No Agreement: The Hypocritical Commercialization of
No agreement today/
No agreement tomorrow/
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (With Africa 70), No
Agreement, No Agreement, 1977.
Im sorry: It’s not enough to simply
watch Music is the Weapon, or pour through Michael Veals impressive
biography, Fela: The Life And Times Of An
African Musical Icon, or, for the younger ones, bob your heads frantically
to the pulsating polyrhythms of Red Hot +
Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti. Nope!
Theres a Fela hysteria sweeping the
nation, captivating minds that ordinarily wouldnt have nothing to do with Afrobeat,
or couldnt tell you what place on the world map Nigeria is located. But this
is the sort of event those of us who not only grew up listening to Fela, but
grew up in the conditions he spoke life and meaning to, saw approaching a
million miles away. We knew the same cast that commercialized Bob Marleys
legacy, and reduced his politically-charged music to mere aestheticism, had
eyes set on an equally great iconFela Anikulapo Kuti.
Hollywood liberal commercialization of
Black culture is nothing new. For as far back as history dates, the relationship
of Blacks with Hollywood has been of co-optation and commodification. Nothing
new here. But Hollywood especially prefers these Black rebellious souls when
dead or too impotent to fight back. Tupac and Muhammad Ali are two succinct
examples. When alive or, in Alis case, alive!,
both were reviled by the White bourgeoisie of Hollywood, portrayed as
miscreants with maniacal motives. Both caught hell for bearing their heart out
and telling the white world what it needed to hear from a people taught to bow
and scrap before their former masters offspring. Both faced the brutal
backlash of a White majority not too fond of indignation from Negroes. But
since deathin Tupacs caseand since retirementin Alis caseboth have been resurrected
as mainstream icons, accepted and appreciated by former presidents, current
presidents, and, as was revealed a couple of weeks back, even
Its hard to miss why: When alive and in
the prime of their youth, bothin equal measurecould push back hard against
any attempts to be made into caricatures by Hollywoods billion dollar machine.
But, as confirmed with Will Smiths horrendous portrayal of Ali in the 2001 biopic, in due time even
historical facts could be rewritten and rearranged to meet specific agendas.
This should give worry to anyone familiar
with Felas true legacy. Those who were in touch with his music understood
how much a threat he was to General Sani Abachas regime of terror, not only for
his courageous songs of protest but for his growing popularity amongst oppressed
peoples in Nigeriaand beyond. Fela was also a threat because, unlike musicians
before him, he saw the unity of African countries as more important than the
singular independence of those same countries from forces of colonialism. Fela
was a miracle to millions whose freedoms had been truncated to stash the trunks
of dictators and money-worshipping embezzlers. No artist before him had spoken
with such unflinching candor to authority figures whose names immediately
conjured urban legends of mass-executions, mass-graves, and mass kidnappings.
Fela wasnt just some half-naked multi-instrumentalist secluded in a Shrine.
The music was, yes, integral to his
mission; but the message was more important. Fela understood, much like Paulo
Freire did (Pedagogy of the Opressed),
that to help an oppressed people out of their subdued state, the pedagogue, or
musician in Felas case, had to minister to them in ways unlike that which the
oppressor had used to keep them fearful and feckless. Any attempt to reach them
couldnt be didactic or condescending. The agent had to walk amongst the
peoplenot ahead of them. The agent had to speak to the peoplenot over them.
Fela mastered these concepts and, in short time, rose as leader of a revolution
threatening to bring back power to the disenfranchised.
agreement now, later, never, and ever/
But Fela also knew more was at stake. He
the backing of megalomaniac Western companies and governments, most of
those leaders couldnt carry out serial crimes against their own people. When
he toured the U.S. in the late 60s, the militancy of Malcolm X and the Black
Panther Party helped put in perspective many of the ideas he had about liberating
Africa from its oppressors grips. And as he prescribed much later on, the key
to African unity was simple: No Marxism, no Leninism, no CapitalismAfricanism.
This made Fela an even greater threatto Western powers. Fela understood that,
since the advent of colonialism, any African who dared unite Africa faced not
only insurmountable obstacles but also the very real prospect of death. Kwame
Nkrumah was living proof.
Today, rarely are these issues
discussed. What we have, instead, is a fetishization of Felas legacya
hypocritical commercialization that seeks to rebrand that ferocious rebel into
a commodity. Now, you can go to the store or Broadway and purchase a piece of Fela.
