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Sola Olorunyomi

2. Bard of the Public Sphere

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Here, we walk the street
where laughter is hidden in deep places
and stores cannot shut their doors
choked with hearts that bleed from gathered wounds
and you will see nothing can grow here, but agony...

  • 1 . From Ogaga Ifowodo’s “Homeland,” Homeland and Other Poems. Ibadan: Kraft Books, 1998, p. 49.

Ogaga Ifowodo1

1The Afrobeat vision as espoused by Fela is largely scattered in his public lectures, media reviews of interviews he granted, his private correspondences, short articles in the few books that have devoted chapters to his life and art, and views expressed by the artist in his YAPNEWS, a newspaper of the Young African Pioneers (YAP) founded by Fela in the late seventies for the propagation of the anticipated African revolution. Such materials have either abridged or further expanded aspects of his outlook as expressed in the manifesto of the Movement of the People (MOP). While the manifesto is primarily designed for Nigeria, it is set in a tone that makes it a replicable document for the entire African continent.

  • 2 . A phrase generally used, especially by members of the Young African Pioneers, to describe Fela’s (...)

2Tracking a Fela-Afrobeat vision, thereforew, would include such views as expressed in the various media and the manifesto. Altogether, they engage a broad spectrum of ideas such as the African origin of (ancient) civilization; slavery and Western technology; religion and Òrìsà worship; colonialism, multiple imperialism and collaborating elites; the notion of an African nation-state; and his version of “What is to be done?” Other more subtle concerns range from the nature of knowledge production and its dispersal, architecture, spirituality citizenship, economy and development, to traditional medicine and the use of marijuana, the environment, the judiciary and administration of justice, international relations and a myriad of other domestic issues. Fela’s musical composition and political practice are, in the main, resonant of this ideological outlook, an outlook well thought-out—even if often provocative. Its most representative outline, here styled Fela sophy,2 I have found necessary to paraphrase in the first person, in consonance with Fela’s general mode of delivery at his numerous public lectures.

A Felasophy

3Africa is the origin of (ancient) civilization as the continent was in the forefront of the world’s adventure, and the Black Pharaohs of ancient Egypt who built the pyramids and had obsession for the world of the dead contributed to the advancement of material civilization, besides teaching the Greeks several things which they would otherwise not have known. It is a misnomer, therefore, to credit ‘Greek Philosophy’ with inventions that originally emanated from Africa. Since about 4,100 B. C.—the period of the first Solar Calendar ever made by man—through the beginnings of the Great Pyramid Age (built during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser about the Third Dynasty), the building of the Grand Lodge, whose oblong shape is based upon Masonic principles and is presently copied by all secret societies, mosques and churches, and the circumnavigation of the entire continent by Hano—a native of Khart-Haddas (Cartharge)—in 600 B.C., prior to Vasco da Gama’s sail, Africa continued to contribute to world knowledge in science and the arts—long before the plunder of the continent by Alexander II (The Great) in 332 B. C. It was only with the occupation of the eastern limits of North Africa that Caucasian incursion into the continent took place, making possible the theft and pillage of invaluable documents—especially that of the Grand Lodge of Luxor (Thebes)—by Greek authors—including Mr Aristotle—who are on record to have also partaken in this debauchery

4The similarity in cultural survivals in the language such as naming, belief system and the mode of worship of archaic religions developed in the Nile valley during this period attest to the truism of a once ebullient black culture in this part prior to its dispersal. The whole of the African continent was once Bilad al Sudan (The land of the Blacks), and not just the southern region to which Africans have been subsequently pushed from the north by Arabs. This is the continent’s connection to the sun as what the Black man benefits from the ultraviolet rays of the sun is manifold. No wonder the African is so full of rhythm. The rhythm of the sun’s rays is responsible for the vitality in movement of the rhythmic African. The Asiatic and Arab people who now occupy parts of North and East Africa are no more native to the African land than are the Dutch and British who likewise occupy and control the southern regions of the continent.

5The background to many African religions derives from the ancient Black Egyptian Mysteries Order which regarded the human body as a prison house of the soul that can be liberated from its physical stricture through the disciplines of the Arts and Sciences, and a man can indeed transform from his mortal features to become a deity and god, as contained in the notion and ethical concept of the Summun Bonum or the greatest good, to which all of humanity must aspire. Black Africa’s notion of one Supreme God, creator of the universe, predates that of the Jews by several thousands of years before Abraham; the role of the numerous sub-deities on whom Western writers dwell in relation to Africa is precisely the same as those of Patron Saints in the Christian world. Religion, however, is a personal experience, a thing of the soul.

6The connection to the Mysteries can be seen even in the survivals of our languages which harbor, as in Yorùbá, notions, concepts, and names of deities of ancient Egypt such as Amon, Osiris, Thoth, Anu, Ra and the four elemental deities among others. Ra, for instance, survives now only in name because the majority of the Yorùbá no longer worship the sun god as a result of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, though the words Ìràwò, Rard, preserve the idea. The literal meaning of Ìràw ò, a star, is that which appears when the Ra (the sun) has wo (set). Also, the Yorùbá expression Rárá, “Not at all,” or “No-no” is probably an old way of swearing by the sun God— Ra. The word Amon exists in the lorubd language with the same meaning as it had in the language of the ancient Egyptians; which suggests that the lorubd words Mó, Mím ó, meaning purity holy and sacred are derived from the god’s, name. Thoth—the Egyptian god of truth and righteousness—may also be seen to have been replicated in the lorubd word for truth, though with a slightly different spelling accounted for by the time interval. Ti-ò-tí-tó in Yorìbá means—that which belongs to Ò-tí-tó (truth) (Thoth?).The last syllable—tó, also means “right,” and “fairness” in Yorùbá. Does this not therefore explain the strongly held belief of many Yorùbá that they had descended from the parts around the Nile valley? This idea can also be related to the field of plastic arts, especially of those works found in the Ife-Benin axis, Besides the evidence of some African root words found in Greek and Roman languages; they all point to the interaction, albeit devious interaction, those cultures had with us. For us as Africans, the point therefore is to relate this to the Black experience in order to forge a binding unity and transform our situation so that the Black man must not carry shit again.

7The human person is enhanced in traditional African religion, unlike Christianity and Islam which find scriptural justification for keeping fellow humans in bondage. Otherwise, how do you explain the religious justification that since Africans were ‘heathens’ and kaffirs they could be confined to bondage and slavery a justification which is even coded in Genesis 9:25: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant shall he be unto his brethren.” And these are supposed to be Black people? Bishop Berkeley put the same idea into philosophical language when he said: “Negroes are creatures of another species who had no right to be admitted or included in the sacrament.” And, yet, the Nigerian State commits enormous resources to financing pilgrimages to the holy places of these religions, when countless siblings of the pilgrims themselves lack basic health care and good education. If I had my way, I would withdraw government subvention to these pilgrimages.

8I am very clear in my mind that it was the transatlantic slave trade that created the basis for the Euro-American industrial revolutions and, along with colonialism, caused the greatest assault on the psyche of the African personality. Not even my own family could escape from the brainwashing that accompanied this experience, such that my grandfather had to add “Ransome” to his name and became Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti; this is the source of those slave names you get all over our West Coast. Brothers and sisters, I tell you something today, colonialism committed a type of genocide in Africa that was not equaled by the crime committed by Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis. The colonialists gave the phrase “punitive expeditions” to their raids because they wanted to make sure that there was no legacy for our people to see that we are not the “Barbarians” that they claimed us to be, and on which they rested their argument in order to attack us.

  • 3 . This is in reference to the 1978 incident when the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime clamped down (...)
  • 4 . Implies a shady deal.

9Having reflected on this African past, I have come to the conclusion that we need grassroots unity because the change of guard at independence has only replaced white oppressors with black ones, which explains why institutions without political mandate, such as the African military cannot see the anomaly of their being in government. Besides collaborating with foreign powers, neo-colonial and reactionary African puppets carry out genocide against their people indiscriminately. Between the months of April and May 1978, the combined forces of the Nigerian Police and Army opened fire on demonstrating Nigerian students killing more than nine of them.3 Is this not worse than the carnage visited on Africans by the likes of John Vorster of South Africa and Ian Smith of Zimbabwe? And yet the Nigerian Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom this sordid situation occurred, is a Black man; brothers and sisters, this is why I say there is also a class thing to this wuru-wuru4 business. Until these neo-colonial agents are defeated, it will be impossible to embark on any fundamental type of knowledge production whereby Africa can devise a syllabus that would relate black civilization to art, philosophy, literature, African language and pedagogy; including religion, history science and technology and the mass media.

