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No Agreement: The Hypocritical Commercialization of Fela’s Legacy

fela

No Agreement: The Hypocritical Commercialization of

Fela’s Legacy

 

“No agreement today/

No agreement tomorrow/”

—Fela Anikulapo Kuti (With Africa 70), “No

Agreement,” No Agreement, 1977.

I’m sorry: It’s not enough to simply

watch “Music is the Weapon,” or pour through Michael Veal’s 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!

There’s a Fela hysteria sweeping the

nation, captivating minds that ordinarily wouldn’t have nothing to do with Afrobeat,

or couldn’t 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 Marley’s

legacy, and reduced his politically-charged music to mere aestheticism, had

eyes set on an equally great icon—Fela 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 Ali’s 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 death—in Tupac’s case—and since retirement—in Ali’s case—both have been resurrected

as mainstream icons, accepted and appreciated by former presidents, current

presidents, and, as was revealed a couple of weeks back, even

the Vatican.

It’s hard to miss why: When alive and in

the prime of their youth, both—in equal measure—could push back hard against

any attempts to be made into caricatures by Hollywood’s billion dollar machine.

But, as confirmed with Will Smith’s 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 Fela’s true legacy. Those who were in touch with his music understood

how much a threat he was to General Sani Abacha’s regime of terror, not only for

his courageous songs of protest but for his growing popularity amongst oppressed

peoples in Nigeria—and 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 wasn’t 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 Fela’s 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

couldn’t be didactic or condescending. The agent had to walk amongst the

people—not ahead of them. The agent had to speak to the people—not over them.

Fela mastered these concepts and, in short time, rose as leader of a revolution

threatening to bring back power to the disenfranchised.

“No

agreement now, later, never, and ever/”

But Fela also knew more was at stake. He

knew without

the backing of megalomaniac Western companies and governments, most of

those leaders couldn’t 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 Capitalism—Africanism.”

This made Fela an even greater threat—to 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 Fela’s legacy—a

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 hasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 don’t expose Western hypocrisy. Dance, but don’t make us uncomfortable with your political

monologues. Dance, but don’t tell us you can do more than tap-dance and scat

nonsensically. Entertain us, by all means, with your best act. But don’t get

all preachy or philosophic

Fast forward to last month, the Times couldn’t

be restrained from gushing and salivating over the “pot-smoking,

sax-tooting” icon whose “charismatic authority” can now be consumed by White

liberal elites—without the messiness

of incendiary political rhetoric. There is even a parallel constructed between

“FELA!,” “Hair,” “West Side Story” and “Bye Bye Birdie”—fitting. And though the

author is mildly titillated by the political and cultural undertones that are

brought to bear in Fela’s work, he believes “it’s the music and the movement

that tell us most about the man and his world.” Thus his excitement couldn’t be

contained since “‘Fela!’ never stops dancing.” And even while paying opportunistic

homage to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Fela’s 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 Fela—a 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 couldn’t have been more rewarding until she mentioned that the

allure of his music had more to do with its rhythmic intensity—which, she

explained, is the perfect treadmill accompaniment—than 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 wouldn’t be worthy to unloose? Not unless

this revolutionary has been dampened and extinguished of all political flame!

But Jay-Z and Will Smith aren’t 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-Hop—fans 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 it’s one thing to sample; it’s

radically different to rise to the level of statesmanship Fela remained at from

the late ‘60s till his death August 2nd 1997. It’s not just enough

to scream “Free Mumia” at concerts, when the prison industrial complex, and the

many corporations without whose help it wouldn’t function, are left

unaddressed.

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 can’t even conceive independent thoughts about their Black president

be allowed to contaminate Fela’s legacy with their arm chair-revolutionary

drivel?

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

possible—carrying 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?

Tolu

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.

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