Stir It Up
Fela's last laugh
The father of Afro-beat’s long march to Broadway and Music Hall
Published: February 14, 2012
Fela's parents were social activists, yet they still had entry to Nigeria's polite, bourgeois society. Fela totally rejected it as a colonial mind-set, and preferred what he saw as traditional African values. The song "Gentleman" lays out his stance: "I no be gentleman at all, I be Africa man original." Middle-class Nigerians were horrified when their daughters wandered over to Kalakuta or the Shrine where Fela reveled in all-consuming sensuality. His appetites were legendary.
"He liked to eat," says Stein. "When I ordered food for Fela, I would order six meals. He would wolf it all down. He liked to eat; he liked to fuck, a lot, and play music."
In 1978, to mark the anniversary of the attack on Kalakuta, he wed 27 women at the rebuilt compound — a repudiation of European marriage and mores in favor of polygamy. He pointed out that European men cheated in their marriages, and said they should bring their mistresses home to live with their wives. Later he developed a revolving system of 12 wives at a time before renouncing marriage altogether in a mass divorce.
For years he bought space in newspapers to print his controversial opinion pieces; he formed his own political party and was blocked in an attempt to run for president in 1979.
"He was on a mission for the mental liberation of Africans," Ghariokwu says. "The colonial mentality has been a problem in Africa for hundreds of years. Presently, it's self-colonization bringing the same forces to bear. He was a complex character, an egalitarian, a social critic. He was so brave in taking on the military governments of Nigeria. He didn't give up."
But there was a price to pay. In addition to numerous beatings, he was jailed for 20 months in 1985-86 on trumped-up charges of currency smuggling. Stein says Fela was arrested more than 200 times. He was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during a concert there. In 1993, he was charged with murder but was exonerated after several months in jail. But that year he stopped recording and began to fade from view. In 1997, he was arrested for possession and drug trafficking. Months later, Fela died from conditions related to AIDS.
In 1999, Universal Music France remastered 45 Fela albums and released them on 26 CDs. Since then, a number of other re-releases (including a recent Questlove-curated vinyl box), a film, and the music careers of Fela's sons Femi and Seun have helped keep his music and ideas alive in popular culture, as have a proliferation of Afro-beat bands, seemingly in every big city in America. Fela!, which started out as workshop collaboration — now backed by Jay-Z, and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith — has taken his posthumous popularity to an unprecedented high.
Locally, Fela! is something of a programming departure for Music Hall, which is more known for jazz acts and Tyler Perry plays. Most Tony Award-winning shows land at the Fisher or Fox theaters, but Music Hall President and Artistic Director Vince Paul saw Fela! before it hit Broadway and was determined to bring it to his stage.
"Our mission is to evolve culture and discuss issues through dance and drama," Paul says. "There are parallels between what is happening in Lagos and what is happening in Detroit — social injustice, greed, who's the teacher. It was so uncanny. I thought, 'Detroit has got to see this.' It became a hassle. It probably wouldn't have if the play hadn't gone Broadway."
In fact, the Fela! phenomenon isn't just at Music Hall. Paul created partnerships with dozens of local organizations and as a result there are Fela-related events all over town. The Wright Museum of African American History and the Carr Cultural Arts Center have exhibits of art inspired by Fela. Ghariokwu lectured on African art aesthetics at the Detroit Institute of Arts last week. Wayne State University, Wayne County Community College District, the University Music Society at the University of Michigan and some area high schools are all hosting events related to Fela and his music. In addition to the coup of bringing in the show, Music Hall is creating a model of how to engage the community in productions.
"Arts are important," Paul says. "A revolution could start over a play. I ran it for three weeks as opposed to a week because I felt like the message wouldn't stick around if it ran for just a week. If we could have it for two months, it would have been better. It's fun; it's great; it's going to stick in your brain. I wonder if we aren't teaching a lesson of what we can do if we work together."
Paul sounds like he's ready for one of those meetings at the Kalakuta Republic, where Fela and his compatriots wrangled out their ideas. Fela's life work was a struggle for the disenfranchised. And if a play about his life can bring a community together, then maybe that will engender a smile from Fela beyond the great divide.
"I always think of him laughing," Stein says. "I consider Fela to be a social engineer. He couldn't have gone through all the punishment and sacrifices that he made unless he was full of love. His message was universal."
That's why people in Detroit should be able to smile, even laugh, at a play about a musician from Nigeria. He's universal.
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