Words by Yoram Allon
“Music has to be for revolution!”
No individual better embodies African music of the 1970s and 80s – and its pivotal role in postcolonial political activism – than Fela Anikulapo Kuti. After taking his native Nigeria by storm, the pioneering musician’s confrontational Afrobeat sound soon spread throughout the continent and beyond, even as it made determined enemies of the repressive Nigerian military regime. As a result of continued persecution, unorthodox behaviour and, eventually, complications due to HIV, Fela’s final years before his death in 1997 at the age of 58 saw his musical output and influence wane.
Within the past decade, a resurgence of interest in his work has posthumously re-popularised him, culminating in the massively successful Broadway show FELA!, directed by Tony Award-winner Bill T Jones. Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney (whose works include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks) interweaves the show’s skilful staging with a treasure trove of period interviews and hypnotic performances to recapture the essence of the man, his music and his enduring cultural and political relevance.
Stylistically it’s not an innovative film, yet it remains an expertly crafted, if traditional, documentary comprising found footage and talking heads. In using the FELA! production as a framing device, there are many scenes of concert performance; these are all electrifying, but the way in which Gibney unfolds the story of Fela’s political opposition, in particular his unbounded courage, gives the film a greater power than simply offering a profile of an innovative musical artist. In this, the film enjoys vicarious glory via the fusion of content and form; it appears a great piece of work because its subject is a great, true artist.
The portrayal of Fela’s raging against the machine is fascinating, and is itself a thoroughly worthwhile study of post-colonialism and corrupt governance. But this is balanced appropriately with the exploration of Fela’s musical breakthrough, in creating a new genre by taking local hi-tempo dance music and infusing it with sophisticated jazz and tight, tense and funky soul. Via his own club, the Shrine, Fela’s music became more political and directly subversive; which increased his state of personal danger from the Nigerian regime. This came to a head after his ambitious attempt to set up an independent Kalakuta Republic in his own large compound. Ultimately, Fela’s influence helped bring a change towards democracy in Nigeria and promoted pan-Africanist politics to the world. The power and potency of Fela’s message is still current today and is expressed in the political movements of oppressed people, embracing his music and message in their struggle for freedom. In its effective portrayal, this film is as hard-hitting and truthful as the man and his music.