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Tolu Ogunlesi: The Father, The Sons And The Afrobeat Spirit



Last Wednesday, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would have turned 76. I recently saw Finding Fela, an interesting new documentary about the making of the Broadway musical that captured the imagination of the world in 2010/11, and have decided, for today’s column, to reproduce a piece I first wrote and published five years ago, about the genius and his legacy.

Sent by his preacher-father to England to study medicine, 20-year-old Olufela Ransome-Kuti changed his mind and settled for music instead. It was in England that he, for the first time in his life, realised he was “African”, and that his skin colour marked him out as different. In an interview years after, he recalled seeing vacant houses with signboards that read: “House for rent: No coloureds, No dogs.”

After five years in England (during which he formed Koola Lobitos, his first band) he returned to Nigeria. The move back home would be just like that of his cousin, Wole Soyinka, three years earlier.

In 1969, Fela decided to tour the United States. It turned out to be even worse than England, in terms of racial tensions. Of that sojourn, Fela said: “America took me by surprise completely.” In addition, visa issues (for his band) rendered the quest a “complete failure.”

But even whilst proving to be the rock upon which his grand dreams would be dashed, America was also to provide the definitive turning point in Fela’s career. He met Sandra Smith (later Sandra Isidore), who introduced him to the writings of the fiery African-American civil rights activist, Malcolm X, and to the philosophy of the 1960s African-American nationalist movement, The Black Panthers.

His greatest legacy, arguably, would be his two sons: Femi and Seun, the eldest and the youngest respectively. Between them both, Afrobeat and “Felasophy” are today alive and well, albeit in varying forms, and reaching audiences that missed the first golden age.

Femi, the older of the two, was born in London in 1962. His mother was Remilekun, Fela’s first wife. Seun was born 20 years after Femi, to Fehintola, one of Fela’s dancers cum backup singers.

Seun was only 14 when his father died, but had been singing on stage as part of Fela’s band since he was nine. By the time Fela died, Femi had already established a name – and band (Positive Force) – for himself, and it therefore fell on Seun to take over Fela’s Egypt 80 band. This he did with the support of Baba Ani, saxophonist and long time band member and Fela associate. This arguably makes Seun the more direct inheritor of the Afrobeat legacy.

But it would not be totally correct to tag Femi and Seun “Afrobeat musicians.” Just as their father, decades ago, synthesised the unique Afrobeat sound from highlife, funk and jazz, the sons are also evolving – even if tentatively – their own styles, simultaneously building on and departing from their father’s trademark sound.

“Afrobeat is just my starting point,” Femi told The New York Times in 1999. Seun, having inherited the Egypt 80 Band, does live performances of his father’s classics, but has also started to define his own musical course, releasing his debut album, Many Things, in 2008. “I don’t see a conflict in continuing my father’s legacy and finding my own voice at the same time,” he said, in an interview published on the Cartell Music website.

One thing is certain – the two sons will never be able to step totally out of their father’s shadows. They seem to have come to realise this, and have accepted it as the fate that they have to contend with. “If people say I’m in my dad’s shadow, I don’t care. It’s a good place to be. He was a very great man. But I don’t think that’s who I am – I’m an artist on my own,” Seun said, in a 2008 L.A. Record interview.

“How do you as a son live up to such a big name?” Femi asked, in a recent interview with Nigeria’s NEXT newspaper. But in practice he does not seem fazed, and he has two Grammy nominations (2003 and 2010) as evidence.

Fela was an all-out rebel, a rabid critic of Nigeria’s military dictatorships, its capitalist barons, and its foreign religions (Christianity and Islam). No Nigerian musician went in and out of jail as much as he did, for everything from sedition to violating currency regulations to possession of hard drugs. Fela also formed a political party, Movement of the People, and sought to run for the Presidency of Nigeria.

Writing in the Observer Monthly Magazine in 2004, Peter Culshaw describes him as “the ultimate rebel, a spiritualist, pan-African revolutionary and a prodigious dope smoker and polygamist.” Time Magazine, in the profile accompanying Fela’s listing (alongside The Beatles) in its 60 Years of Heroes Issue in 2006, described him as “compulsive and rebellious, a kind of gifted and outspoken teenager who never quite grew up” and also as “a musical shaman, a political ideologue whose ego and genius were as large and colourful as Africa’s most populous country itself.”

Fela was truly a larger-than-life character, a drama King with a flair for subversive word play. Newton Aduaka, the Paris-based Nigerian filmmaker recounted to me an incident that happened at a Fela concert he attended in the early 80s, at one of Lagos beaches. “(T)here was a 7-Up flag flying, there was a Nigerian flag flying, and as soon as he came on stage he said take those two flags down… one is a colonialist flag, the other flag belongs to a country that I don’t belong to.”

The sons, like their father, are ‘fighters’. After Fela’s death, a rift emerged between them, with Fela’s band members siding with Seun against his elder brother. The rift degenerated into a bizarre court case, which saw Femi facing accusations of being jealous of his younger brother.

While carrying on their father’s anti-establishment stance, Femi and Seun have thus far avoided some of their father’s excesses: The blatant womanising (Fela married 27 wives in one day in 1978), the public veneration of weed (Seun still smokes; Femi says he stopped in 2006), the brushes with the law, and the strident denial of the existence of AIDS.

Until his death in 1997 from complications arising from AIDS, Fela denied the existence of the disease. In his book, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway, Trevor Schoonmaker writes: “In a sad irony, Fela’s final song was called “C.S.A.S. (Condom Scallywag and Scatter),” a song where he claimed the use of condoms to be “un-African. Yet, Fela died from the illness he never believed in…”

Femi on the other hand has been a vocal HIV/AIDS campaigner, since his father’s death. He has performed at concerts to raise awareness and funds for the work of NGOs, and appeared in commercials. His 2001 album, Fight to Win, contained a track titled, “Stop AIDS.” For his work in the fight against AIDS, UNICEF in 2002 appointed him as its Special Representative. At that time he said: “One of the most important actions for people in influential positions is to raise the alarm around AIDS loudly and clearly.” Tragically, his father never realised this.

Both sons also share with their father a strong cynicism about the institution of marriage. Femi, like his father, started out monogamous, but that ended with his 2003 divorce. Seun has hinted that he will never consider getting married.

Fela strove to cultivate an image of himself as invincible, immortal even. And this showed in his names: Fela (“he who emanates greatness”), Anikulapo (“one who has death in his pouch”) – with which he replaced “Ransome”; and Kuti (“one who never dies”).

But Femi has not shied away from revealing his emotional pain to the world. Of the period a few years ago during which his mother died and his marriage crashed, he told Remix Magazine: “It was the hardest time in my life. I’d lost everything I really believed in, my family… it has changed my way of thinking. My beliefs had been taken from me.”

Seun is the one more likely to replicate his father’s brashness of speech and manner (and style of dressing).

Both sons have already established their international careers, with Femi nominated thrice for the Grammys. There is often the temptation to compare both of them, in a bid to establish who the better musician is. Apart from the obvious fact that they belong to different generations, and do not play the same style of Afrobeat, the truth is that Fela’s shoes are more than big enough for his two musician-sons to play in. “My father didn’t just influence Nigeria – he influenced the world,” Seun once said. In other words, trying to define Fela’s legacy as a contest between his sons is a diminishment Abami Eda’s genius does not deserve.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi and published with permission from the writer, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from PUNCH


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