Fela! Here Comes the Black President

[21 September 2008]

By Derek Beres

It was a beautiful moment, one of those times when irony and timing and synchronicity all come together in the blink of an eye, and your only recourse is to shake your head and laugh. Thing is, director/choreographer Bill T. Jones and co-writer Jim Lewis started the script for Fela! in 2002, writing and editing it down over a period of six years, before its eventual launch at New York City’s 37 Arts. There’s no way they could have guessed, at the outset, how perfect and prescient the scene where Fela Kuti—played by the irrefutably gifted actor, Sahr Ngaujah—sits in front of the crowd and announces himself as the “Black President” was going to be. And yet so it was.

It’s the title Fela self-anointed himself with from his compound in Lagos, Nigeria, during the tumultuous political environment in the 1970s and ‘80s. He even made an attempt at putting himself on the national ballot, although removed by the powers-that-were. That was no surprise. Known worldwide as the man who invented Afrobeat, his life is well-documented: as an outspoken rebel who walked his talk, appearing in court over 200(!) times; as the man who married 27 women in one ceremony and, although not mentioned in the play, later divorced them all, apparently because marriage was “too confining”; as one of the most respected musicians of the 20th century, hands down.

In their incredible play, Jones and Lewis take one particular scene from the Fela archives and wrap his biography around it: the 1977 burning and near-massacre of his Kalakuta Compound by 1,000 armed guards, an incident which, among other things, resulted in the death of Fela’s politically driven mother, Funmilayo. Even after all this—his mother being thrown out of a second-floor window, the burning of his republic, the torture of his friends, queens (the name of his wives, who were also his dancers), and musicians—Fela continued undeterred for another two decades, before his death in 1997.

It’s hard to overstate this man’s musical importance, and this theatrical piece did a fine job at summating what was a tumultuous, brilliant life. Backed by members of Antibalas, the Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band, with Ngaujah handling lead vocals, Fela! is part musical, part concert, part dance performance, part dramatic perfection. It is a rare stage feat, to pull off so many things so well, and if the powers-that-now-be in the theater world have any sense, Broadway will be imminent. Of course, we’re talking about a “creative” platform whose big achievement of late is producing a stage version of The Little Mermaid. A hard social and political gaze into the life of Fela Kuti might be a bit of a stretch for that crowd. And yet, this was also a year that saw the incredible, groundbreaking Passing Strange hit Broadway, so all hope is not lost.

And yet it makes sense that an intimate, out-of-the-way space would make the perfect home for Fela—it is where he would be most comfortable. Once touted as the “next” Bob Marley (his political and social, as well as musical importance rivaled his Jamaican brethren’s), there were a few factors that stopped him from reaching worldwide fame. He refused to play any song that he recorded in a studio in concert, making it impossible for fans to hear the “hits”. He felt that once a song was captured in a studio, its life was robbed, and thus of no use to the stage, which was a ritual act and not an entertainment medium. His shortest songs were eight minutes, and many stretched to a half-hour, making radio play impossible. While Marley was equally rebellious, the man did conform to the demands of the recording industry to spread his message. Fela would do no such thing—any form of conformity was a futile and counterproductive act in the creation of his sacred art.

Ngaujah brings out the man’s humanity to a level impossible to explain in biographies and to hear on albums. The play revolves around his relationship with his mother, using the song “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am” as a pole for the characters to dance around. In the quieter moments, when the lights dim and the music fades, Ngaujah is left to ponder: Why? Why would a governing body that is supposed to protect its people murder them? Why would those same people sell out their land to corporations to make a killing (literally) on diamonds and oil? Why do they only add to the suffering of the world, when every opportunity to help it cease exists? Why are our armies against us? This last one is choreographed brilliantly to “Zombie”, with the dancers taking a robotic, monotonous and momentous stab at the drills of uniformed zombies.

From Fela! (Photo by Monique Carboni)

From Fela! (Photo by Monique Carboni)

These questions are not existential impossibilities. They are very real, very human explorations. Our greatest artists do not focus on the cosmos as much as on humankind’s emotional and psychological states. This is why art is timeless, because we still wrestle with these very questions, over and again, one generation after the next. Great art inspires you to make the choices you need to make, and not give up your responsibilities because it is easier to allow someone else to make decisions for you. This could apply to the companies you work for and buy from as much as the government—which is what makes the Black President so timely.

We in the US do not have the problems that Nigeria did 30 years ago. We have our own. Yet we can apply the same questions to our situation. Why are we in danger of electing a president whose major objective is to vote another pro-life judge into the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade? Why are we considering a vice president who wants creationism to be taught “alongside” evolution, as if there were even a debate in the first place? Why are we even contemplating a political group that, instead of things like foreign relations, wars, and our economy, instead chooses to focus on abortion and creationism? Is it because as a culture we’ve lost so much of the drive to live—bombarded by what we own and how much of it we can keep—that we transfer our sadness and aggression onto people and situations beyond our control?

It is a matter of control, and if I’m making a correct assumption about Fela Kuti, he would have said: control yourself. We’re talking about a musical genre created out of the ghetto, not three-family homes. It’s easy to make decisions for other people, when those decisions happen to coincide with what you’ve decided for yourself. The hard thing is learning compassion, as well as considering the idea that you may not be right, and that other people have the right to choose how they need to live. For those of us in America, we live in a wonderful country that is in danger of losing one of its fundamental rights—choice—and preparing to send our children back into the dark ages before science—as philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has written, “only about a quarter of the population of the United States understands that evolution is about as well established as the fact that water is H2O”—because a minority of that population has gained political power and is determined to tell the world how to live. This is not control; it’s a complete lack of it, and a shameful one at that.

Yet knowing Fela, I’m not sure he would be so quick to check the ballot for America’s Black President. Politics, like religion, is a matter of behavior, not belief. What you believe—what you say you’re “going” to do—is not relevant. What you do is. The change that we can believe in will only be meaningful if there is actual change, and not more of the same with different names. To give all your faith to anyone else is to admit a lack of faith in yourself. When the Yoruba ceremony near the end of Fela! shows his long-standing relationship with the orishas, we are reminded that men like this were more in contact with nature than the inside of white houses, where the air conditioning allows us to forget that outside people are suffering from the heat.

After this whirlwind two-and-a-half hours, where the politics of 1977 Nigeria and 2008 America are passionately married, I stood for the encore, which consisted of Antibalas ripping into their Afrogrooves and Bill T. Jones dancing on stage with the cast. I pulled out my iPhone to snap a photo of this most joyous moment, and suddenly I felt a tug at my backpack. It was a security guard telling me that cameras were not allowed.

I had to laugh. We’d just watched the story of a man’s life—which involved police officers sticking glass bottles up one of his wife’s vagina and murdering his mother, while planting a joint at his feet and sentencing him to 15 years in prison—and I was being hassled for taking a cell phone picture with a 72 dpi resolution. I had to laugh because that most pressing of questions was waiting right there in front of my eyes, as it always is: Why do we take art as something presented on stage for entertainment, forgetting that its real value occurs when it’s applied to our actual lives? When do we realize that the control of our lives begins and ends with the control we take for ourselves?

The only change we can believe in is that which we create ourselves.

Beres' iPhone photo of the Fela! encore

Beres’ iPhone photo of the Fela! encore

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/here-comes-the-black-president/