In this article, the comrades of the Nigerian Marxist journal, Workers' Alternative, examine the revolutionary essence of the music and songs of the late Afro-beat master, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, who died on August 2, 1997. The article was originally written on the first anniversary of his death. This artist, little known outside Africa was extremely popular among African workers and youth for the radical and revolutionary content of his lyrics. You can contact the editorial board of the Workers' Alternative at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fela's musical life spanned through a period of almost four decades, from the 1960s through to the 1990s. When he first started in the 1960s, his brand of music was the 'Highlife', which he performed with other artists in many night-clubs in Lagos.
However, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, he went to the United States where he came in contact with the Black Panthers and the ideas of Malcolm X and co. By the time he came back his musical orientation had started to have a Pan-Africanist content.
In the same vein, the previous political activities of his parents had definitely had an effect in shaping his political outlook later in life. His father, the late Rev. Ransome-Kuti, was the acknowledged first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, while his mother was a renowned women's rights activist, who once led the protest of Egba women against excessive taxation by the British Colonialists.
In line with his Pan-Africanist identity, he later changed his surname, Ransome-Kuti, a hybrid of a slave name and an African name to Anikulapo-Kuti, which is completely African. "Anikulapo" literally means "he that has pocketed death".
His political outlook soon developed a plebeian audience for his music. He later adopted broken English (pidgin) as the language of his lyrics. Pidgin is the lingua franca of most of the working masses and plebeian youth in Nigeria. Hence, the pidgin lyrics made his communication and criticism of the "powers-that-be" very clear to his plebeian audience.
Initially he sang songs that were generally not political, in his native Yoruba tongue and in English (albums like "water e no get enemy" and "A Lu Jon Jon ki Jon". But he soon started to sing anti-establishment songs, which very quickly brought him in collision with both imperialism and their local agents in power at home.
He soon became an avowed enemy of the ruling military Junta of General Obasanjo [over 20 years ago when he was military dictator] and their collaborators like MKO Abiola. Notwithstanding threats and intimidation, he continued his criticisms of the military dictatorship and its imperialist friends - such as the owners of multinationals companies like Shell, ITT, Mobil, etc.
The ruthless invasion, in 1977, of his 'plebeian-cultured' "Kalakuta republic" in Ojuelegba, Lagos, by 'unknown soldiers', who maimed and raped its inhabitants, and looted and burnt the place down is an indication of how much hatred the Junta had for Fela, and how much they saw him as a threat.
The album "Unknown Soldier" released later, enunciated in a clearly emotional-laden narration what took place during that brutal invasion of his estate by obvious agents of the Obasanjo led Junta. A government 'Judicial' panel of enquiry later declared the invaders as "unknown soldiers", confiscated his estate (Kalakuta), arrested the occupants (including Fela) and drove away over 2000 citizens living in the vicinity of Kalakuta.
To think that the bitter experience of the Kalakuta republic would cow Fela into submission was a big mistake. He soon continued his criticism of the military order. The album "Zombie" was an attempt to explain the 'command nature' of the military. It was a message to the low-ranking military men to think about the dogmatic Zombie-like order of "obeying before complaining". But more importantly it was to emphasise the fact that such a philosophy was being introduced into civil society by the then ruling Junta. And he wanted to stress that unlike the military low ranking soldiers, the civil society, including himself, would definitely complain without obeying.
Similarly, he did not stop his exposure of the looting that was going on between the military 'rulers' and their collaborators in the civilian wing of the Nigerian ruling class. An example of such is the narration in the album 'ITT' (translated as International Thief Thief) an otherwise acronym for the multinational International Telegraph and Telecommunications. In this particular masterpiece of an album, Fela was able to bring out clearly, how millions of dollars (in the form of exaggerated contract fees) were being siphoned out of Nigeria by the ITT. Under the local chairmanship of MKO Abiola, with the active connivance of the Obasanjo and Yar'aduas of this world. The album ITT remains a song that will continue to have a clear revolutionary class approach to the past and present day Nigerian political and economic crisis.
Furthermore, the album "Army Arrangement" released in 1985 revealed the mismanagement of the economy by the past regimes in Nigeria, both military and civilian governments alike. It exposed their methods of thievery, among others. It similarly showed that nothing good could come out of the then civilian rule, which he claimed correctly was to come about with the participation of the "same old politicians (in the UPN, NPN, PRP&GNPP) who ruled (ruined) and spoiled Nigeria before." The album was a revelation of the inherent class links between the military Generals and the civilian wing (so called 'political class') of the ruling capitalist class.