10Although Karl Marx, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Mao Tse lung were great leaders of their people, and some of their thoughts useful for the rest of humanity, their perspectives nonetheless remain foreign ideologies in specific instances. Nkrumahism, an African socialist system, is what I would rather recommend for Africa because it is authenticfor us, and it involves a system where the merits of a man would not depend on his ethnic background. All borders and boundaries fettering the union of African peoples ought to be abolished. There is the need for the introduction of the use of indigenous languages or mother tongues as the medium of instruction in our society since it is the starting point of the revolution, such that in our courts of law an accused person may have the opportunity of understanding the judicial process. Community courts need to be set up in order to administer petty complaints so as to reduce remanding citizens in detention for long periods without access to justice. An administration of justice that would be corrective rather than punitive should also be devised. If prisons must be built, then they should be such that would be psychologically curative. In this regard, I find the British social security scheme a humanizing experience for its citizens, and since this logic is at the root of African humanism, the African revolution must reintroduce this gesture, which has always existed in the African system.

11Partly because the media in Africa were introduced as instruments of perpetuating colonial rule, they have performed poorly Forms such as proverb, ritual and story can be incorporated in the communication process in order to achieve meaningful development. An African film center should be created to further enrich the communication experience; the camera should narrate stories in the true tradition of the African style of narration.

12In line with the agricultural principle of Nkrumahism, which sought to mobilize all farmers into an agricultural revolution, when the revolution comes, an agricultural commission made up of nutrition, ecology and economic experts would be set up to study the prevailing climatic condition and how it can affect production. There would be farm settlements and loans would be disbursed to private farm settlers.

13Our sense of industrialization should not however be tailored along the Western experience, which has brought about a progressive loss of respect for life, for nature, for the environment they live in. Indeed, what we need is not technology but ‘naturology’ We should have bricklayers and carpenters guilds who, in their construction, will take our climatic and geological conditions into consideration. Someday the so-called industrialized world will become totally uninhabitable as a result of the violation of their environment. An example of the potential of indigenous African industry can be seen in the type of soap produced by our mothers, which is superior to foreign soap since the ‘black’ soap does not contain caustic soda, and it is pure and natural; this is what I use, which explains why my skin is fresh.

14It is conducive to the spirit of national development to organize a real and concrete defense program that will mobilize all able-bodied youth into the people’s militia, a strategy that will demystify the lordship and elitism of the military. This is not new in the continent as pre-colonial history teaches us of the Amazons, the women’s army of the Dahomey Kingdom.

15The economy will be based on solely government-owned industries, private ownership directed by government economic and industrial policies, and co-operatives. The system of international capital controlled by the International Monetary Fund does not serve the interest of the African, much less the Nigerian. Efforts will be geared to creating an African monetary system in an economy that will not be controlled by capitalists or the bureaucratic elite.

16Research into traditional medicine will be encouraged and subsidies will be provided for the development and building of herbal clinics with the collaboration of ideologically oriented doctors of African descent. Besides, the population will be encouraged to patronize the products of such research, which is the basis of any cultural revolution. Medical students will be encouraged to take a special course in genuine and valuable traditional medicine outside the walls of the university. Neighboring African countries shall be invited to share their knowledge in traditional medicine with Nigerian herbalists’unions.

17We must develop our museums in a way that conveys the mood of an Afrika Shrine where the treasures of the ancestors can be better understood. Museums should not be seen merely as tourist centers as they convey different moments and time of the African existence. Time is a complex thing. Time is the importance of the moment. Death is an aspect of time. Time is not straight and linear. The death of a human is a transition into the supernatural, spirit realm; it is not time ended. As humans we are made of diverse energies of which, quite often, we are not conscious.

18We also relate to other energies which may be living or inert. The world above us is made of spirits, with a hierarchy of spirits in which a head spirit is preeminent. In the material world, women may serve as sisters, wives, and mothers pursuing different careers. Women who are capable of leadership shall be given such responsible positions in government as would allow them to use to the maximum all their skills and potentials. However, the man still remains the head of the family In the spirit world, women are àjé. The Ájé whose physical manifestation could be womanhood is a spirit being with potentially positive and/or negative energies. As in the drama of life, the conflict that propels this force is both negative and positive—the negative symbolized by the black àjé, and the positive symbolized by the white àjé. The àjé rules us, rules the world, even when men assume that they have the edge. My mother is àjé, and so are all our sisters and wives.

19Africa is the center of the world and the African space straddles everywhere in which Africans and peoples of African descent live. Africans in the Diaspora are every inch African, hence the Organisation of African Unity (O.A.U) must reserve some space for these Africans to partake in the activities of the body.

  • 5 . I would also like to acknowledge the particular recording of Mr. Idowu Mabinuori in Fela: Why Bla (...)

20The bulk of this paraphrase comes from Fela’s recorded public lectures on the generic theme of “Essence of Culture in Development,” delivered in several public institutions in Nigeria.5 Besides this, the MOP document and other views on an imagined African continent expressed in the diverse media are always couched in a tone of agitation. The concluding paragraph of the MOP document, for instance, rings a tone reminiscent of the Communist Manifesto. Inter-alia it reads:

Such is the battle of MOP
So is the ideology
And this is the beginning of the struggle
We must WIN
We dare not, we must not
We cannot
Fail or Falter
(Emphasis, Fela’s)

Song Text as Social History

21It is against the background of this ideological outlook, and developments in the aftermath of independence, that we can properly locate Fela’s musicianship and cultural practice. Way back in the constitutional conference that preceded Nigeria’s independence on October 1, 1960, two radical politicians—Mallam Aminu Kano and Chief Bello Ijumu—canvassed for and succeeded in ensuring the inclusion of a human rights clause in the constitution, though a basic feature of governance in Nigeria four decades later remains executive excess and the emasculation of the judiciary and the rule of law The military has held the reins for two-thirds of the entire period of nationhood and yet not less than five coup d’etats and seven other unsuccessful bids (excluding phantom charges) have been recorded in this intra elite in-fighting to control state power.

  • 6 . See Jurgen J. Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Ca (...)

22In the interval, there appears to have been a reversal of the patron-client relationship such that, unlike in the first two decades when the politician played patron, this role was effectively usurped by the military from the mid-eighties, although the slide had begun from the first coup of 1966. Jurgen Haber-mas’s notion of the dynamics of the ‘public sphere’ quite candidly describes the Nigerian experience under the military especially in relation to the distinction he makes between citizens’right to public discourse without being subject to coercion, and the coercive power of the state as the counterpart, that is, a negation of the political public sphere as such.6 And having stayed long enough to generate its own version of primitive accumulation, the military had discovered the need for power independent of the national public sphere in an environment where the disbursement of resources was totally centralized.

23Meanwhile, the military threw overboard federalism as a character of the national constitution, imposed a unitarist state (de facto), and paved the way for subsequent central governments to decimate opposition and pressure groups including trade unions, the students’movement, professional bodies and opposition parties. Thenceforth, the human rights situation regressed as the political public sphere shrank. Evidence of military pressure on the public sphere could be seen as wanton violation of rights through arbitrary arrest and detention, detention without trial, torture, indiscriminate killing, abduction and kidnapping, military attack, fanning of ethnic and religious embers, and general brutality against the public psyche became commonplace. The language of hegemonic discourse was further entrenched through the sole control of the electronic media by the state, and even when, by the mid-nineties, licenses were approved for private broadcast, allocation was largely to perceived client figures under a very strict regime of censorship.

24It was precisely in this atmosphere of sonic censorship that Fela emerged with his Afrobeat form, first as a reformer and later as a totally counter-hegemonic activist artist. Fela’s journey to the latter position took the sort of Bakhtinian ‘seeker’s passage’ or, more contextually what Frantz Fanon has described as the ‘three stages of the native intellectual.’ Fela tangibly conforms to this broad and often overlapping schema in which the native intellectual starts off, first, with a blind embrace of the values and ethos of the colonial Center—usually after a dose of its education; second, with an utter rejection of colonial legacy and a romantic retreat into a ‘native’ cocoon, a swing informed by a harsh realization of otherness; and, third, a more critical reappraisal of ideological imperatives, in which instance one, as in Fela’s case, is led to the identification of the indigenous elite as a significant collaborator in undermining genuine development on the continent.

  • 7 . Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963, p. 218.
  • 8 . See Glendora Review: African Quarterly on the Arts. (vol. 2, no. 2,1997, p. 049.)

