A few months ago, I had a very long chat with Uwa Erhabor. If you don’t know who he is, Uwa is the author of Kalakuta Diaries. Erhabor was Fela’s close friend, personal aide and confidante who also lived in Kalakuta Republic. We talked about a lot of things. We discussed ethnic conflicts in Nigeria, afrobeat today, the misrepresentation of Fela and his beliefs, how his staunch Pan-Africanist ideals have been commodified for capitalistic gain and how the more it gets commodified, the less Pan-Africanist his image becomes. Fela Kuti’s music was subversive. Many of those listening to Fela are the children of those he was subverting who continue to maintain the structures he vociferously fought against. That irony is lost on them. Maybe it isn’t.
We discussed the fact some of the people who have gotten fat off Fela’s name were many of his adversaries. Those same people were instrumental in his persecution. All those “Ogas at the top” who played a role in the vicious beatings he endured, his prison sentences, the burning of his compound, the rapes of the women in Kalakuta by the military and police; they are now all singing his praises and getting money in the process. Those people spent a big portion of their lives trying to suppress and destroy everything Fela stood for.
We also discussed the American labels that wanted to sign Fela. A lot of people don’t know that Motown wanted to sign him to a record deal. They had been trying to court him for years. They came to Lagos and agreed to offer him a million dollars, which was unheard of in the 80s for a “world musician”. Unfortunately, the American labels also wanted shorter songs. Songs suitable for radio play, songs more palatable to a western audience. Fela wanted to maintain the integrity of his music, and that meant that the songs would be long and they would have sociopolitical critiques. He could have been a very rich man if he signed to any of these labels and altered his music as they required, but for one reason or another, he didn’t.
Fela was also rough when he had to be. A lot has been said about Fela’s relationship with M.K.O. Abiola. The song I.T.T. (International Thief Thief) was a scathing attack on Abiola (and Obasanjo). What isn’t really discussed is how afraid Fela made Abiola feel. Fela scared him tremendously, as in trembling with fear. In this piece, I talk about how Fela walked into a journalist’s (Sam Amuka) office and saw Abiola there. The exchange went like this.
Amuka: Eh Fela, how nice to see you.
Fela: Yeah Sam, I was just passing by and thought to say hell… (Sighting MKO), what is this thief doing here?
Amuka: Fela please don’t start any problems.
Fela: (Now facing Abiola) Oga Mr. Big man, now you look like a frightened rat. There is nothing that would give me more pleasure than to blow your fucking face. But I am going to let you be for my friend’s sake.
After Fela left, a frightened Abiola thanked Sam Amuka for saving him. Fela also once gathered 10 buckets of shit, and tossed it at Abiola’s luxurious home in Ikeja. Abiola and his family fled.
On another occasion, Fela and his crew stormed the Decca Records offices and chased everyone out. They took over the building. They did that because Fela had been cheated financially. Decca released 10 Fela recordings without a valid contract. Fela said they would not leave the building until they were financially compensated. Those were his conditions. The Inspector General and police told the label that they would have to pay Fela his money. Do you know who was in charge of Decca Records West Africa at the time? None other than Abiola himself. He had an axe to grind with Fela, but once again, Fela got the best of him. He had to pay Fela his money so that he could get the building back.
The thing about Fela is that he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked it. Many people don’t know the extent of what he endured and how revolutionary he truly was. He wasn’t just singing and dancing.