Celebrating the Life and Times of Fela

L-R Sefi Atta, Professor Akin Oyebode, Mrs Yemisi Ransome Kuti, Chimamanda Adichie, Bobi Wine and Akala during the 11th edition of Fela Debates held in Lagos. All photos in this story by Ayodele Efunla

Friends, family and admirers pay tributes to Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti at a symposium in Lagos


Afrobeat legend, FelaAnikulapo Kuti easily elicits awe and admiration. Not only was he an iconoclast and a bohemian who spoke truth to power via his evergreen music and unapologetically non-conformist lifestyle, he lived and saw ahead of his time. And he jumped through the hoop many times for the Nigerian masses as he was constantly hounded, brutalized, detained and jailed by successive military regimes because of his activism and satirical, politically conscious hit songs such as Zombie, Unknown Soldier, Beast of no Nation, Water No Get Enemy.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti

However, 21 years after his demise, Fela,  popularly known as Abami Eda, meaning the weird one, has lived up to his name, Anikulapo, which in Yoruba mean one who holds death in his pouch. Indeed,  not only has he cheated death, he has earned immortality through his courage of conviction, the audacity of commitment, the continuing relevance of his music, his humanity as well as his altruism and genius.

Still, he hasn’t done that alone. His numerous fans and admirers across the globe continue to appreciate his good works and honour him. It is in this vein that Fela’s eldest daughter, Yeni Kuti and her brother,Femi the Afrobeat musician, initiated Felabration, a festival of the arts and music, to celebrate his sheer genius, legacies and invaluable contribution to music and the Nigerian political space.

Chimamanda Adichie while speaking at the 2019 edition of Fela Debates

Felabration, now in its 12th year and organized every October, is a week-long string of events including a symposium, art competitions, photo exhibitions, schools debate, Afrobics dance competition and live musical performances in Lagos. The festival has attracted top-rated musicians from across the globe such as Hugh Masekela, Lucky Dube, Awilo Longomba, Baabal Maal, Les Nubians, Newen Afrobeat, Sauti Sol,  Sunny Ade, Lagbaja, Asa, 2Baba, Wizkid and Davido.

Mrs Yemisi Ransome Kuti an Chimamanda during a conversation at the 11th edition of Fela debates held in Lagos, earlier today

However, this year’ Felabration, with the theme From Lagos With love,held between 14 and 20 October 2019.  Itwas kick-started by a symposium tagged Teacher Don’t teach Me Nonsense – a topic taken from one of Fela’s hit music. Speakers at the event included Sefi Atta. award winning writer;Professor Akin Oyebode, a distinguished academic and legal luminary; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, multiple award -winning writer, feminist and public intellectual; Ssentamu,Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, Ugandan musician-turned politician and activist; and Kingslee James McLeanDaley, aka Akala, British rapper,journalist, author, activist an poet.

Dr Kingsley Moghalu, Professor Wole Soyinka and Chimamanda Adichie at the 2019 edition of Fela Debates

Atta, herself an Afrobeat fan who moderated the event, set the ball rolling by describing Fela as the greatest Nigerian musician. She also spoke about the roles his family played in contributing to his greatness, saying it was difficult to contextualize Fela’s contribution without referring to theirs. “He is an exceptional man but his legacy is part of the family’s continuum which should begin and end with you. It is also important to recognize as we celebrate him that you loved him, supported him, cried for and with him,” she said.

Atta, who also said she was there to talk about Fela as an artiste, posited that part of Fela’s legacy was that he created Afrobeat, “which is more than just a fusion of music.” According to her, Afrobeat, is  a counter culture  and Afrocentric in its approach. “It is also a merging of processes, a way of dancing, of dressing, speaking and communicating, a way of engaging with the public and ancestor and creator… It shuns commercialization when necessary to protect its integrity,” adding that Afrobeat was futuristic before Afro fusionism  came into being, was transformative before transformative politics became part of regular discourse. “Fela was the changed he desired,” she averred.

Bobi Wine from Uganda

Though the award-winning author said there was a lot to learn from listening to Fela’s music, which explains why many artistes claim he influenced them, she bemoaned the fact that those artistes make huge gains from Fela’s music without adhering to his activism, non-conformism and message. “It’s very easy to say Fela influenced you but it is damn nearly impossible to walk in his shoes. This is an artiste who remained highly productive in the face of relentless persecution. An artiste who said his music was secondary, that his message was more important than his music, that he infact used music to spread his message,” she explained.

