Fela Kuti is a more important countercultural figure than he ever took credit for. In the early 1970s he created the musical genre Afrobeat, a synergy of influences from his upbringing in Nigeria, where he was raised on church music, and the jazz, funk and soul he heard after moving to London and the USA.
Back in Nigeria, Fela's mother was an anti-colonialist and feminist activist, and as Fela’s music developed his lyrics began to adopt a similarly anti-establishment sentiment. During the 70s, after he’d returned to Nigeria from the US, he set up Kalakuta Republic, a commune and recording studio, and declared his band independent from the State of Nigeria. From this point onwards he was locked in a constant conflict with the Nigerian government.
In his new film, Finding Fela, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney traces the artist's life and music. I caught up with Gibney recently for a chat.
VICE: Hi Alex. So how did the Fela documentary come about?
Alex Gibney: Well, I'd heard Fela’s music before, but for some reason I just kind of let it go, but then I saw the musical Fela! and it grabbed me. I wanted to go back and dig in. Stephen Hendels, the producer of the play, approached me. He wanted me to do a film about taking the American cast and crew to Lagos, where they would perform the show.
So, in fact, all of the performances in the film that are taken from the musical are actually performed in Lagos. But along the way we all became entranced with the real Fela! and found some footage that had never been seen of him. So he kind of demanded to be included, and the focus of the film changed from that to this whole idea of "finding Fela" – "Who is this guy and why does he continue to mean so much to us?"
Someone in the film mentions that the musical threatened his status as a musician who's remained relatively underground. Is there a danger of the film doing that? Is that even a concern for you?
It’s not a concern to me. But I think what Fela!’s choreographer, Bill T Jones, was talking about were a number of Fela aficionados who always liked the idea that they were in possession of some kind of secret information. “Oh man, if you haven’t heard this guy Fela Kuti you’re in for a treat. Just keep it under wraps.” Bill was facing the task of trying to turn Fela’s life into an entertaining Broadway musical, and I think a lot of people were suspicious of his motives, because it was like, “You’ll destroy him if you try to make him too popular.” But I didn’t see the harm. The musical is how I rediscovered Fela.
How is the musical not the same as going to see a Fela Kuti impersonator? I've always found musicals quite cheesy – is something not lost in that?
It’s not the real Fela Kuti, and I think there's something about seeing the real Fela Kuti in the film that's important and valuable. I wouldn’t say it’s like seeing a Fela impersonator. I mean, I think it’s a very powerful work of art, because it structures an evening around his music and some of his own struggles. But it imagines it as an evening at the shrine. It's not Fela himself, but I think it’s a fully realised work of art, only with a different agenda to that of Fela’s.
Fela went to Trinity College in London, where he listened to jazz, played the piano and learned the trumpet. How did his time there change his music?
He was supposed to go to London to be a doctor, but realised that wasn’t going to work out so went to the Trinity College of Music. We show his report card; you can see that he failed a number of his courses there. It was more about hanging out at the clubs in London and listening to jazz at the time. He was deeply influenced by jazz and integrated that into a kind of contemporary pop music in Nigeria called highlife. That, plus what he discovered in America in terms of the beginnings of funk and James Brown, all came together to create this music called Afrobeat, which is a wonderful distillation of different musical threads. Everything from traditional African polyrhythms, to Christian church music, to funk and jazz.
Soul musicians were also adapting the highlife genre. How did Fela build on it?
He just put more elements in the stew. One of the things he discovered in America – along with the funk vibes that James Brown was utilising – was also that, even though he had a lot of disparate elements, there needed to be a central groove. That’s where Tony Allen the drummer was really helpful. Later on there was a different kind of hypnotic, almost trance-like, sort of groove. But in the earlier days it was a funkier groove that made everyone want to dance.
I found it fascinating how, at his live shows, Fela would talk to the audience and involve them in the creation of his music.
