by Demola Rewaju
If private bodies and individuals love Fela and eulogise him, it is acceptable but as a state, are we giving officialdom to the antics of a man who pranced the stage wearing only pants (not trousers, underwear pants like those some of us wore as kids) and often with a large roll of marijuana in one hand? A man who got married to 27 wives in one day, had children by many others and eventually died of AIDS?
I have nothing but respect for the late musical icon Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Incidentally, I mentioned him as one of the artistes who had a profund influence on the Nigerian music industry in this controversial piece I wrote last week. Fela’s music for me is timeless – Palaver is probably my ‘most’ favourite and in the days of students’ unionism, his songs never failed to inspire one to rebel against the government.
A part of Fela’s life was dedicated to the fight against the corrupt military governments that ruled Nigeria for a long period. The educated Fela understood their corruption quite well and sang about it in his trademark pidgin language so that the masses would understand. Fela’s jibes were not however reserved for only the government as he never failed to highlight the hypocrisy in churches, mosques and of the everyday individual. His song Gentleman includes a satire about about a man wearing a three-piece suit and sweating heavily all in the name of being a gentleman.
The greater part of Fela’s life though was a rebellion – against order, against the norm, against tradition and against mass thinking – a rebellion many of us would freely subscribe to these days but Fela was also a bohemian.
2014 marks 100 years after the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria by Lord Lugard in 1914 and the birth of the idea of one nation. In celebration of this, President Goodluck Jonathan as part of a series of activities to commemorate that year has approved a list of awardees from different backgrounds including Lord Lugard himself and his infamous spouse Flora Shaw, HRM Queen Elizabeth II, the fathers of independence, all past heads of states and presidents, Pastor E.A. Adeboye, Sheikh Gumi, Gani Fawehinmi, Hubert Ogunde, Chioma Ajunwa, Kanu Nwankwo, Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga, Patience Ozokwor, Osita Osadebe and many others, of course including Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Bearing in mind that no list can ever be satisfactory to every single Nigerian with an opinion, I won’t complain about the non-inclusion of names like Amos Tutuola and Gabriel Okara (since J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, D.O. Fagunwa, Cyprian Ekwensi and Chinua Achebe are there) or about the absence Cardinal Rex Lawson or Victor Olaiya (the latter played at Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and I just love the Cardinal). Hajiya Gambo Sawaba is very worthy of honour but I’m sure both she and Chief Gani Fawehinmi would roll over in their graves if the learnt their names are on a list that also includes the late Gen. Sani Abacha.
No list can be agreeable to all of us though and if it passes a form of the Pareto 80/20 rule then it’s agreeable but Fela’s name on that list sticks out like a sore thumb. The justification is that he was an internationally acclaimed artiste and that much is true but let’s face it: honouring a man like Fela sends a terrible message to the people, something like Barack Obama awarding Tupac Shakur a Medal of Freedom.
Considering the reverence in which many of us hold his memory, this is a somewhat hard piece for me to write and I won’t lie – Fela is a role model in many areas for me. I often go to his grave and still drove past his final resting place in Ikeja as recently as last week on my way to that joint called Goathunters not far from Gbemisola street from which balcony Seun Kuti coined the name – Forever, Eternity Lives in Africa from the acronym of his father’s name that hot day in August 1997.
His courage, fearlessness and doggedness are traits largely missing in this generation. Once he was arrested butt-naked in one of this eastern hemisphere countries (Germany or Ukraine, I’m not sure) and he insisted he wouldn’t get dressed if they insisted on arresting him. Fela spent the night freezing in one of their cells but he refused to wear any shred of clothing other than the pant he had held in his hand when they burst in. On another occasion, Fela was shown a wrap of Indian hemp confiscated from his belongings and he asked the arresting officer to show him the alleged evidence. The officer stretched out his palm, Fela snatched the substance, threw it into his mouth and swallowed it. The police beat him up and locked him in jail while waiting for him to excrete the weed. Fela’s mother, the late Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (also on the award’s list) prepared him a daily meal of vegetable soup and eba for three days before Fela finally excreted – there was nary a trace of marijuana and that episode became the inspiration for the song ‘Expensive Sh*t’.
If private bodies and individuals love Fela and eulogise him, it is acceptable but as a state, are we giving officialdom to the antics of a man who pranced the stage wearing only pants (not trousers, underwear pants like those some of us wore as kids) and often with a large roll of marijuana in one hand? A man who got married to 27 wives in one day, had children by many others and eventually died of AIDS? A man whose record of about 200 arrests by the police is longer than that of some modern day activists and it was often on various counts of illegal possession of drugs? What message would the government of the day be sending to my generation and those before and after us with such an action? Will this government tolerate a modern Fela if one were to rise up today? Abuja needs to do a rethink if it’s not already too late.
If Abami Eda were alive, I’m certain the only thing he would have for this government would be yabis delivered in his no-nonsense manner. Bohemians do not accept government awards because their lives are by choice anti-establishment. This award may even demystify the legend Fela has become and perhaps an official apology would be better.
As his daughter Yeni Kuti would often say in trying to interrupt someone on that morning programme she does with three other ladies, I go further and ask – Excuse me, why is Fela on that list???
Demola Rewaju blogs from www.demolarewajudaily.com
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.