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Sola Olorunyomi


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1I always knew that I had a date, someday to describe Fela’s Afrobeat musical innovation. However, the inclination to examine this musical and cultural practice only began earnestly during the Harmattan semester of 1982, even though, as a high school student, I had experimented with some of Fela’s compositions with our tardy band, Rimmer Kids — so named after an English principal had died in a plane crash. A couple of events led to the 1982 event, one of which was the crisis in Nigerian institutions of higher learning that year. It started when, early one morning, students of the University of Ilorin were aroused by the whiff of a choking tear-gas smoke. The police had struck, apparently anticipating a protest against the federal government over what the students in an earlier press statement had tagged “the government’s centrist position on the apartheid question.”

  • 1 . “Kalakuta Republic” is the name given to anywhere Fela lived after his 1974 detention; it is styl (...)
  • 2 . The attack was ostensibly precipitated by soldiers who claimed that a teenager who had insulted t (...)

2A ding-dong situation ensued until about noon when students attempted to break through the barricade and the police, feeling their patience had been over-stretched, fired live bullets. I counted three students spattered in blood. A stampede ensued, increasing the casualty figure. Without waiting for an official announcement of the university’s closure, students vacated their halls of residence in droves for fear of further assault by the police. I thought of where to go. “Where” for me meant anywhere in the country but only one place immediately came to mind: Fela’s ’Kalakuta Republic’1 residence at House Number 1, Atinuke Olabanji Street. His residence, usually a commune, was styled ‘Kalakuta’ after the name given by inmates to the cell in which he was detained in 1974. This was ‘Kalakuta II’ after Fela had moved from an earlier residence. His first ‘Republic’ was situated at Number 14A, Agege Motor Road in Lagos but was burnt down on February 18, 1977 by a detachment of soldiers from the Abalti Barracks, also in Lagos. This event came to be known as the ’Unknown Soldier’2 episode—after the tribunal’s ruling that the mayhem was perpetrated by unknown soldiers.

  • 3 . Fela changed the name of his performance venue from ‘Afro Spot’ to ‘Afrika Shrine’ once he began (...)

3Lucky to have escaped arrest, I arrived at the commune and met an “Ideological Education” session, where the day’s topic was the “impending revolution.” This was usually an occasional session when residents and fans—more often made up of members of the Young African Pioneers (YAP), university students, and idealists of various hues—gathered to discuss social and political issues with the hope of arriving at some kind of “what is to be done.” My report of the police raid on campus further incensed the atmosphere and some youngster clutching a copy of Che Guevera’s Bolivian diaries murmured something about the inevitability of an armed insurrection against the Nigerian state. Someone else at the far end countered that an armed struggle was simply not feasible yet, and, gesticulating rather vigorously pronounced that the revolution would come only when there was a balance between what he called “the subjective and objective conditions.” Then he led the discussion through a winding disquisition on “Foco Theory” and “the Bonapartist State,” concepts which randomly flew out from his assorted baggage of opposition registers. I began to show more interest in this group, in part for the allure of its naivete, but in the main for its visionary energy Merging the experience of this group with Fela’s performance at the Afrika Shrine3 (Fela’s nightspot), a clearer picture of a cultural event that was as liberating as it was potentially obscurantist began to emerge. I sensed the need to interact with this reality in a more contemplative fashion, and thus started the process of information gathering.

4However, a long interval in the research effort ensued as I was handed an expulsion order at the university for heeding, as the union president, a nonviolent national class boycott in response to the collapse of higher education in the country A few months later I was clutching a longhand version of my initial drafts as a harvest volunteer, while also doubling as a freelance reporter behind Sandinista lines in the Matagalpa region of Nicaragua, during the 1984-85 Contra offensive, And of all places, it was here that a Danish friend, obviously out of mischief, had referred to me as “the guy from Fela’s country” We went over the subject for a while in the coffee fields and, then, I knew the work had to go on, even if only as an affirmation of the creative will of this Afrobeat community and the continent’s other silenced subcultures.

  • 4 . This was how John Collins, the (Highlife) music scholar at the University of Ghana, Legon, descri (...)

5Much as in our adult life, Fela had always filled the average Nigerian child’s airwaves. Airwaves? Hardly so, more of an “aural wave”, for once the “musical warrior”4 drew the battle-line with the Nigerian state, he promptly got the “NTBB”—Not-To-Be-Broadcast—label slammed on his albums. By that singular act of exclusion from the legal airwaves, the state unwittingly aided the emergence of an alternative airspace that would later acknowledge Fela’s contestatory sonic. The pardy atomized listener of the radio now gave way to discussion groups and coteries around record shops, especially in urban Nigeria, that sought to interpret, and would later reinvent, the meaning of his lyrics and activism.

