By Tochukwu Ezukanma
It seemed inconceivable that the President of France will visit the citadel of Afro Beat iconoclasm and activism, the New Afrikan Shrine. After all, the Shrine is a tin-pan, a boisterous, corybantic spot, frequented by bohemians and oddballs. What then was the president of one of the most important countries of the world seeking at the Shrine? Evidently, there is more to the Shrine that readily meets the eyes. Beneath the façade of clamorous licentiousness and hedonism that the Shrine connotes, it represents something more profound.
It is the bastion of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s legacy. President Macron revealed that he visited the Shrine because, in an earlier visit, its verve and energy struck a memorable chord in his then youthful mind. And that the Shrine is a “symbol and hub of African culture”. It is “an iconic place for a lot of African people and African culture”. Just as the Shrine embodies more than is readily obvious, Fela represented more than was plainly evident. He was more than just a dissolute, marijuana-smoking, eccentric consort of twenty eight wives. He was a trailblazing musician: a versatile, multi-talented maestro, yet unsurpassed in Africa. With the exceeding excellence of his music and the stunning splendor of his stage work, he took music and entertainment in Nigeria to new heights. He was also a brilliant, well-read social crusader. He had the learning and versatility of a professor, oratorical flourishes of a preacher, and the deep insight of a philosopher.
Macron’s visit to the New African Shrine was poignant and instructive. The visit was an emotional high-point for many Fela fans. They were thrilled by the recognition and reverence Macron’s visit bestowed on the phenomenon, Fela: his life, works and legacy. The visit also taught us that truly great men are neither stuck-up nor puffed-up. And, as such, the snobbery of the Nigerian political elite and the distance they deliberately maintain between themselves and the masses are the stuff for petty minds and panjandrums. Nigerians were pleasantly surprised by the humility and accessibility of the French president. In shirt sleeves, he mingled with people; talking to ordinary Nigerians and shaking hands with them.
It would have been unimaginable for the president of Nigeria to freely socialize with ordinary Nigerians as the French president did. Unlike the Nigerian president, he was not shielded from the people by a phalanx of security men. The Nigerian political elite are so conceited, and scornful of the people they supposedly serve. Therefore, they insist on copious buffers, between them and the masses, maintained by hard-eyed, stoned-faced and vicious-looking security men brandishing automatic rifles, and ready to punch and kick to pulp any one that breached security protocol. Nigerian presidents, governors, and legislators behave as though they represent an occupying power, and are therefore not only afraid of the citizens of the occupied country but also need to intimidate and repress them.
Fela’s global acclaim was inescapable because he possessed that very rare quality among Nigerians, courage. To Winston Churchill, “courage is the most important of all human qualities because it is the human quality that guarantees all others”. Fela’s courage, for the most part, defined his life. It endeared him to many in Nigeria, Africa and beyond but also brought him the cudgel of different Nigerian governments. His persecution by different Nigerian governments culminated to the burning of his house and the killing of his mother by soldiers, and a judicial burlesque that sentenced him to four years imprisonment. Still, he did not flinch; he remained resolute in his stance against social injustice and the excesses of power. Many years after his death, his message remains uncannily, some say prophetically, relevant to the Nigerian reality.
The father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, once wrote that, “history is nothing but noise, noise of arms and noise of advancing ideas”. Fela’s noise was that of advancing ideas. He advanced the ideals of freedom, social justice and good governance with the power of music. His musical genre, Afro Beat, was a fusion of traditional Nigerian percussions, well-defined lead guitar of Highlife music and pronounced base-line of Rhythm and Blues, interlaced with delicately beautiful arrangement of horns (saxophone, trumpet and trombone) and exquisite piano play of Afro-American Jazz.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nigerian popular music was under the powerful influence of Western, especially, American music. Then, Nigerian musicians copied the music and vocals of James Brown, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, etc. Unlike the velvety singing of Highlife, and feigned American accent vocals of Nigerian Pop musicians, the vocalism of Afro Beat was loud and coarse. In its further deviation from orthodoxy, the lyrics of Afro Beat did not praise and ingratiate the rich and mouth romantic platitudes. It was fashioned as a tool for mass enlightenment, crusading against social injustices and denouncing abuse of power. With his poignant and defiant lyrics, Fela brayed against social injustice, official corruption, mass poverty, police brutality, gutlessness of Nigerians, etc. His music captured the hearts and minds of the Nigerian masses because it expressed their moods and sentiments, and hopes and aspirations.
Lamentably, in spite of the exorbitant price Fela paid for his crusading fervor, the same evils he fought with his music continue to define the Nigerian society. Does that mean that labored in vain? No, because it is from such “acts of courage and convictions that human history is shaped”. For example, Theodore Herzl’s campaign for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was dismissed by many as the prattling of a starry-eyed idealist. But then, it sowed the seed of modern Zionism, a seed that sprouted, and, many years later, bloomed to the creation of Israel in Palestine. And driven by his revulsion for slavery, Jim Brown set out, on his own, to overthrow the institution of slavery in the American South. He was captured and lynched by a White mob. But the ripple effects of his failed assault on slavery later ramified, and through its many branches advanced racial equality and justice.
More than twenty years after Fela’s death, his music continues to resonate because of the matchless splendor of its melody, and the incontrovertible pertinence of its message. Its message remains a source of inspiration to the Nigerian masses in the continued struggle for social justice, public accountability and elevated standards of political morality.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria
0803 529 2908