25Describing the crucial intermediate phase, Fanon says, “In order to ensure his salvation and to ensure escape from the supremacy of the white man’s culture, the native feels the need to turn backward toward his unknown roots.”7 Michael Veal is quite apt in identifying, as part of the first phase, that era in which Fela was working in the self-conscious “high-modernist modes of Afro-American jazz music,”8 especially after his London, Koola Lobitos student days. Right after this era, Pan-Africanism became Fela’s leitmotif all through till the end; what however distinguished the third phase from the second is the tinge of class character that he brought to bear on the latter Pan-Africanism. The second phase was characterized with songs like Keep Nigeria, One, Black Man’s Cry, and Buy Africa which celebrate black aesthetics in the ambience of a supra-class African setting, one in which the interests of both the indigenous political elite and the marginalized sectors of society find a point of convergence. By the time he started waxing Zombie, Alagbon Close, ITT, and Sorrow Tears and Blood, which lampoon military and other authoritarian hegemonies in contemporary Africa, it was clear that he had finally unmasked the bogey of the ideological unanimity of contending classes.

26Opinions have been quite diverse as to whether Fela is a contemporary offshoot of the pre-modern style or a postmodern performer Though an artist resident in the so-called developing world can integrate into the maelstrom of technological postmodernism, Fela constantly resisted this incorporation insofar as it portended to define the center as the source of a ‘mainstream corpus’ against which his own practice was going to be measured. After Army Arrangement was waxed with electronically simulated drumming while Fela was away in prison in 1985, he subsequently expressed displeasure with such ‘innovation,’ preferring his more rustic drum beat and generally ‘unaffected’ style.

  • 9 . Ibid.

27This is, however, not to suggest that his position is not at times tenuous. For instance, the focus of his lyrics constantly decried those forces constraining the liberation of a modern, African cultural energy but, then, he posits an alternative outlook that shudders at the prospect of the consequent dismembering of traditional society that would emerge from such a transaction. In this sense, his vision embodies the ambiguity and dream of an imagined pre-modern and post-revolutionary Africa, a feature which Michael Veal identifies as “a timeless vision of African Utopia.”9 It is this element of wishing into being and constructing into textual discourse that Benedict Anderson dwells upon in the Imagined Communities when he noted that:

  • 10 . Benedict Anderson in The Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalis (...)

all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.10

28Is this apparent contradiction of Fela’s Utopia, then, not a concrete factor of everyday lived experience? That we are constantly deconstructing and reconstructing our potentially multiple identities into being? And that every act of construction is simultaneously an act of deconstruction of an Other and vice versa? Perhaps, then, Fela’s conscious attitude was to simply buttress his own preferred mythology.

  • 11 . James C. Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale Univ (...)

29The often veiled setting of Fela’s narrative space is urban West Africa, even when Lagos serves as a symbol for both the subregion and the entire African continent. The prevalent interest of his lyrics are those often-contrasting situations of power felations between the big Oga and the marginal my people. In between these two extremes are to be found diverse modes of coping, of acquiescence or, on the other hand, of resistance modes with a large repertoire of subcultural linguistic codes. The vehicle for the transmission of Fela’s alternative message was often indirect in the early stage, but later became direct, akin to the discursive modes James Scott describes as the ‘public’ and ‘hidden’ transcripts. The ‘public’ transcript pertains to the nature of contesting power relations, which is resolved in favor of the status quo, while the ‘hidden’ transcript relates to forms of resistance to dominance in more subtle and oblique ways such as in gesture, joke, humor, and parody— which “insinuate a critique of power”11

30Song lyrics that formed part of this early phase include Water No Get Enemy, Alu Jon Jon Ki jon, and When Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am (better known by its chorus line, “Palava”), and the vehicle of the narrative transmission is undoubtedly in the hidden transcript. A common denominator that runs through them all is the proverbial form of their rendition. To the ear unfamiliar with Afrobeat, these may appear like a quaint rehash of a familiar traditional form, but even when they relate to myth as with Alu Jon, for instance, the metaphor is actually in reference to the present, reflecting on man and his practice in the universe. Here is a narrative of how in an era of famine all animals agreed to devour their parents, but the dog in his or her wisdom did not, as s/he hid mother dog in the spheres, an act of foresight that pays off when the mother decides to send down foodstuff to assuage the hunger of the times. It is a most decentered narrative depending on who is doing the telling, but here the construction is a morality-driven tale that emphasizes the need for forbearance and the will to seek fundamental social solutions rather than a rash and unreflecting one. Highlife music is replete with such disguised texts, and Kwesi Yankah notes this of Nana Kwame Ampadu’s “Ebi Te Yie” (“Some are favorably positioned”) which was released during the military regime of the National Liberation Council. Yankah’s transcription of the song text goes thus:

  • 12 . Kwesi Yankah, “Nana Ampadu, the Sung-Tale Metaphor, and Protest Discourse in Contemporary Ghana,” (...)

There was once a meeting of all animals to discuss the concerns of the animal world. All the animals were present, including Leopard and the orphan Antelope. It so happened that Leopard took a seat directly behind orphan Antelope and started mistreating him. He clawed Antelope’s tail to the ground, making it impossible for him to actively participate in the discussion. No sooner would orphan Antelope begin to speak than Leopard would silence him, with the warning that the meeting was not meant for skinny creatures. The mistreatment went on until orphan Antelope could bear it no longer He plucked up courage and made a loud plea to the presiding chairman, “Petition on the floor, point of order,” he said. “Mr chairman, secretary elders here assembled. I move for an immediate adjournment of the meeting, because some of us are not favorably positioned. Some are favorably positioned, others are not.” As soon as the meeting saw through the words of the orphan Antelope, there was an immediate adjournment.12

31Fela, however, had other less symbolist song lyrics within the same time frame, characterized by a ribald social commentary in such numbers as Lady, Na Poi, Open and Close, and Woman na Mattress. Although these numbers do not constitute the overriding abiding aesthetic practice of the artist, the patriarchal views expressed in them represent the contradiction of a liberationist who encourages a retrograde image of the female gender, and thereby not only reduces the incentive for a healthy public sphere, but also demobilizes his own potential ideological allies. In one such track (Lady) the narrator objects to the self-confidence shown by the new African woman (Lady), who is seen as defying her traditional role set. Unlike Lady, the valorized African woman

Know him man na master/ She go cook for am/ She go do anything him say/ But Lady no be so...Lady na master

Acknowledges the man as her superior/She cooks for him/Obliges his instructions/But this is unlike the Lady/ Who sees herself as a peer and an equal to the man

32It is the same sexist orientation that informs Woman na Mattress which, as the title suggests, emphasizes a patriarchal gender construction of womanhood and makes no distinction between it and biological femininity Latter song lyrics like Akunakuna attempt to transcend this early sexism, through a lyrical depiction and denunciation of violence visited on women by law enforcement agents (trying to fuck women by force for road by night); this though is still a reading based on the woman as a factor in class power relations and alliance. However, with Open and Close and Na Poi, the eroticism described is not necessarily sexist; rather, it is simply a description of basic sexuality and the discourse of which has been censored by successive puritanical regimes in Nigeria. Fela consistently quarrels with an attitude in Nigerian public life that suggests that discussion of sex, sexual knowledge and emotional expressions of such dimensions of social life was taboo. And so, in the spirit of a no-holds-barred sonic, he is here saying: “Let’s talk about sex/and all the good/ all the bad that makes life,” like the Salt and Pepa musicians! Invariably therefore, sexual narrative often becomes a metaphor for contesting a circumscribed literary-artistic public sphere.

  • 13 . This is how Iyiorcha Ayu describes the phenomenon in his book, Essays in Popular Struggle. Oguta: (...)

33The theme of culture alienation preoccupies Fela’s lyrical concern from Yellow Fever, through Johnny Just Drop (JJD), Gentleman, Colonial Mentality, to Upside Down, and Big Blind Country (BBC). The reconstruction of the African personality distorted by a psychology of dependence through skin bleaching (in Yellow Fever), and the feigning of foreign cultural habits (in the other albums), constitutes the thrust of these albums. (BBC is yet to be waxed.) Implicit in these narratives is the suggestion that these “psychic vices”13 constitute a more subtle, though non-physical, coercive ideological assault on the African image. For the African who is persistent in altering his pigmentation, the point in Yellow Fever is driven home with sarcasm and derisive humor:

You go yellow pass yellow
you go get moustache for face
You go get your double colour
Your yansh go black like coal

You will exceed your attempt at a lighter pigmentation
Your moustache will [arising from bleaching effect]
sprout all over the face
Your skin will show patches of different colors
Your buttocks will be as black as coal

34To negate such a cultural dependence, Fela advocates the evolution of a grassroots and inclusive framework for genuine democracy This is the literal subject of Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, where the artist focuses on the inability of the national elite to define a common understanding, as basic as an electoral principle, for its own self-perpetuation. Hence, democracy goes wild: “demoNcracy crazYdemo, demoNstration of craze.” In spite of this bleak political atmosphere, he finds a position of resignation incompatible with his Afrobeat vision; hence, Fear Not for Man, STB, and No Agreement continue to stoke the ember of civil resistance against dominant powers.