"Suffer Head" must go
"Suffer Head" is another masterpiece of the 1980s. Released at a time when the living conditions of the poor masses were getting worse. He was able to put across graphically, the terrible living conditions of the working masses. Describing, among others, how "ten people sleep inside one small room" in the slums; how the transportation system was so bad that "my people are packed inside buses like sardines"; how water, food and light (electricity) were both lacking or grossly inadequate. He then linked these to the cynical nomenclature of underdeveloped nations.
He furthered criticised the essence of the United Nations' cynical programmes of "food-house-health etc., for all by the year 2000". He tagged them programme of deceit. In conclusion, Fela made a revolutionary appeal that "suffer head must go! And J'eba head must come" (eba is a popular meal in Nigeria).
Albums like "Overtake Don Overtake Overtake" (ODOO) and "Big Blind Country" (BBC) were attempts to expose how the various military take-overs in Africa were fundamentally the same in their methods of dictatorship. However, in ODOO he was able to expose the international collaboration and treachery involved in the killings of the young radical military leader of Burkina Faso, Captain Thomas Sankara. Fela's conclusions were, however, not clear on what should have been the true revolutionary alternative to the existing military dictatorships in Africa.
In "Perambulator", also of the early 1980s, he explained among others, how the situation never changes - "we go dey perambulate am for the same place, same, same place", he said. But more importantly, he was able to see through the life of a typical worker, for example the civil service worker. Where he said, "after acquiring his 'colonial form' of education, he started work, was in service for 35 years. After which he remain without property (at best he owns one old bicycle) and "if he no tire, dem go tire am, dem go dash am one gold wrist watch, 35 years of service all im property one old bicycle".
Among other revolutionarily intoxicating masterpieces of Fela is his "Authority Stealing" where he elaborated the methodology of stealing among the ruling elite. Equally worth mentioning is the grand success of the album "Beast of No Nation". He made a masterpiece of this work, by revealing clearly the hypocritical nature of the United Nations and "how disunited is the United Nation" and attacked the silly talk about 'dashing' the poor masses abstract 'Human Rights'. He concluded correctly, that "human rights na my property-animal cannot dash me human rights".
"Lady" is a controversial album released in the mid 1970s. Here Fela criticised the orientation and appellation "Lady" of a new generation of women. He campaigned for the retaining of the past 'virtues' of African women, including the complete subordination to the male-folk, among others, and against the bleaching of the dark skin by Africa ladies.
Fela maintained that bleaching reflects a colonial mentality, however he reveals his inadequacies in not understanding the double exploitation of female members of the working populace, that is both gender discrimination (complete subordination to the male-folk) and class exploitation. It is not progressive on Fela's part, to say that the female folk should not rival their male counterparts.
Furthermore, despite his general views on society, some of which showed a deep understanding, he couldn't proffer a solution to the crisis facing society in general, nor could he see the need to organise the working masses in struggle, nor how to end oppression. This was why he took refuge in mysticism, as he believed that only the intervention of the gods could bring about change.
Generally speaking, Fela is a legend in his own right, his sometimes-extreme pan-Africanism notwithstanding. For example, his correct criticism of the deceit embodied in the foreign religions like Christianity and Islam, in some of his albums, does not automatically make him a scientific Materialist-Atheist. But on the contrary he shed the "White deceits" for another confusion - African religion, where he proclaimed himself the Chief Priest at his African Shrine and he normally worshipped past Pan-Africanists like Kwame Nkrumah and his late mother.
Another confusion in Fela's thinking were his extreme Pan-Africanist views on Orthodox medicine. For example, in 'Perambulator' he was very critical of taking Orthodox (white men's) medicine, e.g. in the cure of Jedi-Jedi (piles); he instead advocated traditional (herbal) options.
While he was right to have made a case for Traditional Medicine, it was unscientific of him to have called for the complete abandonment of Orthodox Medicine, simply because, according to him, it was not African. Right up to his death he never believed that AIDS was real, he always said that it was the disease of the "White man".
But the Struggle continues
However, in spite of Fela's limitations in not seeing beyond the continental barriers [of Africa] in the struggle for a better society, he made his mark. It is the task of the conscious workers and youth to understand both the progressive aspects of Fela's works and his limitations. The aim of the present day struggle is that of overthrowing capitalism throughout Africa and internationally, and to replace it with Socialism, where the resources of humanity will be equitably managed and distributed.
The multitude of the working masses, particularly the youth, that turned up at the burial ceremony of Fela is a clear expression of his wide appeal. Fela was not seen as the champion of one ethnic section of the country against the other, but rather as the mouthpiece of all the oppressed masses. Adieu Fela, the Struggle continues!