The significance and diversity accorded to Black History Month this year in Leeds has been truly refreshing. With artists such as Akala and the poet Wole Soyinka already blazing the trail to diversify dialogues on African identity, perhaps it is relevant then to turn full circle to one of Africa’s founding forefathers in artistic expression and rebellion, the great Fela Ransome Kuti. The documentary recording this enthralling musician was screened at the Belgrave Music Hall, and provided a fitting tribute to the counter-cultural figure accredited with creating Afrobeat whilst standing up in the face of extreme oppression.
Here Fela’s life is stylishly portrayed through merging narratives, as the documentary tells Fela’s story whilst incorporating the recent Broadway production of Fela! in order to frame it within a modern context. The Broadway production is ultimately used as a way of exploring his lasting impact and legacy in the world today, whilst also providing an insight into the creative processes and challenges of directing such a problematic musical. These two narratives then produce interesting and differing ways of looking at Fela’s life, although it must be said that the constant presence of the Broadway adaptation could be cynically read as an advert in itself, inciting us to go out and perhaps watch the production for ourselves.
Fela came from an influential family in Nigeria whose roots were steeped in emancipation, with his mother being a potent figure for women’s rights on the continent. After receiving a classical musical education in England, he branched out and formed his own band entitled Africa 70 which played a mix of jazz and the native ‘high life’ music popular in Nigeria at the time. With the rise of soul in the 60’s and black liberation movements, Fela managed to combine all these elements into a coherent musical form which took Lagos by storm and catapulted his rise to fame in the period.
However, in light of the political unrest of postcolonial Nigeria, he became a crucial image of African counter culture as his constant resistance to the government and army elevated his musical prowess. His founding of the sovereign state of Kalakuta within his own compound incited repetitive raids on his home and brutal treatment of his family, to the extent that his mother was viciously murdered in one such attack. Fela responded defiantly through his music, with the song ‘Coffin for Head of State’ declaring that her body would be placed on the steps of the army barracks in a blatant gesture of refusal to back down.
Whilst his music and defiance had a touch of the visionary, it must be said that some of his less appealing characteristics are slightly glossed over in the film, particularly with regards to women. Fela was a traditionalist in many senses, taking wives when he pleased (he had 27 at one point) and treating them as he saw fit, sometimes with violence. The song ‘Lady’ encapsulates his ideology on women, and whilst the documentary attempts in many ways to come to terms with his more combustible elements, it equally looks to glorify his musical achievements whilst perhaps lightly brushing off the darker elements to his character.
Either way, the documentary makes enthralling viewing for the uninitiated to Fela’s life and music, and gives a decent and honest portrayal of one of Africa’s most significant artists to come out of the twentieth century. The raw power and energy of Fela is embodied on the screen, as his electrifying catchphrase ‘Music is a Weapon’ continues to resonate today within the artistic consensus of Black History Month.
Image: Jigsaw Productions/findingfela.com