35By the mid-seventies, Fela began to critique general social decay and the characteristic license to freedom without obligation that African dictators bestow on their agents in order to brutalize the public psyche. The diverse instances of abuse of power are captured in Customs Check Point, Alagbon Close, Authority Stealing and Confusion Break Bone (CBB). In reaction to the general lawlessness and urban violence that greeted the post-civil war years (starting from about 1971), the military government of General Yakubu Gowon promulgated a decree that carried a death penalty on convicted armed robbers. Fela denounced this move in his public lectures, pointing out that the instance of armed robbery was hardly the causal agency but the consequence of a crisis that had its roots in the deep structural inequality of society He went ahead to wax Confusion Break Bones, thereby deconstructing government’s perception that armed robbery was more inimical to society than the diverse ways by which elite treasury-looting are carried out. A narrative reclassification is carried out whereby three layers of robbery emerges in “Leg Robbery,” “Arm Robbery” and “Head Robbery,” and the personae insists:

  • 14 . The overall boss.

Vocal: The first one na leg robbery
Chorus: Leg robbery
Vocal: Where man go go pick pocket
Chorus: Leg robbery
Vocal: The man go start to take leg run
Chorus: Leg robbery
Vocal: The second one na arm robbery
Chorus: Arm robbery
Vocal: Where man go go steal big thing
Chorus: Arm robbery
Vocal: E go take gun defend himself
Chorus: Arm robbery
Vocal: The third one na Head robbery
Chorus: Head robbery
Vocal: Where oga pata-pata14 go go steal
Chorus: Head robbery
Vocal: E go take position steal all free
Choru: Head robbery
Vocal: Free stealing na him policy
Chorus: Head robbery
Vocal: Head robbery Which head we get e never steal, which president we get e never steal before?

36The mood and choice of registers used here is instructive. While in the first two instances of “Leg” and “arm” robbery he merely narrates, in the latter, there is an authorial intrusion—"Free stealing, na him policy... which head/president we get e never steal?”—as a means of contesting the source of social violence and identifying the political elite as culprit.

37If Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense intensifies the theme of non-physical, ideological tool of coercion by identifying the school system as an outpost for mind-conditioning, albums such as Coffin for Head of State, Sorrow Tears and Blood, Army Arrangement, and Zombie name the African military as agents of domination and armies of occupation in their respective countries. In Overtake Don Overtake Overtake (ODOO), he cautions against the easy allure of naming whereby military institutions feed citizens with faddish and radical-sounding appellations. He cites examples from Libya—“Liberation Council,” Liberia—“Redemption Council,” and Zaire—“Revolutionary Council.” Slogans notwithstanding, the consequence is “soldier go, soldier come.” The lyrics are not really averse to the military institution as such, but the fact of the military becoming an elitist cult, and a law unto itself, without recourse to the civil society Images of rape and social defilement are basic to his description of military violation of public space. He ponders in Confusion Break Bones:

why dem like to burn di things wey cost money
government fit sell to people wey no get money
government fit sell to people cheape, cheape
but na di burn burn, na im dey sweet dem pass
why do they show preference for burning
expensive [seized]goods
government could sell same to low
income earners
government could auction same to citizens
but they [government] appear to derive joy in

38He is unable to reconcile himself with the sadistic impulse that drives the Nigerian military in particular, to destroy wares and goods seized from traders (ostensibly for selling in non-designated areas), rather than turn such items over to charity or auction sale. He ponders on why it seems to revel in setting such products ablaze—na di burn burn, na im dey sweet dem pass! Fela posits in International Thief Thief (ITT), however, that the military and other African governments are only fronts for transnational governments, describing their leadership as ‘disguising’ in BONN.

39Very much a poet of hope, as of rage, he consistently stresses the need for perseverance (on the part of the marginalized), in order to carry through the African revolution. Between STB, No Agreement, Fear Not for Man, and Original Suffer Head, he explores the delicate nuances and tribulations that would necessarily confront the activist in pursuit of social redemption. STB is a particularly deep introspection into those ever-present incentives for doubt in social activism; here, he narrates the sort of challenge faced by the average member of an African family who may get compromised by sheer obligation to kinship concerns:

My people self dey fear too much/We fear for di thing we no see/We dey fear for di air around us/We fear to fight for freedom/We fear to fight for liberty/We fear to fight for justice/We fear to fight for happiness/We always get reason to fear/We no want die/We no want wound/We no want quench/We no want go
I get one child/Mama dey for house/Papa dey for house/I want build house/I don build house/I no want quench/I want enjoy/I no wan go/So, policeman go slap your face you no go talk/Army man go whip your yansh you go dey look like donkey/Dem leave sorrow, tears and blood

My people seem to be too afraid/ Afraid even of non-visible things/Fearful of the air around us/We fear to fight for freedom/We fear to fight for liberty/We fear to fight for justice/We fear to fight for happiness/Always devising reasons to be afraid/We don’t want to lose our lives/ Not wanting to be injured/Not wanting to die/ Not wanting to go (die)/Because: I’ve got an only child/My mother is still alive/My father is still alive/I desire to build a house/I’ve just built a house/I don’t want to die/I wish to have some fun/I don’t want to go (die) /As a result, you are unable to reply when the police slaps you/The soldier also whips you but you can only look on like a donkey/The aftermath: they leave sorrow, tears and blood...

40The collective social memory of the continent is occasionally tapped by the artist through retro tracks like ODOO, Look and Laugh, Confusion Break Bones (CBB), and Pansa Pansa which review his earlier works ODOO revisits Follow Follow, Zombie, Shuffering and Shmiling, and Unknown Soldier, as refreshing intertextual mnemonic device for highlighting shared struggles. The three albums narrate the anguish of a poet who is particularly pained by the personal and social toll the struggle has taken, and yet with victory not quite in sight.

Wetin I no sing?/About in dis country?/Sing-sing-sing/Till dey come/Burn burn my house/All my property/Burn burn dem/Beat beat me/Kill my mama/I must to looku and to lafu

What theme is it that my songs have not explored?/In this country;/Singing all along/ Until they came/And burnt my house/All my property/All burnt/Then they beat me up/And killed my mother/I can only watch and laugh

41In spite of identifying as exceptions figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Ben Bella and Nelson Mandela, in CBB and US, the artist laments the absence of any ennobling mark recorded by Africa’s ruling classes that is worthy of lyrical celebration. This situation seems to have consigned the artist with a social mission to a melancholic singer. It is with unmistakable pathos and almost self-doubt that the message is rendered in CBB:

Movement One:
My problem e no small at all
Nothing dey for me to sing about
If something good dey I go sing
Nothing good sef to sing about
Nothing good sef to sing
All di things wey dey e no dey good

Movement Two:
Vocal: If I sing say water no dey
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: If I sing say food no dey
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: I come sing say inflation
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: I come sing say Corruption
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: I come sing say mismanagement
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: I come sing say stealing by government
Chorus: Na old news be dat
Vocal: Di problem still dey paparapa

Movement One:
Mine is an enormous problem
There is virtually nothing else for me to sing about
If there were such issues, I would readily sing
But there is really nothing to sing about
Nothing to sing about
All that there is does not suggest the positive

Movement Two:
Vocal: If I sing about lack of water
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: If I sing of lack of food
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: Then try to sing of inflation
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: Should I sing of corruption
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: Then I sing of mismanagement
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: Should I sing of theft by government
Chorus: That would be an old news
Vocal: The problem simply persists

  • 15 . From Information, Copenhagen, February 23, 1977.

42There is something quite ominous about the tone of this, and especially the last retro tracks. As a case in point, immediately after the last review track—Underground System —Fela ceased to wax any other album till his death. (See discography) It reads like a rare irony of an artist ‘writing’ his own epitaph, having gone full circle as the composition of this musical evangelist shows. It is also suggestive of an activist artist with a peculiar hunch for the limits of reform, believing, as he did, in the inevitability of social revolution, even if the arts would only aid the crystallization of that process. It waits to be seen if Nigeria, nay African nations, can transform themselves into a modern state without some degree of class and ethno-national upheaval as evinced by this poet of rage. Particularly on Shuffering and Shmiling, Knud Vilby, a Danish writer, records Fela yabbing to the audience that, “Suffering has become a joke in Africa. In this society we have no values, no organisation and no objective. That is why we smile and suffer Smile and Suffer But we will fight for a new society fight to death. We, the African pioneers, are going to change the society”15

43The hidden transcript and symbolic refrain underlying the conclusion of Shuffering and Shmiling is what his “I dey looku and lafu” is about in Look and Laugh; which is also a device explored in Teacher: “Why I dey laugh?/ Man no fit cry.” It actually derives from a “Yorùbá dictum: òròt’ó bá ju ékùn lo, èrín laáfín nrín, implying that, “We laugh over an issue whoseá import is beyond sobbing.” Far from being mere cynicism, in its ultimate meaning, it is laughter both as elixir and as anticipation.

