Fela Kuti: Music Is the Weapon [DVD]

Lee Henderson

Fela Kuti

Music Is the Weapon [DVD]

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2004-03-30
UK Release Date: 2004-07-14

I can't think of many musicians who've campaigned to create their own country, as Fela Kuti once did, to save his Lagos slum from Nigeria's despotic regime. Wait, didn't Jello Biafra try to separate San Francisco from America? I can't remember, but I think he tried that back in the '80s when the Dead Kennedy's had political influence, not legal problems. No wait, I'm getting things confused with how Jello Biafra got his name.

In 1967, the Igbos tribe that lived in the Biafra region of Nigeria were sick with being raped and murdered by Nigerian police and declared themselves independent of Nigeria and that started a civil war. The Igbos weren't a large tribe (or race, if one is liberal enough to stretch the imagination far enough to envision different races of Africans among the many dark-skinned people of that continent... in which case, it is very sad that the world allowed for the near extermination of a race here in Biafra). But even though there weren't many Igbos, they lived on land that had oil underneath it, and that kept their culture economically afloat (feasibly) in 1965. So the motherfucking Nigerian government (so went the sentiment of the time) took these peaceful (probably) nomadic people to war, and for the oil most pertinently. And the Igbos were far outnumbered. Biafra was not only defeated, its people were starved in the millions, they lost control of their oil mines, and the few that survived live under oppression to this day.

Okay, so we know what this has to do with Jello Biafra, but what does this have to do with a Fela Kuti DVD? Well, this civil war happened in the last three years of the '60s, often considered the height of the liberal movement in North America, the sunny days when a group of young intellectuals unfortunately accepted the clownish name "hippies", as if to ensure their lack of credibility in the near-future, when we so badly need a mainstream liberal voice of reason to balance the treasons of today's neoconservative majority. But it was these hippies who called attention to the atrocity of liberty that was occurring Nigeria, and so, for a little while, America was interested in the plight of the Igbos.

It was America's brief flirtation with kindness during the Vietnam war, the way today's upsurge of generosity towards the victims of Sudan's Darfur region is directly related to a build-up of guilt over the conditions in Iraq. It is important to balance our feelings this way, and the people of Darfur are thankful for any support, I imagine. But there is a certain kind of cynicism we should expect to see around the corner, the kind that produces scary music by people with confusing names. So, punks: Who's got first dibs on Jello Darfur?

Fela Kuti had been building a career that seemed destined to dovetail with history. His disdain for fellow African musicians losing touch with their local roots was as strong as his love for the hip-swagger and get-down groovy James Brown. Kuti didn't resist the funk. He brought it home. He created Afro-beat, and he was Afro-beat 24 hours a day. He lived Afro-beat, and he definitely smoked Afro-beat.

Afro-beat was Fela Kuti's true home, his true country. He lived there and had a passport to our world. His portal was the shanty slums of Lagos, "the most dangerous city in the world" in 1982 , according to the narrator of Music Is the Weapon. The freshly pressed DVD version of this 52-minute documentary has been released this year and the timing is perfect for a remembrance of Fela Kuti's struggle.

Our generation has its war and we have our causes, as Biafra became a cause for the hippies who felt powerless against the momentum of the war machine in Vietnam. To declare allegiance with empathy, not revenge. And interest in Nigerian culture swelled as a result, especially among those free-thinkers for whom it was very cool to get so high on THC it feels like your face has bloated up like a fish. Marijuana, hippies, free love, and political oppression are what brought America face-to-face with one of the world's most incredible musicians and polemical thinkers, not to mention a chronic dope-smoker with as many as 29 wives who played in a band he orchestrated and played sax in, and worked their special brand of African flavored funk music eight hours a night, according to this documentary, in their own club, called "The Shrine" right in the heart of the deadliest neighborhood in all of Lagos, the worst city in the entire universe in 1982.

The documentary is far more than a glimpse at Fela Kuti playing live with his wives in his club. It's a remnant, an anecdote from the story of Biafra. Without Biafra, Kuti would not have seen the courage that a small population can exert to save itself. And this message is at the heart of his music and the music became the weapon he used against political oppression. To see Kuti shouting to his audience like Lenny Bruce or Malcolm X, pleading for a strange mixture of peace and psychic violence that is intoxicating and luminous for a ghetto audience. The footage of Kuti in The Shrine are overpowering for how well the film captures the feeling of strife and fragility in the air even twelve years after the civil war. It's impossible to forget that all The Shrine's lights and fancy costumes, the magnetic, entrancing music, these are the only rays of light for the most underprivileged people in the world. He played there every night of the week for eight hours, for his people, to show them that someone cared enough to entertain and educate them. To show them, by example, the measure of their true worth.

The long, captivating scenes of Kuti sitting on a well-worn chair in his compound, smoking a fat-ass joint while his stunning hottie wives do their intricate, magical make-up, sitting on pillows all around him, listening attentively if passively while he goes off on huge, impressive, detailed, and devastating monologues about the situation in Nigeria and his own struggle within it for freedom. Freedom most of all to live his life exactly how he wants to, but also to free his people -- the impoverished millions who live around him in the same slum where Kuti lived his entire life -- to free them from. However universal his music has become, and how influential his message and life became for people in all countries, his rage and funk was always directed at the people in front of him, the poor, and those in power. His weapon wasn't aimed for some vague nation described in the A-section of the daily newspaper. His enemy was apathy and crime in his slum, his enemy was the policeman on the corner, and he sang about these things. And nothing's changed in music because nothing's changed in politics. Depending where you live, you could say things have only got worse. So to watch the hero of Nigeria shake his ass in a one-piece polyester funk-suit in 1982, only makes me hope that someone of Fela Kuti's charisma and artistic dedication will come out of all the shit we've got ourselves into again.

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