6But Fela was not always an open subject, especially when it came to writing a book on him. “Not quite a book, but a final year undergraduate essay” I tried to explain. It turned out that my graduate thesis and a good measure of my doctoral dissertation also would be exploring aspects of the aesthetics, particularly the theatrical elements and the mask dramaturgic modes of his performance, When I finally decided to write this book on the ’art and cultural practice of the Afrobeat musician, it was due to one main compelling reason: there were far too few critical works on Fela’s immense contribution to social change and the evolution of a new musical idiom.

7Nothing in my entire experience of cultural fieldwork prepared me for an encounter with “the Fela People.” What one thought was an embarrassing question, they answered gleefully; but flew into a rage at an apparently innocuous inquiry Quite often, I found myself in situations similar to Deirdre Bair’s in the course of her biographical research on Samuel Beckett. Like Beckett, too, Fela granted me the right to follow my impulses, but was neither going to help nor hinder me. Could he see that he was some sort of romantic poet, and could we not return to these early impulses, I had once asked. It did not seem like a good day, and his reaction was rather sharp: “That term ‘poetry’ could be verbose, this is why you university people bore me.”

8Yet, I knew that I needed a compass to navigate the subject in spite of my knowledge of the fact that such an expressive art form as I had set out to study had not become of mainstream interest in our academia, at least not in our departments of English and literary studies, even with the pioneering efforts of the likes of Michael J.C. Echeruo and Isidore Okpewho, with Victorian Lagos (1977) and Myth in Africa (1983) respectively; and subsequently Biodun Jeyifo’s Yoruba Travelling Theatre (1984). This invariably meant a dearth of relevant literature.

9Indeed, the bulk of the earlier works on Fela, most often biographical notes, are to be found in the review sections of newspapers and magazines scattered across the globe, with a few others lurking in obscure journals. Against the background of this general dearth, the works of Carlos Moore (1982), Idowu Mabinuori (1986), Iyorchia Ayu (1985), Randal Grass (1986) and Tam Fiofori (1998) provide tentative reference materials. While the ethnological aspect in Moore is played to the fore, tracing, as it does, Fela’s genealogy to the third generation in his three-dimensional narrative approach that brings into sharp focus Fela’s complex personality Mabinuori’s contribution takes the tone of advocacy, detailing the musician’s cultural and political practice, while also providing biographical information. Fiofori’s essay provides a historical appraisal of Fela’s musical development and the evolution of the Afrobeat form. It is with both Ayu and Grass that the art-society dialectic is given substantial preeminence, besides a treatment of the future of an art form that confronts a dominant, hegemonic power. Ayu, however, highlights the potential for obscurantism and the problem of drug abuse and nudism for a musical and cultural practice that he acknowledges as essentially emancipatory

10But for me, the question persisted: What is Afrobeat? As conceived by Fela, is it merely another musical form or also a cultural and political event? How do we account for the nuances of his performance subtexts—what are our aesthetic criteria in measuring them and, above all, what is the relationship between popular music and social change?

  • 5 . See Houston, A. Baker, Rap and the Academy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 34.
  • 6 . See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 30 (...)

11From the outset, the multidisciplinary imperative of such a venture had dawned on me, and I felt somewhat compelled to heed the warning of Houston A. Baker concerning the need for a theoretical approach that would be cognizant of an “Improvisational flexibility and a historicizing of form that are not always characteristic of academic responses to popular cultural forms.”5 My inclination in this bid is two-fold. One is to explore the theoretical overlaps that are implicit in such a discourse; and, also, to bring into focus the theorizing of the ‘self’ by the aesthetic subculture, in order not to foist arbitrary theory on a form that can express a subtle but most profound mode of signification. In other words, I have adopted a method of cultural criticism, and the indefinite article a is here emphasized to show the “model” as a method and not the only method of reading this text, or any other for that matter. It does not take too long, for instance, for any Fela reader to discover the potential of an implicit plural reading of conceptual and actual experience as essential to his aesthetic and political practice. This is not, however, to suggest that literal and normative meaning that I have encountered in the course of this research are necessarily overridden by willful interpretation, Rather, and somewhat akin to Stanley Fish’s suggestion on how to read a text, here too it is not so much a case of indeterminacy or undecidability but of a “determinacy and decidability that do not always have the same shape and that can, and in this do, change.”6

12Generally, I have translated non-English words and passages—especially those in Pidgin English. -Lyrics are rendered in the normal text, while their translation (also given except where their English approximation is obvious) is in italics. Tone marks reflecting current usage in Yoruba orthography have also been used. Yorùbá is a tonal language, with three underlying pitch levels for vowels and syllabic nasals: the low tone is marked with a [’] grave accent; the mid tone is unmarked; and the high tone is indicated with an [’] acute accent. Subscript marks such as e and o are also used; e approximates to the e in the English word “yet”; the o is close to the o sound in “dog”; and the s is close to the English sh.

13The first chapter, “Tradition and Afrobeat,” traces the antecedent cultural and political contexts that shaped Fela’s innovative Afrobeat music and performance. At the political level, I describe the evolution of the Nigerian state and the process of a post-independence elite formation and the reconstitution of a patronage system. The aesthetic-cultural dimension describes both the lyrical content and structural pattern of Afrobeat, detailing such early influences through neo-traditional forms, Highlife, and his London and American experience of the early sixties.

