The Madness of Fela Kuti

445185068_1f1b48a98dBy Quinn Welsch @quinnwelsch

Nigeria has never been a dominant place in America’s public consciousness. Despite the country’s current struggles with the Ebola pandemic and the religious extremist group Boko Haram, Nigeria is generally dismissed as another hot place with bad traffic somewhere in Africa.

This delusion is shattered in director Alex Gibney’s new documentary Finding Fela, which screened Monday and Tuesday at the Manship Theatre. The film details the life of Nigerian musician, cultural icon, pan-Africanist and political activist Fela Kuti, a relatively unheard of name in America.

Gibney’s documentary depicts Nigeria in the 60s and 70s as a country wracked by war, civil strife and military oppression. The Nigerian people’s reaction comes in the form of the chic and outspoken Fela, wearing only a banana-hammock and sporting a spliff the size of a parking cone.

Fela is largely credited for establishing the music genre known as Afrobeat, a combination of jazz, soul and traditional Nigerian music that can produce 45-minute free-flow jam sessions filled with all manner of instruments (think of a much more danceable Bob Marley) whose vocals were like lyrical lectures, often condemning or satirizing the Nigerian government.

Fela’s outspokenness would make quick enemies with the Nigerian government, which retaliated with a raid on his compound that resulted in the death of his mother. But it was this very relationship that fanned Fela’s creative fire. Unlike many musicians, Fela’s performances rose to new heights as he continued his career, both musically and
politically.

But for all of his political knowledge, Fela’s ignorance and disregard for AIDS would prove to be his end. Fela did not believe in protected sex. On top of this, he had 27 wives and led a highly promiscuous lifestyle. He is described in Gibney’s documentary as “a poster child for AIDS in Africa.”

Following World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Fela’s story serves as a cautionary tale, especially in Baton Rouge, which has the second highest rate of AIDS in the country, according to 2012 data from the Center for Disease Control. The data shows that there are 27.5 people with AIDS per every 100,000 in Baton Rouge. That number is down slightly from the previous year’s data which shows 38.1 people with AIDS per every 100,000.

But perhaps this is Finding Fela’s weakness. Though the documentary claims that Fela was ahead of his time, it only skims over his dismissal of AIDS and his disdain for “European” medicine. Instead of championing the musician as a timeless vox populi, the documentary portrays Fela as another casualty to disease.

The documentary also skims over his demeaning attitude toward women and the distance he kept between his children. But then again, maybe the documentary’s shortcomings are simply a reflection of Fela’s own shortcomings.

Femi_Kuti_2My first run-in with Fela was in my senior year of college, during a class on “African Science Fiction.” I didn’t know why the class was listening to Fela’s “Zombie,” but it had an undeniable rhythm.

After watching Gibney’s documentary, I understand why we covered Fela in that class.

“Music is the weapon of the future,” Fela said in the documentary. “As far as far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be for enjoyment. Music has to be for revolution.”

Though it’s hard to say how far Nigeria has actually come since Fela’s time. At the least, Finding Fela takes us out of our cozy American lifestyle and throws us into the intense lifestyle of Afrobeat, gyrating hips and all.

Like many who are attracted to Fela’s music, I think the producer of “FELA!” the musical Bill Jones said it best: “What is really compelling to me is what is mad in him.”

Available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox, Playstation and Vimeo on Demand.

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