Fela in Lagos, reflections and ruminations

I don’t know what to make of the Finnish elections last weekend, where the nationalist True Finns party won 39 seats of a 200-seat parliament.

The Nigerian elections, which have led to violent clashes in Northern Nigeria where hundreds of people have now died, sadden me even more so.

To make sense of things, I tried to find similarities between the Finnish and Nigerian elections, which took place simultaneously, but I could not find a single link flowing through my Finn-Nigerian blood other than the timing.

Ultimately, the things I love about Nigeria and Finland are not affected by the elections. One’s soul has no political or ideological affiliation.

Being Finnish and Nigerian, I’ve always wanted to find links between the two apart from myself. One such association that always amused me is the story of Nigerian musical legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, forgetting one of his twenty-seven wives at the airport in Helsinki, Finland’s capital.

On Thursday at the Fela in Lagos show, the role of the wives was ever-present. Ah, the Queens!

When asked what attracted him to his wives, or his Queens as he referred to them as, Fela once said:

“Sex! I thought they were sexy and fuckable. That’s what attracts me to a woman first … It grew into something else after though. Something special…Did I sleep with all of them on the night of the marriage? No. Man, I said I married twenty-seven, not seven!”

After his longest stunt in prison Fela returned to his home, the Kalakuta Republic, to find that some of his wives had new boyfriends and some had even born children for other men.

Patriarchal and chauvinistic as he had been, Fela now refrained from any accusations of infidelity. He understood his wives, he said. Shortly after he divorced the Queens but those who wanted to were welcome to remain in his Kalakuta home. The reason he gave for the divorce was:

“People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control other people’s bodies. I think the mind of human beings should develop to the point where that jealous feeling should be completely eradicated.” – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti

When Fela died in 1997, he was a tormented man. Although he suffered from AIDS, the disease, which he himself never in fact acknowledged, was not the entire cause of his pain. Instead his agony arose from a life dedicated to empowering Africans through activist work and getting little in return. Despite the sacrifices he made for his countrymen – the turning down of huge amounts of ‘dirty’ money from record labels; the weekly donations of his accumulated wealth to his community; the establishment of the Shrine; the multiple and soul-destroying imprisonments; the telling the truth at all costs – in spite of all he suffered for his people, Fela felt his attempts to create any significant change were unsuccessful, the masses were too brainwashed by ‘colonial mentality’. As stories of heroes such as Fela often end, it was not until he died that his sacrifices became fully appreciated.

Sahr Ngaujah plays Fela in the critically acclaimed musical which now has also arrived in Fela’s hometown, Lagos. The false Nigerian accent takes away from the magic of Fela, but what the portrayal truly lacks is actually the poignant and intense passion for political justice that drove Fela to pursue his musical career. Fela’s music is not primarily about dance, or fashion, but about pain. If you listen carefully, almost every song is characterized by a deeply entrenched agony over Africa’s maltreatment, and of African’s blindness to this maltreatment.

Don’t get me wrong; I think Ngaujah was great, the musical is vibrant and its aim is to make the audience feel good which it does. As such, it represents one side of Fela’s life eloquently, the beautiful Queens, their energetic African dancing, the magnificent Afrobeat energy of the music. Sahr Ngaujah does a very decent service to Fela in that light. On the other end, however, the side of Fela’s life that he suffered sorrow, tears and blood for – the political and spiritual activism– that side of his, Ngaujah was unable to capture.

The question is, could anyone?

Tickets for Fela in Lagos are available here.

  • http://www.1morespoon.com Tunde

    Well written piece. I don’t anyone can ever portray Fela as he was. He was a very special person. A serious Agbami Eda.

  • MsAfropolitan

    HI Tunde, thanks for reading and thoughts. I miss Fela so much!

  • Agnes Kuye

    Nice piece Minna, having seen the play twice in London I can only agree…(((“The question is could anyone ? ” )))is a very good one.
    ……When I first saw the play, I had to get over the authenticity of the accent very quickly, so as not to spoil my experience.

    There were other portrayals of NaijaISMS that did not sit right with me & made me flynch in my seat,but seriously on the whole Sahr Ngaujah did Fela proud. If you allowed yourself to be lost in the moment, you truly could of been transported back to those original FELA performances.

    The FELA musical was was soooo long overdue & at least our hunger/thirst has been fed a little. I’m also loving that there are new recruits to the AFRObeat world, eager to know more about Felas life through the musical. INSPIRATIONAL !!!

  • POTO

    I once lived with 7 female flatmates. Kept the medicine cabinet stocked with Tylenol, eventually stopped going home. But much respect to Fela! His reasoning sounds logical to me.

    • POTO

      Please don’t tell anybody but they were all white and I always keep in touch!

  • POTO

    Thing is I love Africa sooo much!!! I love Afro-beat so so much! I even had a dream I’m going to settle down in Africa one day. I love Europe too but I can’t… I mean, Africa is just where it’s at – isn’t it? I know how badly Fela must have love Africa.

  • Tuuli

    Finnish and Nigerian! Nice one. Did you grow up in Finland? Would love to hear more about that, me and my son live a dual life between Ghana and Finland.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Tuuli! I grew up in Nigeria, have never lived in Finland but visit quite often.

  • Felix

    I saw Fela on Broadway last night and I left the show with a deep sense of dissatisfaction, but couldn’t articulate to my friends why. Your article does just that. Exquisitely written!