  • 16 . Christopher Alan Waterman in Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. (...)

44But the bard who must remain faithful to his art invariably gets in the way of entrenched interests. While succeeding Nigerian governments kept attacking Fela’s Afrobeat practice, the state paved the way for the popularization of other forms of music not considered threatening to the status quo. Whereas, for instance, “Juju portrays a traditional hierarchy mitigated by the generosity of the wealthy”16 Afrobeat contests that hierarchy and proposes the redistribution of social wealth. In the same vein, besides hostile governmental action, Afrobeat would soon encounter corporate intrigue from Decca, a recording label, over the radical song lyrics of Fela. Shortly after the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), Fela’s residence was razed to the ground on February 18, 1977 by an army detachment from the Abalti barracks, ostensibly for failing to release to the marauding soldiers a youngster who had fled into the sanctuary of Kalakuta Republic after a scuffle with these military personnel. This tension built up, and six months later, in a classic sonic censorship alliance between transnational (musical) corporate interest and the domestic comprador bourgeois class, Fela received a letter dated August 1 from Decca, complaining about certain aspects of his composition. Signed by one D.G. Benett, manager for Decca (West Africa), it reads:

  • 17 . From Fela’s correspondences.

Our London Headquarters has advised us to get you to correct STB/Colonial Mentality and Observation, Frustration of My Lady, by removing the objectionable words. They will be happy to wax and release the two records if words like “POLICE BEATING A WOMAN AND SOLDIERS ASSAULTING PEOPLE, and A JUDGE WEARING WIG AND GOWN AND SENTENCING HIS BROTHERS TO JAIL are removed from STB.”17

45Fela objected, went ahead and released the album, and thus signaled the birth of his own label—Kalakuta Records—with STB and Colonial Mentality as its first vinyl (LP Kalakuta KK001-A). There were, however, other forms of radical music censorship, more veiled but equally as pervasive in the course of Fela’s musical advocacy There were instances of hurriedly cancelled contracts by agents who got pressured to limit public space for the expression of Afrobeat performance; there were other times of bare-faced roguish occupation of outdoor venues of performance, or the boarding up of the Afrika Shrine by government agents even in defiance of court orders. Rather than be cowed, Fela would retort in his traditional sarcasm: “How can a government claiming to reduce unemployment be depriving a community of artists its legitimate means of income?”

Hostile Cities, Inhospitable Streets

46A recent publication by the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) on the state of the African city may have as well adapted Lagos as its generic reference when it noted:

  • 18 . Sam I. Mukoro in “Intra-Urban Pattern of Violent Crimes in African Cities: Lagos, Nigeria,” in Is (...)

The city is losing its public spaces and community areas; fortress-like private urban development is spreading, accentuating the social spatial and temporal segregation that already exists.18

47Noting that in the area of crime Lagos exceeded the national average of cases reported to the police, the writer adds:

  • 19 . Ibid., p. 66.

The population of-Lagos grew from 266,406 in 1953 to 665,246 in 1963; and the estimated population of greater Lagos rose from 1.14 million in 1963 to 3.55 million in 1976 and 5.69 million in 1991 respectively.19

48With the increasing crisis of urban growth in the continent, it is hardly surprising that a UNESCO study cited by Jinmi Adisa in the same volume, puts the number of street children and youth in Lagos at about 10,000; a not too dissimilar figure in many other African cities such as Nairobi which, in 1992, had 5,000 street children, and had by 1995 jumped to 40,000! Enugu, Owerri, Kano, Kaduna and Ibadan are a few other cities in Nigeria with a poor record of urban management and healthy space for displaced youth.

  • 20 . Ibid, p. 110.
  • 21 . Jinmi Adisa, “Urban Violence in Lagos.” in Eghosa G. Osaghae (ed.) Urban Violence in Africa. Ibad (...)

49The situation has been complicated by the fact that the post-civil war army in Nigeria has ’taken advantage of its professional training by using violent means to grab political power,’20 installing renegade factions of the civil political class, extorting the civilian population and creating a general atmosphere of fear and terror, particularly in the cities. Hampered by political considerations, the criminal justice system can hardly intervene on behalf of a hapless population, and as Adisa puts it, giving that legal aid is expensive, “The criminal justice system...offers little succor to the poor.”21

  • 22 . Ibid., cited by Jinmi Adesina, p. 140.

50The centrality of Lagos in this scheme derives both from the fact of its developed working class and protest tradition that dates back to late nineteenth century and also the fact of its being Fela’s site of practice. According to Makinwa Adebu-soye, “by the early 1970s it was estimated that metropolitan Lagos had 38 percent of all the industrial establishments in Nigeria, offered 45 percent of all industrial employment and produced over 50 percent of total industrial output.”22 Being home to early militants like Herbert Macaulay Nnamdi Azikiwe, Michael Imuodu and Mokugo Okoye, from across the country there could hardly be any more suitable setting for a political evangelical music such as Fela’s.

51The Lagos of the seventies reflected the height of the oil boom opulence, and the decadence witnessed in the next decade was occasioned largely through persistent mismanagement by a combination of a military and bureaucratic elite. Then the capital city of Nigeria; both government officials and members of the elite class displayed such conspicuous consumption (particularly between the regimes of General Yakubu Gowon, 1966-1975 and Alhaji Shehu Shagari, 1979-83) such as citizens had hardly ever imagined up till then. Chauffeurs of government officials blew sirens past traffic hold-ups, ignored the traffic lights (when they ever worked), and government Mercedes convoys sped past in utter disregard of speed limit. The elite solution to the chaotic traffic situation was always ad-hoc. Once, an army colonel named Paul Tarfa became a household name and a scarecrow for erring kids in Lagos, in his fire brigade bid to sanitize the city’s incessant traffic jam. For months on end, along with his cohorts, he would wield horsewhips in the middle of traffic and whip the population silly as a “means of resolving the perennial Lagos traffic problem.”

52Shortly after his residence was burnt, Fela waxed Unknown Soldier; bringing into focus this general injustice and the urban traffic situation. Deploying a familiar distance of the third-person narrator, the lyrics query the legitimacy of such military assault, asking:

Wetin dis Fela do?
Dis government e bad o
Fela talk about soldier
Wasting money for Festac
Fela talk about soldier
Flogging civilians for street

  • 23 . The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos in 1977.

What has this Fela done?
Thisgovernment is bad
Fela talks about the military government
Mismanaging funds for Festac23
Fela talks about the military government
Flogging civilians in the street

53It is however in CBB that the most graphic illustration of urban traffic chaos is given, not just as a literal event but also as emblematic of an elite that has lost initiative in shaping an enduring national perspective.

Motor dey come from east
Motor dey come from west
Motor dey come from north
Motor dey come from south
And policeman no dey for centre
Na confusion be dat o o

54Since then, none of the subsequent regimes has achieved a measure of planning for the city and, whatever his assumptions, by the time General Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), with the dependent nature of the state and official corruption at its peak, all that was left of the city’s industrial production base had disappeared. In this grim atmosphere, Fela had reacted to the acronym S-A-P as “Suck African People.”

55The city has always preoccupied Fela’s aesthetic imagination, and he found in urbanity an apt metaphor for the decentering of texts. For him, in this sense, the urban serves as the impulse for the transposition of aesthetic folk forms which he reconfigures into the context of city life. Themes impelled by the city and themes on the city abound in these albums: Bonfo, Abiara, Shakara, Lady, Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am (Palava), Go Slow, Alagbon Close, Monday Morning in Lagos, Upside Down, Johnny Just Drop, Yellow Fever, and Zombie.

  • 24 . Joyce Carol Oates, “Imaginary Cities: America,” in Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, eds. L (...)
  • 25 . Ibid. See Stephen Spender’s “Poetry and the Modern City” p. 45.