14Chapter Two, “Bard of the Public Sphere,” situates his musicianship in the context of his ideological evolution and the choice of a variant of Nkrumahist Pan-Africanism to define difference and contest the dominance of center cultures. In the same breath, it details how his song texts serve as metonyms of the social history of post-independence Africa.

15The “Empire Sounds Back,” which constitutes Chapter Three, appraises the African performance stylistic strategies with which Fela transposes folk aesthetic forms into the idiom of urban, popular (musical) performance. It also explores the crisis of neo-tradition and late modernity besides other salient issues of his development of a counter-hegemonic social dialect of Pidgin English, which is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among the urban subcultures of West Africa.

16Chapter Four, “Idán, or a Carnivalesque,” narrates and analyzes the performance context at the Afrika Shrine. It also highlights a counterculture group-bonding experience through music, ritual worship, drugs and resistance politics in the ambience of a Lord-of-Misrule festival.

17Chapter Five. “Alterity Afrobeat and the Law,” extends the interpretation ot the Afrobeat form, as one that is an all-inclusive performance mode, of which music is only a part. It stresses Afrobeat’s other political and ideological group practices. The chapter also explores Afrobeat’s relationship with other alternative (musical) cultural practices, such as reggae, the African-American and French rap traditions, with examples taken from Bob Marley, the 2 Live Crew and Nique Ta Mere respectively Also here, Fela’s vision of an imagined (African) continent, his micro-African commune, the Kalakuta Republic, its style of living, and organizational structure, are evaluated.

18The “Afrobeat Continuum,” which is Chapter Six and also the concluding chapter, integrates certain salient observations earlier noted on the wider issue of the future of Afrobeat in the post-Fela era, and poses questions about cultural and ideological retention and continuity

19The various appendices are meant to provide the cultural and political contexts of Fela’s performance, and have also been developed to include the following: a comprehensive annotated discography of the at tist; an excerpt of the constitution of the Movement of the People (MOP), Fela’s political party which was refused registration prior to the 1979 election; a schematic bio-data, including an inventory of sonic censorship.

20Perhaps this work could still have benefited from some more prolonged waiting—say; a month, a year, or even a decade—but to what effect? I did not set out to deliver a Torah to poor cultural earthlings. The ‘ultimate,’ eternal text, I’ve tried to remember, is the purveyor of the anti-intellect! And so, may this not be the last word on a cultural practice that, we hope, promises to play an influential role in twenty-first century black and African popular culture discourse. As we are apt to say the ball is now in the reader’s court.


1 . “Kalakuta Republic” is the name given to anywhere Fela lived after his 1974 detention; it is styled after the name given by inmates to the cell where Fela was detained. Fela conceived of his Republic as a micro pan-African village where all fleeing from institutions of containment were welcome.

2 . The attack was ostensibly precipitated by soldiers who claimed that a teenager who had insulted their colleague fled into Kalakuta, and they demanded that Fela hand him over to them. Fela refused, saying it was the jurisdiction of the police to effect such an arrest. Moments later, fully armed soldiers had cordoned off Fela's residence. This incident stands out as perhaps the most violent encounter between the Nigerian state and the artists' commune. In the aftermath of the attack, the commune was razed by fire and some female residents testified to having been raped by the marauding soldiers to an Administrative Board of Inquiry set up afterwards by the military governor of Lagos State, Commodore Adekunle S. Lawal. Many others, including children and visitors, were brutalised and hospitalised, and Fela's seventy-year-old mother—Mrs Olufunmilavo Ran-some-Kuti (who later answered to Anikulapo-Kuti with her son when the latter changed his name)—was thrown down from the first floor of the building. Her health declined after this incident and she died a year later from the shock. Coupled with this, Fela lost the sound track of his film— The Black President —and the Board of Inquiry could only reprimand the artist for waxing the track Zombie which, it noted, unduly caricatures the military institution. The Board comprised the following: Chairman, Honourable Mr. Justice K.O. Anyah; Member, Wing Commander Hamza Abdullahi; Legal Secretary Mr TA.O. Ogundeyin; and Administrative Secretary Mr. G.A. Oshunmakinde.

3 . Fela changed the name of his performance venue from ‘Afro Spot’ to ‘Afrika Shrine’ once he began to conceive of his music and venue as distinct from the sheer revelry that characterises a regular night club. He gradually began to emphasize a deeply spiritual experience, where fans and acolytes were expected to dance only after appreciating this dimension. From the Empire Hotel of the late seventies, he started incorporating ritual elements into his performances and increasingly ribald political pronouncements.

4 . This was how John Collins, the (Highlife) music scholar at the University of Ghana, Legon, described a tendency in Fela's music in my interview with him in May 1998.

5 . See Houston, A. Baker, Rap and the Academy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 34.

6 . See Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 306.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2005

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