Sefi Atta

Atta also distinguished between Fela’s Afrobeat, which is more authentic, and Afrobeats, the music contemporary Nigerian artistes play. “Now that it is now separated by a mere letter we should not forget in adding the s because some of us can tell the difference between genuine and affected consciousness, between social media warrior and grassroots artiste, between music that was rehearsed with the band for months and beat that was created on computer in an hour. Fela’s music was made to engage the masses and stimulate their thinking, not to dull their minds or numb them to the state of escapism. That was why he had a cult following and was not in the mainstream.” she submitted.

Akala from the United Kingdom while speaking at the Fela Debates 2019

She then had a word of caution for contemporary artistes and music producers who copy Fela’s music and message at his expense. She made two appeals:first, that they should be careful how they handle his music; and second, those in charge of his intellectual property should not only protect his copyright but also his message. “They borrow his compositions, titles and lyrics. They mail check him at every opportunity, which is fine so long as they keep his message straight. … But when you in the same song sympathize with the masses and glamourize designer clothes and luxury cars and claim Fela influenced your song, you are confusing his message, regardless of your intentions… You are teachers who are teaching a whole lot of nonsense,” she maintained.

Bobi Wine from Uganda addressing the audience at the 11th edition of Fela Debates held in Lagos

Oyebode, on his part, was also full of praise for the Afrobeat legend, who he said was an iconoclast who did not revere traditions. He also said when Fela came to the University of Lagos  30 years ago, he made a statement that teachers should not teach others nonsense. “The record was not out then. I was in the same panel with him. And he said, ‘What you’ve been teaching in the universities have not helped in the liberation of Nigeria,’” Oyebode said.

Professor Akin Oyebode

Oyebode also said he was not surprised when French President Emanuel Macron decided to revisit the shrine to celebrate the greatest African musician, who was like a scorpion in the consciousness of the Nigerian elite, adding that Fela was an avatar, a phenomenon that no one could crush. ”Fela changed the colonial name of Ransome to Anikulapo to symbolize his commitment to the disruption of the Nigerian psyche. And the other thing that Fela did which to me is very remarkable is that he set for himself the task of decolonizing the Nigerian mind. And the decolonization of the Nigerian mind is very critical in terms of shaping our perception and self- realization – who we are and where we are coming from, what we are doing on earth and how we are going to be remembered after we are gone,” he averred.

The distinguished academic expressed his conviction about Fela’s immortality.  “Fela’s music can never die. People remember Fela everywhere in the world … So I am not surprised at this meeting, very cosmopolitan as I can see, to reflect on the life and times of the great Abami Eda. The Fela’s heritage as I have said have survived more than 20 years and will continue to survive, just as we remember Beethoven today, we  remember Bach and all the great classicists. Fela’s music is indelible, it’s indestructible, just like he even said in his life time that no one can destroy him because he was an avatar,” he said.

Kyagulanyi, on his part, could not hide his feelings about Nigeria. The Ugandan-born musician and activist, who said his heart and soul has always been with Nigeria was visibly excited about being in a country that has shaped his life. “My thoughts, beliefs and indeed confidence have in a great way been shaped by what I learnt from Nigeria. I grew up reading books from the great Chinua Achebe, the great Elechi Amadi and most importantly from Professor Wole Soyinka.  My generation in Uganda and indeed East Arica has been shaped by the confidence and vibes that we get from Nigeria. This said, ladies and gentlemen, I could not be prouder for the reason that brings me to Nigeria,” he enthused.

Kyagulanyi also asserted that Fela influenced him personally. “We are celebrating a man that gave up on personal aggrandizement. We are celebrating a man who we know did not use his music to sing only about parties, to sing about the good things that are happening but to criticize those who held power on our behalf,” he said.

Kyagulanyi does not just speak truth to power in Ugandan, like Fela he walks the talk. He alsos poke about how the Afrobeat musician inspired his activism. “As I speak now, there have been so many benefits to me and those that think like me, having emulated Fela. As we speak today my music is banned in my country. My concerts are abolished in my country and my public appearances are abolished in my country. I cannot meet and address people like I am doing here because I am an artiste that is using music to communicate to the people,” he noted.

Daley spoke elusively about the politics of exclusion which defines life in the United Kingdom where he grew up and still lives. According to him, the English society is so stratified in a way that everybody has to keep to their lanes depending on where they are in the social ladder. As a result of that education in the United Kingdom is so skewed and exclusive in such a way to suit the whites that immigrants were only taught about the civilizing mission of the imperial power, not about the history and rich cultural heritage of colonies. “Like in most societies the British education system from its inception was not designed for all. It was an educational system by the wealthy, of the wealthy and for the wealthy,” Daley, who said he was taught a lot of nonsense while growing up, explained.