56Poets and other artists have always engaged the city once it emerged as a melting pot of various cultural topographies, with a good number of literary city forms emerging as a product of the human imagination: the heavenly city the kingdom of the dead, the city of God, the city of man, the city of the plains... attracting to itself presumably opposed images of the ‘sacred’ and the ’secular’.24 Fela is not alone in equating the city to a negation of sublime spirituality Stephen Spender had earlier noted that “... ever since the industrial revolution, the poets, instead of regarding the cities as centers of civilization, have regarded them as destructive of the conditions of which the supreme achievements of poetry in the past were created.”25

57Whereas other romantics generally withdrew from the city—Wordsworth and Coleridge—into the English countryside; Blake—into mysticism; or Byron and Shelley into their individual interiority; in Fela’s case, he simultaneously adored the rustic while also confronting a skewed urban space with its own very registers. In this, he was spiritually in consonance with Niyi Osundare and Okot P’Bitek, two major African poets whose verses betray a suspicion of the city’s ultimate intentions. He expressed the language of the new experience in a manner that romantics of the last century like Tennyson, Browning and Mathew Arnold did.

58Almost invariably the poet engaging the city with this sense of nostalgia becomes messianic. He aligns with the proletariat and champions their cause—which is precisely where the motif of proletarian-hero-as-victim in Fela’s works derives. The proletarian is always,

  • 26 . From the track Gentleman.

going him way,
the jeje way
somebody come bring
original trouble.26

Going his way
minding his space
some meddlesome bloke
aggressively challenges him to a duel

59Hardly making a distinction between the working class and the urban poor, we find his lyrical advocacy fusing the disparate concerns of the marginalized. Narrating the trivia that the disposable income of an average worker has come to, a situation that frustrates his every attempt to purchase a fan in the tropics, he concludes that enjoyment can never come im way/ in Africa him father land. There are other moments of aptly captured but disturbing images of the urban poor such as the anecdote of the emaciated worker who is wondering at the event of an earth tremor, unaware that the only tremor that there is, is his weak and trembling legs that are no longer able to support him. The narrator calls his attention to the ailment:

Looku you
No be ground dey shake
Na your leg dey shake
Looku you

Mind you
There is no earth tremor
It is your legs that are trembling

  • 27 . From the track No Agreement.

60Much akin to Maxim Gorki’s treatment of the city particularly in The Lower Depths, Fela engages the urban space in a manner that brings to the fore its inhabitants not as peripheral, shadowy figures but as victims of its alienation who, however, are bent on repositioning themselves to alter their states. Generally his character type, even if a victim, is an unyielding and an interrogating subject, singing along with him—No agreement today/ No agreement tomorrow/ Now/ Later/ Never and Ever27

61According to Fela, the city as presently designed, suffocates—not just physically but also psychologically In ODOO, he critiques the all-pervasive presence of the military in national life as psychological aggression meant to breed acquiescence by its sheer blackmail of dominance. This concept is expanded in Go Slow where individual and collective space is denied, arising from chaotic urban planning that has left in its wake an unbearable environment both for living and reflection:

Lorry dey for your front
Tipper dey for your back
Motorcycle dey for your right
Helicopter dey fly fly for your top o
You sef don dey for cell

There is a lorry ahead of you
There is a truck behind you
A helicopter is hovering over your head
You are already entrapped in a cell

62Dictators also become victims of the state of siege they unleash on society (by becoming prisoners of their own creation), as happens in the president’s entourage described in MOP:

One police go follow am
Hundred police go follow am
Riot police go follow am

One police follows him
A hundred police will follow him
Riot police will follow him

63The theme is further intensified in Akunakuna,

... he must get dispatch rider at any time
Bazooka go drop for front at any time
Long range tank must dey for back at any time

he must constantly be escorted by an outrider
(because) a bazooka can suddenly be dropped ahead
A long range tank must always be behind (the entourage)

  • 28 . As observed in a private discussion by the Nigerian poet Remi Raji.

64The city, in other words, imprisons and, for him, imprisonment is not merely a physical expression but “every condition of the leash.”28

65Much later, the artist’s persistence in reinventing an urban lore and creating alternative mores, deploying a language of resistance and contesting official ‘truth’ came to rub on the younger generation of Afrobeat musicians—a theme which is fully explored in the concluding chapter. Given the pan-generic nature of his creative enterprise, the cultural practice came to bear on the other arts too. Even though for centuries the continent’s plastic and textile arts had always experimented with forms, the histrionics of his band, and his own peculiar couture, in animist and abstract lines, caught on particularly with Togolese and Béninoise textile hawkers who could be seen displaying such models for sale on the city’s several beaches. The Glendora Review, an “African Quarterly on the Arts, Vol. No. 2”, has a cover design in the traditional Fela album mosaic. The Nigerian media, scholarly journals and literary works engage in a Fela referencing in the choice of headlines, tides and mythopoesis. A 1997 journal article in the mode of postmodernist theorizing by Pius Adesanmi in the Post Express Literary Supplement (PELS) had the same title as Fela’s “Clear Road For Jaga-Jaga.”

66Perhaps the broad latitude of the PELS can be better understood by the fact that its editor, Nduka Otiono, stands out as a particularly experimental writer whose fiction and poetry keep straddling genre classification, and between his Voices in the Rainbow (poetry) and The Night Hides with a Knife (fiction), we find a very intimate intertextual engagement with Fela’s art. In spite of the limitations imposed by calligraphic representation, The Knife qualifies as performance fiction in the same manner that Voices anticipates more than a contemplative read. Otiono’s intimacy with Fela does not derive merely from the similarity of a thematic concern that ranges from urban chaos, social displacement to unemployment and military rule, but the ability to convey the narrated mood with complementary registers. These are registers, like Fela’s, hewn from the public works department and the urban subculture. The prisoners’song in “Crossfire” illustrates the point:

  • 29 . See Nduka Otiono’s The Night Hides with a Knife. Ibadan: New Horns, 1996, p. 29.

Sin-ci norning, I never sumoku
God go punish -i warder29

Since morning, I haven’t had a smoke
May God punish the warder

  • 30 . Ibid., p. 55.

67All through the two collections, we are intermittently shocked by a staccato of rude registers in the writer’s bid to riffle up, into public consciousness, those silenced discourses of the underprivileged. Hence, we find a libertine, even desultory register only appropriate to match the occasion, which may confound only if we fail to locate a Lord-of-Misrule festival setting already created. Nothing is sacrosanct in this festival such that Sandra’s breast may hang “... firmly with the pointed arrogance of a teenager’s,”30 in the same manner that Fela’s carni-valesque performance is punctuated with “s’ondo?” (have you seen the clitoris this way?)

68The manipulation of diverse proximity of authorial distances aids Otiono’s interventionist aesthetics. With the opening of “A Will to Survive”: “Survival is a cruel battle of wits,” coupled with the narrative technique of “Wings of Rebellion” (chapters in the fiction), we find social commentary distilled into the voice of a self-conscious narrator, very much in character with Fela’s constant displacement of the third-person for a first-person personae who could equally be the author-artist, as we find in Army Arrangement:

Me Fela I challenge Obasanjo
I say na wayo e dey
all di time

  • 31 . Olusegun Obasanjo, the military Head of State of Nigeria between 1976 and 1979.

I, Fela—challenged Obasanjo31
Saying he’s been deceitful
all this while

69Besides the fact that allusions are constantly made to Fela’s lyrics by Otiono’s characters, Fela is also incorporated into the narrative transaction, such that his tape is rolling in the background (as the story tells us), thereby serving as a narrative subtext meant to testify to a committed art. What invariably emerges is a Felaesque narrative space, expansive and non-linear, where a rude narrative voice prances unhindered, declaim -ing and yabbing.

Conscious Caliban

70The choice of a language of communication has always coincided with Fela’s perception of who his primary audience is and, even here, we find convergence with the three broad Fanonean stages he underwent. He sang mainly in English in that phase of his high modernist mode of African-American jazz tradition with tracks like My Baby Don’t Love Me and Everyday I Got My Blues; in “Yorùbá, during the reactive ethno-nationalist phase (having experienced racism in the West); and pidgin, once Pan-Africanism became his main ideological focus, and the need to cultivate disciples to this creed.

71His version of Pidgin English strove towards the Midwest variant spoken in the Sapele-Warri areas of Delta State in Nigeria—generally regarded as the standard Nigerian Pidgin (henceforth NP). The convenience of this variant for other users of the form, in the vortex of a politically charged language situation like Nigeria’s, cannot be divorced from its emergence among minority nationalities. Its cultural dominance over politically dominating larger language groups such as Igbo, Hausa and Yorùbá poly-nationalities is not new in history A most ready example is the cultural incorporation of Fulfude by Hausa language in spite of the fact that Fulfude was the language of the conquering Fulani nationality after the 1804 jihad in northern Nigeria.

