By Sylvester Asoya
I met Professor Tejumola Olaniyan a couple of times just before his exciting work: Arrest the Music: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics was released.
The amiable scholar who teaches African Cultural Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told me some interesting stories about Fela during the course of our conversation. The most fascinating for me, is the growing popularity of the Afrobeat king at leading centres of learning in the United States and other parts of the free world. According to him, Fela is currently a subject of great interrogation and extensive study, especially on issues of popular culture and mass mobilization.
Olaniyan also revealed the origin of his bizarre title, “Arrest the Music!”. “Arrest the Music!” was actually a military order by an unlettered soldier on sighting Fela on the performing arena during one of those government sponsored raids on Kalakuta, Fela’s former residence around Ojuelegba area of Lagos in 1977.
But Fela was indeed, the music! On this score, I think the untutored soldier voiced unusual philosophy. And to borrow a common cliché, flesh and blood did not reveal that truth to the soldier. In spite of Fela’s countless arrests, detention, torture and death, “the music” continues, unimpeded till this moment. Students, artisans, professionals, men and women, diplomats, bureaucrats, and even those in power who despise Fela in public, enjoy his music and bravado. For people of my generation and even those before us, Fela was that music. And at different times, young people craved for the essential Fela and defied all odds, travelling hundreds of kilometres and crossing many rivers and lakes, just to behold him!
I am not sure there is any Nigerian, living or dead who has inspired as many insightful and scholarly biographical writings as Fela. This, no doubt, is a fitting tribute to the musician’s extraordinary life that still resonates. Apart from Olaniyan’s inspirational homage, there are other commendable efforts by researchers like Carlos Moor’s Fela: This Bitch of a Life; Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon by Michael Veal and Sola Olorunyomi’s Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent, among others.
I singled out “Arrest the Music: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics” because of my encounter with the author. I also consider Olaniyan’s work as one of the most profound. As a matter of fact, he brings Fela up-close to his readers in a special way. Besides, his writing also gives a sense of familiarity to those who may not have met the music maestro. Though the author battles some intrusive influences like his love and admiration for his subject, it will be unkind not to give him the credit he deserves. Despite the emotional connection, Olaniyan still manages to give a panoramic view of Fela the artist, the rebel and the humanist. The author also reveals Fela’s realities, his instruments and aspects of his distinctive visual art. He did not leave out the extraordinary rainbow crowd around the artiste and even his unique photography.
Fela was weird but his strangeness was in many ways, useful to society. His elastic and matchless musical idiom has influenced a generation of young musicians, including people in other genres of creativity. The musician was also well-informed because of his elite background, education, exposure and love for research.
I remember his personal photographer, a man we amiably called Femi Photo. Photo who was a familiar face at The NEWS Magazine back in the day, told us (reporters) many unusual stories about his “exceptional” education at Kalakuta University where Fela presided as vice chancellor and content provider. Photo was in love with many pan-Africanists like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, Olaudah Equiano, Haile Selassie and others. He regularly recounted the stories of these pan-Africanists and regaled us with tales of colonialism, pan-Africanism, slave trade, military rule and decolonization from Fela’s perspective.
Fela, master of spontaneity, was certainly one of Africa’s most gifted composers and performers. He deployed his remarkable creative energies essentially to conscientize and mobilize Nigerians and people of color all over the world. He will be remembered always, not necessarily for his strange ways but for his works and incredible life. His caustic lyrics and irreverent rendition and performance, also distinguish him.
Today, people in government and other strategic institutions of common good remain unchallenged when they err because there is no Fela. Even those who hailed and cheered him yesterday for his courage and heroism are now mindless cheerleaders. The hope is that some informed Nigerians know that nothing good will come from our political class, either now or in the near future, except there is a miracle. This consciousness, I must say, hurts the ego of the average politician. It is also a major threat to the imperious ambitions of some of them.
Those who spoke in favour of purpose in government, autonomy, devolution and the unbundling of Nigeria’s fraudulent federal structure a few years ago, have now changed their minds. Structure, in their view, has nothing to do our flaws and failure to solve simple problems. They are not even bothered about our quality of leadership and the fact that Nigeria no longer command respect.
In this season of incongruities, Fela would have pointed the way. He would also have turned 81 this October.
I am sure he never expected these towering after-life tributes and honour from his family, friends and admirers. After a life that came to a close many years ago, he still captivates and confounds.
Fela was not a perfect man, he had his failings, but a great man was here. Happy posthumous birthday in advance, the wise one!