated to the memory of late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. One of the producers of the track, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer of the hip-hop group The Roots, recently related in an interview that James Brown’s “Time is Running Out,” from his recording The Big Payback is directly associated to the influence Fela had on Brown. One of the most sampled musicians in hip-hop history, Brown was introduced to Fela in 1973. Reminiscing on that trip to Nigeria in 1973, Brown band member bassist Bootsy Collins states, “the James Brown band was number one to me. But once I got there and saw Fela and them, then I had second thoughts about it. I mean, seriously.” The fact that a new generation of black artists are both invoking and discovering the music of Fela Kuti and the Afro-Beat groove he initiated, speaks volumes about the power and timelessness of his music. MCA’s release of the double volume The Best Best of Fela Kuti (the Black President) will help to insure that his music is heard by a larger audience, an audience that Fela was tragically denied during his lifetime.
A native Nigerian, Fela settled in Los Angeles during the late 1960s, where he was introduced the work or Malcolm X (El hajj Malik El Shabazz), Elderidge Cleaver and the ideology of the Black Panther Party, by friend and partner, Sandra Isidore. Ironically, Fela eschewed the rampant essentializing within some segments of the Black nationalist movement and found his political voice instead in resistance to the repressive nature of Nigerian society. While embracing Pan-Africanism, as witnessed by the powerful impact the Back Power movement had on him, Fela was highly critical of the prevailing military rule within Nigeria. His recordings with his band Afrika 70, later renamed Egypt 80, became the vehicle in which he gained his public voice. The recordings on The Best Best of Fela Kuti (the Black President) document Fela’s very public disputes with the military leadership in Nigeria, including the late Sani Abacha, who repressive antics in Nigeria were at least on par with those of say Bull Connor or Darryl Gates (Did someone say Rudolph Guliani?). One of Fela’s first real popular critiques of Nigerian society came in the song “Water No Get Enemy,” which Fela scholar Michael Veal suggest uses water as a metaphor for the natural flow of society, a flow that the ruling patriarchy in Nigeria ostensibly denied to most of its citizenry. (Veal’s book, Fela: the Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, will be published by Temple University Press in June.)
When the Nigerian government asked Fela to participate in the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1976—Nigeria’s attempt to be at the center of the African cultural world—Fela rejected the invitation and instead held an alternative festival which featured his most popular recording to date, “Zombie.” The song assailed the government for its mind-numbing policies with lyrics like “Zombie won’t go unless you tell him to go. Zombie won’t stop unless you tell him to stop.” The song was openly embraced by Nigerian youth, particularly on the streets of Lagos, who often bore the brunt of violence by the Nigerian army, furthering the embarrassment that Fela’s initial rejection aroused. In response to the government’s raiding of his alternative festival, Fela constructed a compound, surrounded by electrified barbed wire and a concrete wall and proclaimed it the Kalakutu Republic. The Kalakutu Republic, like the adjacent Shrine nightclub, were spaces where Fela and his many fellow travelers (he married 27 women in ceremony in 1978), created both the intellectual and artistic community that supported their political agitation. The Nigerian military government viewed such a community as a threat and responded accordingly. In February of 1977, after skirmishes between some of Fela’s supporters and military police, over 1000 Nigerian soldiers raided the Kalakutu Republic. Fela’s mother, who was thrown from a second floor window, died in the attack. In typical fashion, Fela responded musically recording the moody “Sorrow, Blood and Tears,” as a tribute to those who died or where harmed in the attack on Kalakutu Republic. Like so many of his recordings, “Sorrow, Blood and Tears,” exposed the hypocrisy of Nigerian leadership as Fela sang
So a policeman slaps your face, you remain silent
A soldier whips your behind, you look like a donkey.
Rhodesia and South Africa violate human rights,
Our own (corrupt) leaders hypocritically criticize them
They bring sorrow, tears and blood—
Their regular trademark.
Mediating a dispute between Fela and his record company Decca West Africa, the Nigerian government actually confiscated the master taps of several recordings, including “Sorrow, Blood, and Tears,” deeming the recordings as treasonous. While a court order allowed Fela to reclaim his “masters” the events present a wholly different context to “The Artist’s” recent assertion at the Soul Train Awards show that “If you don’t own the masters, the Master owns you.” From Fela’s perspective, it was just an example corporations like his record company were often in collusion with the Nigerian government.
Fela examined such collusion in other relationships like that of the government and the “Church.” Fela’s emboldened political brashness found it’s voice in recordings like “Shuffering and Shmiling” which slammed both Christian and Muslim leaders for using the Nigerian people as pawns in their war of religious intolerance. In 1979, Fela formed his own political party offering himself as a candidate for Presidency of Nigeria, thus fully embracing the moniker he had earlier claimed as the “Black President.” Though continued harassment by the police and military rule inevitably doomed Fela’s desires, he became even more political on tracks like “Coffin for a Head of State.” Mocking the prayers of the religious leadership in the country, “Coffin for a Head of State,” was Fela’s symbolic response to the death of his mother at the hands of agents of the Obasanjo government. While the Nigerian government prepared for Nigerian Independence day in 1979, Fela and members of Afrika 70 held a silent protest, in which they presented Obasanjo with a “mock” coffin, as a reminder of his earlier deeds.
Given the difficulties Fela often faced in the distribution of his music, it’s not surprising that he derived a great deal of his popularity in the United States, via his highly publicized incarceration at the hands of General Buhari in 1984 and his subsequent “poster-boy” status for Amnesty International. When Fela succumbed to HIV in 1997, he was described by his son Femi Kuti as a broken man who, “spent his whole life fighting the system and nothing changed.” The hedonism that engulfed Fela’s later years was a product of the many political defeats he faced throughout his life. While his son Femi Kuti has chosen a different political path, he fully accepts his father’s musical legacy, (he led his father’s band during his many incarcerations in the 1990s) which is apparent on his own recording Shoki Shoki. Beyond the grasp of many pundits and academics, who often equate Pan-Africanism with the resurrection and reclamation of antiquated West African rituals, Fela’s music and the Pan-Africanism that first inspired it have come full circle. While Femi Kuti is featured on Common’s track “Time Travelin’” which open his Like Water for Chocolate, The Roots have remixed Kuti’s own “Blackman Know Yourself.” Post-Soul icon D’Angelo has even approached Kuti about doing a remake of “Water No Get Enemy” with Lauren Hill for a rumored What’s Going On-like recording in his near future. With the release of The Best Best of Fela Kuti (the Black President) Fela’s music has finally caught up with his heroism and with the current interest in AfroBeat, unwittingly stimulated by the intense globalization of black expressive culture, Fela’ s music and legacy will have a meaningful future.