72This is not to suggest, however, that the NP both at Kalakuta Republic and the Afrika Shrine does not hold promise for the inflection of many other variants in Nigeria and, particularly from Anglophone West Africa. On the contrary research conducted in the subregion reveals a symbiosis of loan words derived from those sources and the broadcast of registers of Fela’s cultural practice in these countries. Constantly referencing Ghanaian folk forms in several lyrics, a country he considered his spiritual home, he sings entirely in Twi in the track Fefe Na Eye Fe. Phrases and terms used in ITT such as Ichibuzi (Tonga), Tiafi (Gaa), Sakarame (Ethiopia), Saluga (Hausa) and Unusi (Igbo), used to describe the traditional method of feces disposal in various parts of the continent, are only a few of the breadth of such borrowings.

  • 32 . This was Fela’s conception of his extended household.
  • 33 . Ben Elugbe, and Augusta Omamor, Nigerian Pidgin Ibadan: Heinemann, 1991, p. 12.

73This is hardly surprising for, apart from the role of the mass media in popularizing a deviant cultural practice (especially outside Nigeria), Kalakuta in its heyday was residence to “every African escaping persecution,”32 a truly micro Pan-African commune. An important factor that aids the normative role that NP plays in the commune is the existence of a creolized pidgin among the younger generation from the Midwest (mainly Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaw) for whom pidgin is a first language, spoken as a primary language in a manner that pidgin is not among the numerical majority Yorùbá nationality in the Lagos area. I find the suggestions of Ben Elugbe and Augusta Omamor on the subject quite persuasive, both on the count that “Pidgin is decidedly a recent development in metropolitan Lagos” and the fact that “there was linguistic heterogeneity all along the coast, except for the Yorùba part.”33

  • 34 . See Dick Hebdidge, “Reggae, Rastas and Rudies,” in James, Curran, et. al. (eds.) Mass Communicati (...)

74For a language that first emerged from contact established with trading and colonizing missions in the Niger Delta, and later transferred to the ‘interior’ Midwest, Fela’s role in further broadcasting the language was preceded by first ‘domesticating’ it in Lagos, and transforming it (along with other composers) into a valid medium for serious musical composition. By using pidgin to contest the ‘airspace’ of the linguistic (English) code of officialdom, he gave prestige to it and helped in transforming it into a prominent language of the broadcast medium. Being the official language of the commune, this status came to confer a privilege on the variant which others aspired toward as a means of gaining the social exclusivity and identity against official culture which the republic typifies. This is in many respects similar to the manner in which Rastafarians and other subcultural groups use language as an “effective means of resisting assimilation and preventing infiltration by members of the dominant groups.”34 While it is correct that pidgin has become a language used by all classes in the Nigerian society as Elugbe and Omamor assert, it is indisputable that there is a higher dexterity of use, with a variety of coded decoys and hidden transcripts, among persons for whom it is the only medium of communication. This is more so for a community of artists constantly targeted by a repressive state. This dexterity is manifested at the various levels of Kalakuta speech act, ranging the lexical-conceptual structure of their tenses, morphological realization patterns in verb phrases and an increased syntactization in word order. Surely there are codes for identifying security agents, demobilizing enemies and generally ‘surviving,’ which I believe disclosing, will not only further endanger these habitues but also amount to an abuse of confidence generously granted a researcher.

75The structural pattern of the more open transcript noticeable in the song lyrics conforms with the general usage of NP in a number of ways. Fela uses the repeated adjective qualifier to intensify meaning as in the lines “Na so so water for Africa,” and “Good good things e go dey happen” of Original Suffer Head and Pansa Pansa respectively Juxtaposed against the abundance of water so described, he says there is not a drop for citizens to drink. In Alagbon Close, he narrates the ordeal of the suspect against whom the police “... go bring dem dog to bite bite you.” Not done, the police “... don butt my head with dem gun.” In capturing this brutality against his person, Fela transforms a noun (butt, of a gun) into a verb, a process. The interrogative clause “No be” in BONN anticipates an affirmation:

No be outside police dey?
No be outside soja dey?
No be outside court dem dey?
No be outside magistrate dey?
No be outside dem kill dem students?
No be outside all dis dey happen?

76The affirmation is eventually given by the chorus: Na craze world (it is a crazy world), implying the extent to which the public sphere has been circumscribed in spite of the presumption of living in a free (’outside’) world.

77Like Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer persecuted for his alternative vision, Fela is essentially a deconstructionist whose creative spiel is at its best when subverting standard norms and coinages. He stretches to the limit the centrifugal potential of language through his re-coinage of standard acronyms and words in order to subvert actual and perceived hegemonic constructs. During Yabbis sessions in the Shrine, in between the night’s musical performance, he either heightens the trivial into a grotesque, laughable proportion, or deflates presumed formal categories such that they are relieved of their larger-than-life image and re-cloaked in their-ordinary human dimensions. In other words, he creates a burlesque scenario with which he demythologizes the dominant discourse of the ruling elite while at the same time empowering the margins. In a country where the military uniform is dreaded by citizens as a semiotic of power symbolized in the repressive state, Fela, in Fear Not For Man, emboldens the margin to deride it, reminding that:

Uniform na cloth
Na tailor dey sew am
A (military) uniform is also made of normal threads
(And just as well) sewn by a tailor

78Playing his usual Hermes, he alters each of these standard acronyms into novel utterances:

VIP (Very Important Person)—VIP (Vagabonds in Power)
BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)—BBC (Big Blind Country )
BONN (West German city)—BONN (Beast of No Nation )
SAP (Structural Adjustment Program)—SAP (Suck African People )
US (United States of America)—US (Underground System)
COP (as in police)—COP (Country of Pain )

79While he taints in the negative such references that appear to reinforce institutions or concepts of (authoritarian) power, he cloaks in positive registers others that pertain to his vision of African humanism; hence:

MASS (as in the political mass)—MASS (Movement Against Second Slavery, and Music Against Second Slavery)
MOP (as in cleaning up):—MOP (Movement of the People.)

80These ribald practices inform the performance of yabbis at the Shrine, where Fela highlights otherness: that latent silence and potential alternative in every discourse. The linguistic potential for this has its background in his Yorùbá tonality where any utterance beyond the phoneme can become victim of a tricky polysemy Hence, Àbújá, the nation’s capital, differently pronounced in this game of playful distortion could become Abiija, a short cut.

81In what must now appear like an irony, given that he died of an AIDS-related complication, Fela had said that the developing world was bound to contract AIDS once it started taking aid from the developed world. In another breath, he could not understand the whole fuss about the emergence of violent cults in Nigerian universities given that the institutions are structured along a ‘Fa-Culty’ system, which in Yorúbá will translate as ‘invitation to cult.’ Germany he says, can hardly be blamed for the world wars of this century since the Yorùbà rendition of the name ’Jà-mà-ni’, with a silent [i] initial position, means ’it is about war’. When officials of Motown, the American recording label arrived in Lagos to sign a contract with Fela, he suddenly gave an impossible condition that frustrated the business executives. Once they left, Fela explained to fans and acolytes at the Shrine that he reneged when he suddenly realized the Yoriiba etymology of ‘Mo-ta-óùn’ (Motown), which is, “I have pawned my voice!”

Between the ‘Mass’ and the ‘Popular’

  • 35 . Karin Barber, ed. in introduction to Readings in African Poplar Art. Oxford and Bloomington: Jame (...)

82By describing Afrobeat as a popular music we may not necessarily be stating the obvious, because there has been a major confusion in clarifying such related but different terms like ‘popular,’ ‘mass,’ ‘folk,’ and ‘people’s’ art. As a result of the ideological inflection assumed in the discourse of some of the forms, a watertight definition has become all the more difficult. Karin Barber had partially alluded to this in noting that “there is a vast domain of cultural production which cannot be classified as either ‘traditional’ or ‘elite,’ as ‘oral‘ or ‘literate,’ as ‘indigenous’ or ‘western’ in inspiration, because it straddles and dissolves these distinctions.”35

  • 36 . See ibid and Michael Etherton, The Development of African Drama. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1982 (...)
  • 37 . Dapo Olorunyomi, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Art.” Ph. D. graduate seminar, Ilorin. 1991. In (...)

83Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel attempt to distinguish between ‘folk,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘mass’ art. The identification of popular art as an interest of study for them, is itself informed by the significant difference observable between the form and folk artistic production in the same way that written literature was predicated on oral literature. The main distinction they make between folk art and popular art is that, unlike the latter, folk art is a pre-industrial variant of popular art. Barber complements this view in identifying another level of difference in the fact that, generally unlike in folk music proper, popular music is produced by professionals and they are mainly in the urban centers. With mass art, there is general agreement that it shares the modern medium of communication with the popular arts; unlike popular art, however, it is considered a product of mass mechanical reproduction besides being potentially politically reactionary, as Theodore Adorno has argued.36 To further clarify the popular art debate, Karin Barber isolates two features of the same phenomenon: “emanating from” or “belonging to” the people; while the first aspect is concerned with the origin, the latter emphasizes the interest it serves. Even this has received a sharp critique by Dapo Olorunyomi who notes that “there is nothing in the internal character of the text to assist in the definition, yet the externality of this reality cannot provide a sufficient basis for its definition.”37

84While the distinction between folk art and popular art is fairly clear, the same cannot be said of popular art and mass art. Since their features could overlap on a continuum rather than through any fundamental lateral shift, to insist on a rigid taxonomy may only impoverish the debate. It is perhaps more helpful to identify the features identified with each, especially in relation to the sort of ideological preference earlier expressed by Adorno. For instance, even while in general decline, elements of the folk survive, and supposedly mass forms such as the Nigerian Jùjú and Fújì music, and the so-called junk press have demonstrated the potential of popular forms in specific contexts. In the aftermath of the annulment of the general elections of 1993 by General Ibrahim Babangida, this “junk” press—so-called because of a preoccupation for its breezy, personality slant of story ideas— momentarily joined the pro-democracy advocacy media offensive, contrary to the general public’s perception of their traditional practice. The latter Fuji music, too, in spite of its conservative ideological character has, through a secularizing hybridity blunted the sharp edges of the Islamic orthodoxy from which it emerged. It must be added though that these are only tentative gestures and a more compelling reason for such shift could also be the promise of an expanded income space in articulating the sensibilities of such diverse persuasions.

  • 38 . Michael Veal, “And After a Continentalist,” in Glendora Review: African Quarterly on the Arts, vo (...)
  • 39 . In other words, he saw his music as a dynamic process, which over the period became increasingly (...)

85Many factors inform the classification of Fela’s musical practice as popular (music) art, as distinct from mass (music) art. An important distinction usually alluded to in the debate is the relationship between the artist and his audience. Mass art, as it were, presumably panders to the whims of its clientele and does not engage them in problematizing their social situations in a manner that popular art does. By refusing to act the commercial art superstar, or what Michael Veal refers to as “substituting the myth of art as a communal enterprise in place of the Western myth of the concert hall, or of the artist as separate, other-worldly sphere,”38 Fela was invariably re-enacting the subversive griot of ancient times, with the burden of delivering his art uncorrupted by material lure. Rather than pander to the whims of even his audience, he challenged their claims, yabbed their assumptions and constantly invited them to a debate. Quite often at the Afrika Shrine when the audience would request that a particular number be played, he would counter after a mild debate, “I used to play that kind of stuff when I was blind like you now are.”39

  • 40 . See introduction to James Lull’s “Popular Music and Communication,” in James Lull (ed.) Popular M (...)
  • 41 . Ibid.

86The morbid fear expressed by successive Nigerian governments against a popular music expression like Afrobeat is not unique; countries as diverse as the Soviet Union and Canada have had to embark on such ventures at different times. A popular music research conducted by James Lull40 reveals that while the Chinese government embraces Western classical music as part of its ‘spiritual modernization,’ it strictly limits importation of youth-oriented popular music to avoid the sort of incidents in which China’s most famous western-style domestic pop musician, Ciu Jan, became a central figure in the ideological and cultural uprising for “freedom and democracy” in the late 1980s.41

  • 42 . Stuart Hall, “Culture, the Media and the ‘Ideological Effect,’” in James Curran et. al. (eds.) Ma (...)

87While the Nigerian state forbade the airing of Fela’s Afrobeat (even after his death, only a select few ‘harmless’ numbers can be aired), it actively encouraged other mass music forms like Jùju through generous allocation of air time and patronage, mainly because, unlike Afrobeat, Jùjú does not challenge its ideological assumptions or the elite project to “reproduce... its structure of dominance.”42 Herein lies the uniqueness of Fela’s Afrobeat form which, even as a popular musical idiom, exhibits a rare capacity to locate society’s sense of place, time and event, while also challenging the patronage structure on all these fronts.


1 . From Ogaga Ifowodo’s “Homeland,” Homeland and Other Poems. Ibadan: Kraft Books, 1998, p. 49.

2 . A phrase generally used, especially by members of the Young African Pioneers, to describe Fela’s ideological outlook. It is gaining increasing popularity with the evocation by Dede Mabiaku, one of the new-generation Afrobeat musicians in Nigeria.

3 . This is in reference to the 1978 incident when the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime clamped down on the student movement and banned its umbrella organization, the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS). The event has since then been generally tagged “Ali-Must-Go,” after the name of the federal commissioner for education, Col. Amadu Ali.

4 . Implies a shady deal.

5 . I would also like to acknowledge the particular recording of Mr. Idowu Mabinuori in Fela: Why Blackman Carry Shit. Kaduna: Opinion Media Ltd., 1986.

6 . See Jurgen J. Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996; see also Steven Seidman’s Jurgen Habermas on Society and Politics: A Reader. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, p. 233.

7 . Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963, p. 218.

8 . See Glendora Review: African Quarterly on the Arts. (vol. 2, no. 2,1997, p. 049.)

9 . Ibid.

10 . Benedict Anderson in The Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (London: Verso, 1983. p.15.)

11 . James C. Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, p. xiii.

12 . Kwesi Yankah, “Nana Ampadu, the Sung-Tale Metaphor, and Protest Discourse in Contemporary Ghana,” Joseph K. Adjaye and Adrianne R. Andrews, co-eds. Language, Rhythm and Sound (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), p. 63.

13 . This is how Iyiorcha Ayu describes the phenomenon in his book, Essays in Popular Struggle. Oguta: Zim-Pan African Publishers, 1985.

14 . The overall boss.

15 . From Information, Copenhagen, February 23, 1977.

16 . Christopher Alan Waterman in Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 213.

17 . From Fela’s correspondences.

18 . Sam I. Mukoro in “Intra-Urban Pattern of Violent Crimes in African Cities: Lagos, Nigeria,” in Isaac O. Albert et al. (eds.) Urban Management and Urban Violence in Africa. Ibadan: IFRA, 1994, p. 65

19 . Ibid., p. 66.

20 . Ibid, p. 110.

21 . Jinmi Adisa, “Urban Violence in Lagos.” in Eghosa G. Osaghae (ed.) Urban Violence in Africa. Ibadan: IFRA, 1994, p. 140.

22 . Ibid., cited by Jinmi Adesina, p. 140.

23 . The Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos in 1977.

24 . Joyce Carol Oates, “Imaginary Cities: America,” in Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, eds. Literature and the American Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1981, p. 187.

25 . Ibid. See Stephen Spender’s “Poetry and the Modern City” p. 45.

26 . From the track Gentleman.

27 . From the track No Agreement.

28 . As observed in a private discussion by the Nigerian poet Remi Raji.

29 . See Nduka Otiono’s The Night Hides with a Knife. Ibadan: New Horns, 1996, p. 29.

30 . Ibid., p. 55.

31 . Olusegun Obasanjo, the military Head of State of Nigeria between 1976 and 1979.

32 . This was Fela’s conception of his extended household.

33 . Ben Elugbe, and Augusta Omamor, Nigerian Pidgin Ibadan: Heinemann, 1991, p. 12.

34 . See Dick Hebdidge, “Reggae, Rastas and Rudies,” in James, Curran, et. al. (eds.) Mass Communication and Society. London: Edward Arnold Ltd, 1977, p. 427.

35 . Karin Barber, ed. in introduction to Readings in African Poplar Art. Oxford and Bloomington: James Currey 1997, p. 2.

36 . See ibid and Michael Etherton, The Development of African Drama. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1982, p. 361.

37 . Dapo Olorunyomi, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Art.” Ph. D. graduate seminar, Ilorin. 1991. Indeed, a rather timely caution has been given by others who observe that the designation ‘popular culture’ may be misleading insofar as it carries the implication that popular culture is as coherent and uniform as the official culture.

38 . Michael Veal, “And After a Continentalist,” in Glendora Review: African Quarterly on the Arts, vol. 2 no. 2. 1997, p. 051.

39 . In other words, he saw his music as a dynamic process, which over the period became increasingly spiritual.

40 . See introduction to James Lull’s “Popular Music and Communication,” in James Lull (ed.) Popular Music and Communication. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992, p. 14.

41 . Ibid.

42 . Stuart Hall, “Culture, the Media and the ‘Ideological Effect,’” in James Curran et. al. (eds.) Mass Communication and Society. London: Edward Arnold, 1977.

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