Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: The Primary Man of an African Personality
by Jawi Oladipo-Ola
Frontpage Media, (Nigeria), 2011, 142 pp., ISBN 9789784998635
Reviewer: Sanya Osha
Some books are so badly written that they deserve to be read if only for their sheer ugliness. In this way, a critic has something to sink his/her teeth into. More important, such books demonstrate what must be avoided in order to write good books. Another reason bad books sometimes deserve grudging attention is that they may stand as a bastion against encroaching ennui and bad humour. Oh yes, read a bad book to store up your flagging spirits, read something so horribly bad to crack your ribs.
In this sense, Jawi Oladipo-Ola’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: The Primary Man of an African Personality: The Narrative and Screenplay fits the bill. Something that is immediately evident from the first pages of the book is the portrayal of Fela Kuti as an ideologue or better still a philosopher of black consciousness. In adopting this commonplace approach, it is often forgotten that what primarily gained Kuti fame was his music. So, rather than focus on the uniqueness of a musical form that fans such as Brian Eno have called one of the preeminent beats of the 1970s, Oladipo-Ola dwells basically on Fela Kuti’s pan-Africanist beliefs without giving a cogent explanation as to the wherefores of their evolution. It is important to reaffirm that he dwells on those beliefs rather than offer an insightful critique or re-appraisal of them.
The structure of the book itself is curious. There is a longish introduction focusing on Kuti’s well-known pan-Africanism. But rather than illuminate this strand of thought to highlight why it is distinctive and truly radical, we are overburdened by pages spouting platitudes, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods. And then there is a screenplay that begins with the most unimaginative way possible, in a classroom. Later on, there are well-known photographs of Kuti. These photographs do nothing to present a different view of the man. So, in terms of basic structure, the book is muddled. Is it meant to serve as some sort of biographical excursion? Or can it pass as a workable screenplay? On both counts, the book fails woefully as even the most significant milestones in Kuti’s life are omitted. It is difficult to imagine which credible filmmaker would agree to turn the script into cinematographic reality. It would be difficult to film because of its heavy didacticism and poor scenic development. And as a biographical engagement, the figure of Kuti is lost to entanglements and obfuscation. Thus, in trying to be a movie script and biographical essay at the same time, it fails woefully at both.
Nonetheless, Kuti’s stock as an artist of global repute is increasing each year. The well received Broadway musical, Fela!, mounted with the support of A-list Hollywood actor Will Smith and successful rapper Jay-Z, did a lot to re-inscribe the achievements of Kuti into the consciousness of different global audiences and generations. So instead of being portrayed as a narrow-minded ethno-centrist and misogynist, he becomes an exemplar of universal justice and constructive dissent. There are many Fela Kuti tribute bands in existence, such as Underground System, The Family Kuti and Antibalas. Afrobeat, the form developed by Kuti, has truly become a recognisable global brand. So, rather than his ideas on pan-Africanism, it is the infectiousness of his music that continues to win new fans. Oladipo-Ola completely fails to appreciate this fact. Instead, he concentrates quite crudely on attempting to foist an unsupportable degree of philosophical respectability on Kuti. Indeed, Oladipo-Ola is not alone in this undertaking. There have been quite a number of dissertations written on what some have termed ‘Felasophy’. Most of these often unduly eulogistic works privilege blackism as a philosophy of consciousness and action. But they often fail to critique ultra-nationalism and its possible ravages as a virulent form of ethno-centricism. It is rather troubling to note that the connections between pan-Africanism as a kind of essentialism and discredited manifestations of nationalism are never really addressed. This omission not unexpectedly leaves a latent fascism looming in the background. Many acolytes of the Kuti mythology put his pan-Africanism on the same level with African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara. In making such lazy associations without the necessary accompanying elaborations, they lose sight of what makes him a compelling, visionary musician.
Oladipo-Ola’s notion (can it really be called that?) of pan-Africanism flounders on a waste of anachronism and on the margins of modernity and globalisation. As a result, rather than being a way of embracing the future, it comes across as tasteless romanticism. If we go by his view, the African continent would only end up wallowing in the cloud of atrophy it seriously needs to shake off. Ideologies of blackness need not necessarily be reductive or even repulsive. Oladipo-Ola does not engage with noteworthy conceptions of blackness such as negritude or the thought of important black thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas or Frantz Fanon. Indeed, pan-Africanism and other similar ideologies have a long engaging history; merely putting up Fela Kuti as a pan-Africanist without locating his value within a precise niche in that tradition can appear rather lame. Kuti preached a strong and consistent message of black empowerment and achievement yet he was never at ease with Nigerian officialdom. In fact, his frequent brushes with authority almost cost him his life many times. In a way, his stance as a figure of black resurgence is somewhat contradictory: he could only appreciate the glories of the African past and not the contemporary political moment, with the notable exception of his admiration for Kwame Nkrumah. Viewed in this light, his blackism becomes qualified, limited and perhaps also problematic as a concrete progammme of action.
At many levels, Oladipo-Ola’s efforts are lame for the reason that they can neither serve as critique nor illumination. It is perhaps necessary to cite some of the passages (and indeed there are many) that illustrate the poor quality of the book :
‘Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Malcom X and Kwame Nkrumah have one burning desire, one goal; the salvation of black people all over the world and the total liberation of black world from oppression and subservience dependence’ (p. 2).
‘The spirit of Fela’s music is the essence of the big diff