His back and forth with the audience was call and response. But it was also a kind of discussion group about issues of the day, where Fela would hold forth about what was going on. It's kind of like Lenny Bruce in his period where he stopped doing comedy and was just talking to people about the abuse of power by the US government. Fela worked that into a whole sort of musical review. It was a great moment. A lot of kids from Lagos would come and hear that kind of political rapping that he was doing, and engaging with questions from the audience and launching into songs.
How did his life change when he met his girlfriend/ muse, Sandra, who features in the film? She introduced him to the Black Power movement, right?
It was a huge change for him. They connected in some visceral way; it was like love at first sight – by her description, anyway. She found him to be somewhat naïve politically and set about educating him and radicalising him, and I think she succeeded. He went back to Nigeria with a sense of purpose that his music was going to get funkier, but that it was also going to be about more important things and he was going to use it as a weapon. Which he did. So she was tremendously influential. She introduced him to Malcolm X and a whole host of radical thinkers who opened Fela’s eyes in a big way.
What kind of stuff was he singing about after that?
Well, she talks about how, when she first met him, he was singing in Nigerian Yoruba, and she asks him what that song is about. He says it’s about his soup. She laughed and said, “What are you singing about your soup for? There's a lot of important stuff going on and you should sing about more than just your soup.”
So he started to sing about the important issues of the day. In particular, he started attacking the corruption, venality and abusive power of the military. So a song like "Zombie" imagined the Nigerian military as unthinking stooges – something that did not go over very well with the military-led government. Subsequently, in 1977, they burned his compound to the ground and threw his mother of the second floor. She died of those injuries.
Was that when he got arrested?
Yes. He himself got his leg broken. He was beaten. But, as Tony Allen says in the film, it didn’t make him stop. He redoubled his efforts to go after the government. He wrote a song called “Coffins for Head of State” about him taking his mother’s coffin and presenting it to the government, saying, “You’ve killed my mother. Here’s her coffin.” So he didn’t back down at all. Just the opposite.
Fela had AIDS and was having unprotected sex. The musical left that detail out; why did you choose to include it?
I felt that it was important to include the topic because it was real. It was something [the musical left] out because they couldn’t deal with it in the kind of depth that it should be dealt with. They picked a moment in time for Fela and didn’t go to the end.
I thought that going to the end was important, as you have to recognise that one of the prices Fela paid was his sanity. Like many powerful, charismatic men, he became somewhat delusional. He liked having a lot of sex and didn’t want to be impeded by the fact that he had HIV. In fact, he didn’t even want to recognise the existence of such a disease. You know, he was the great Fela Kuti, and he had death in his pouch [he changed his middle name to Anakalupo, which literally translates to, "He who carries death in his pouch"). And so he refused to recognise it. Even as lesions appeared on his skin he said he was like a snake, just growing a new skin.
But, of course, he put a lot of people at risk, and it was a very important moment when, after he died, his brother – who, ironically, was a doctor – stood up at his funeral in Nigeria and said very forthrightly, “If [HIV] can kill Fela, it can kill anybody." That was a very powerful moment, and it helped people move forward. But you have to reckon with the fact that Fela was delusional about it.
What did you take away from making the film? What do you think Fela's legacy is?
He was an incandescent figure. We just talked about some of his failings, but later in his life he also made some of the most beautiful music he had ever made. A song like "Beasts of No Nation" has not only very angry lyrics about universal human rights, calling out politicians such as PW Botha and Margaret Thatcher, but also has a groove that is almost transcendental and spiritual. It seems to be calling forth something deep, like a kind of collective on consciousness or something. It’s haunting and it’s beautiful.
He was a very important figure for us to understand in terms of how an artist can stand up to power. Not by adopting the message of the powerful and urging people to go out and get guns, but by saying you can take art within you, and that can fill the heart in a way that no dictator can extinguish. That, to me, is interesting. Here is a guy who has sacrificed everything for his art.
Finding Fela is out in UK cinemas today.
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