It was surprising to read the New York Times review of the hit
Broadway show, FELA! Hardly a progressive or leftist or liberal
establishment, the Times hasnt been
too kind to Fela in the past. More than two decades ago, when Music is the
Weapon was first released, a Times critic,
John Corry, complained
that Fela’s accent may make him unintelligible to American listeners. Strike
one! He went further in disparaging the careless thinking of the romantic
French film makers who let Fela tell lies about the evils of his government:
In 1979, in an extraordinary experiment in democracy, the military government
voluntarily returned the country to civilian rule. A country made up of 250
ethnic groups held elections. The military replaced the civilian government in
December 1983, at the time he was interviewed, Fela was living in a free
society. Strike two! (Never mind that Fela was arrested some 356 times for his
activism.) This great apologist for the evils governments do felt so swell
about his astute knowledge of
Nigerian history that he couldnt help sharing it with the world: Nigeria has
no tradition of concentration camps or pogroms.
Politicians may be bought, but they are not often shot. Thus he
concluded: As a political statement this is not much. The music, however, is
awfully good. Strike three!
Back to my earlier point: The
dance-monkey-dance model is simple when applied to insurgent Black artists:
Dance, but dont expose Western hypocrisy. Dance, but dont make us uncomfortable with your political
monologues. Dance, but dont tell us you can do more than tap-dance and scat
nonsensically. Entertain us, by all means, with your best act. But dont get
all preachy or philosophic.
Fast forward to last month, the Times couldnt
be restrained from gushing and salivating over the pot-smoking,
sax-tooting icon whose charismatic authority can now be consumed by White
liberal eliteswithout the messiness
of incendiary political rhetoric. There is even a parallel constructed between
FELA!, Hair, West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdiefitting. And though the
author is mildly titillated by the political and cultural undertones that are
brought to bear in Felas work, he believes its the music and the movement
that tell us most about the man and his world. Thus his excitement couldnt be
contained since Fela! never stops dancing. And even while paying opportunistic
homage to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Felas mother), a worthy emblem of womanhood,
he cautions that the heart, soul and pelvis of Fela! are located most
completely in the phalanx of female dancers (I counted nine, but they feel
legion) who stand in for the 27 women Fela married.
This is the new Felaa trendy, tasty flavor.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon
a librarian who felt it necessary to share her love for Fela with me. The
conversation couldnt have been more rewarding until she mentioned that the
allure of his music had more to do with its rhythmic intensitywhich, she
explained, is the perfect treadmill accompanimentthan any other factor. Being
the perfect gentleman, I smiled, walked way, and shook my head in mild
astonishment. Of course worse reasons have been afforded.
The Broadway show, Fela!, is being
directed by renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jones has also been joined
recently by Jay-Z, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett Smith as co-producers. Who
would have thought in a million years that Jay-Z, a staunch
capitalist with a greater
affinity for the Horatio Alger mythology, and Will Smith, a Black actor who
has proven cash rules not just everything around him but often his integrity as
well, would want to align themselves with a revolutionary artist the latchet of
whose shoes in 10 lifetimes they still wouldnt be worthy to unloose? Not unless
this revolutionary has been dampened and extinguished of all political flame!
But Jay-Z and Will Smith arent alone.
The conscious sector of Hip-Hop has found much use for Fela in recent years.
Everyone from Mos Def, to Talib Kweli, to Erykah Badu, to Common, and even
Alicia Keys have either sampled his music or voice on songs. I applaud the
candor and courage of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Erykah Badu in trying to raise
the consciousness of a dominant, White Hip-Hop audience that might be merely
interested in voyeurism than wrestling with themes of White Supremacy and how
it often works unimpeded in Hip-Hopfans who, as Brother Ali
once put it, feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and
prefer mostly white MCs. Credit is due. But its one thing to sample; its
radically different to rise to the level of statesmanship Fela remained at from
the late 60s till his death August 2nd 1997. Its not just enough
to scream Free Mumia at concerts, when the prison industrial complex, and the
many corporations without whose help it wouldnt function, are left
As Fela gains increasing grounds in
Hip-Hop, and producers seem more interested in the horns of his music than the
heart which produced them, what would be the response of those who hope to keep
burning the candle lit by his poetic wisdom and political wit? Should the same
folks who cant even conceive independent thoughts about their Black president
be allowed to contaminate Felas legacy with their arm chair-revolutionary
As you read this, biopics are being
prepped to cash in on the recent rise in demand of all-things-Fela. More
than likely there would be factual errors of epic proportions. There would be a
disproportionate obsession with his 27 wives, rather than the philosophies
undergirding such practice, or the tradition it is merely a legatee of. As Beverley
Hills capitalizes on sensationalism in portraying Fela, and refuses to cover
the complex, complicated, conflicted legacy he left behind, would true Fela
fans, worldwide, stand up and remember him in the most fitting way
possiblecarrying on the tradition of critique against imperialism; in whatever
shade or shape it comes? Would we let the Hollywood machine transform Fela
Anikulapo Kuti into a flawless, lifeless, feckless commodity, rather than a
legitimately flawed human being with the will of steel strong enough to make
life a living hell for the VIPs of the world?
Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on TheDailyVoice.com
and other online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.