The highpoint of the day was the one-on- one conversation between Adichie and Yemisi Ransome Kuti, head of the Kuti’s family. Yemisi said she was “really delighted to be asked to interview Adichie”, and considered it as passing the baton to the next generation. Adichie, who, on her part, wowed the audience with her brilliance, intelligence, wit and self-confidence, also said she considered it an honour not just to be in Felabration but to meet Yemisi.“It really is an honour for me because there is nothing for me more meaningful than to share space with accomplished women, women who despite what they have done in the world have grace and positivity. … I remember thinking that knowing that women like this exist is the reason that I can keep moving on,” she said.

Asked what her views on Fela, his person, life, work and music were, Adichie, who said she had an encounter with the music of the Afrobeat legend for the first time when, while growing up in Nsukka,  her brother Chuks, was “blasting” Zombie at home one Saturday morning, said: “ I came to Know most of his songs because of my brother Chuks. Fela came to represent for me a kind of unapologetic courage and a kind of authenticity. And even then as a child I knew that this was rare in Nigeria. And knowing I think his, what we might call, pedigree that he chose to live the lie he wanted to live, I thought deeply inspirational.”

However, Adichie used that opportunity to talk about her passions, her writing, feminism,  governance in Nigeria , the need for a rejig of the nation’s education curriculum and for Nigerians not just to have a sense of history but also to be self confident. She also spoke about the bad roads in Lagos, the flood and bemoaned the fact that leaders are selected rather than elected in Lagos. “I think of myself as a writer and a story teller. That’s the thing I really do. I think that’s the reason I am living. I really need to believe that. And it’s a thing that gives my life meaning, it is something I want to be doing until I no longer can. If I can’t write I don’t want to live.  But one thing my writing has done is that it has given me a platform. And I am also a person who has always been interested in politics in a way that our minds are organized and governed. And my writing gives me this platform to talk about what I care about.  And so I decided to talk about what I care about. I didn’t set out to become an activist or anything but I did hope to change one mind… If I can change one mind that for me is success,” she stated.

The audience at the Fela Debates 2019 held in NECA House, Lagos

Asked what her views on the debate on assimilation and integration were and her advice to Nigerians facing this circumstance abroad, Adichie, who opined she lives partly in Nigeria and partly in the United States, said:  “There is always a parallel relationship, living especially for us Africans, because still in the global imagination, we don’t really matter. I think that is a reality. And it is up to us to make that change. Because if you look at the foreign policies of western nations, by their actions you can tell they don’t think we will matter. They think China will matter. They think India will matter, not really us. And I think that also affects the way that we are treated as a people. The burden is on us to somehow create a certain kind of psychological barrier to this. And I think it comes from developing self-confidence. It is the most we can do. It is the least we can do. And this sell-confidence comes from knowing where you are from and who you are;which is why I feel very strongly in this countrywe need to know our history.”

The multiple award-winning writer and feminist criticized the nation’s education curriculum. “The curriculum that people are being taught is complete nonsense. We need to change the curriculum. We teach them civics in a way that they have a sense of self. They know that their past is not some dark thing. They should know that, despite the flaws – every nation has laws. Every nation has greatness,” she said.

She also bared her mind on what she thinks feminism is about. According to her feminism is not about women confronting, hating or destroying men but rather about the need for society to create equal opportunities for men and women. “I think my feminism is not so much one that is interested in thinking about how women can influence men. I think I am interested in how women can become the best they can possibly be. Yes we need to know the roles they play.  My vision is one in which women have choices, that women can choose not to be domestic people. My vision is a world where women can choose to be mothers or not and not have consequences, where women can choose to be married or not married and also not have somebody questioning you or attributing your marital status to some kind of moral deficiency. You know in our society when marriages go bad it is always the woman’s fault,” she averred.

The symposium ended on a high note with a question and answer session and presentation of the deserving winners in an art competition to the audience. The distinguished guests present at the event included Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka, Professor Kingsley Moghalu, Mr Kunle Ajibade, Lanre Arogundade, Gboyega Ransome Kuti, Professor Femi Osofisan and MrFemi Falana, SAN., Yeni Kuti,  Femi Kuti and Nike Ransome Kuti.