Afrobeat: Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the only ‘Black president’

By Eva Sauphie
Posted on Tuesday, 20 December 2022 13:39

Fela Kuti and his saxophone. ©Bernard Matussière / Cité de la Musique

The Philharmonie de Paris is devoting an exhibition to the king of Afrobeat. Produced in close collaboration with his immediate friends and family, it fervently conveys the Nigerian musician’s sense of political engagement.

The Philharmonie de Paris is devoting an exhibition to the king of Afrobeat. Produced in close collaboration with his immediate friends and family, it fervently conveys the Nigerian musician’s sense of political engagement.

‘Afrobeat Rebellion’ is the slogan that accompanies the title of the exhibition dedicated to Fela Anikulapo Kuti through 11 June 2023 at the Philharmonie de Paris. The show’s title is not insignificant, since it focuses essentially on the ‘Black President’s’ political commitment – a choice linked to a select curatorship, including his companion in life and misfortune through the mid-1980s, Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, alias ID.

When Fela was arrested, I was arrested with him,” says the co-founder of the Young African Pioneers (YAP), a movement aimed at mobilising Nigerian youth around the singer’s socialist ideologies. “We used to organise parties at the Shrine [Fela’s club in Lagos] together, especially the yabbie nights every Friday. They were above all an opportunity for Fela to broadcast his political platform,” says the singer’s right-hand man and biographer.

Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker

Afrobeat is still playing at parties all over the world, more than 50 years after its inception. The genre is a way for Fela to use “music as a weapon” to denounce corruption, dictatorship and all forms of oppression that plague his country.

The native of Abeokuta, a town in the Yoruba region, 77 km north of Lagos, began his career in 1963 by riding the Highlife wave that was sweeping the country. He formed Fela Ransome-Kuti – using his given name – and Koola Lobitos, a group that also drew its inspiration from the jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, whom the trumpeter and pianist had discovered during a 1958 trip to London. However, Fela would truly find his style and tone during a trip to the US ten years later. It was a decisive voyage, steeped in the Black Panther and Black Power movements, which awakened the political conscience of this son of a women’s rights activist and a father who was a school headmaster and president of the Nigerian teachers’ union.

MOP meeting at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, November 1978. ©Femi Bankole Osunla, Mabinuori Kayode Idowu collection / Cité de la Musique

It is this journey of the rebellious child, a dissident musician of 1980s Nigeria, who founded Movement of the People (MOP) – a political party inspired by the pan-Africanist thinking of former Ghanaian president Kwane Nkrumah – that is the exhibition’s primary focus. It is also punctuated by sound excerpts from the Shrine and concerts, compiled by music consultant Sodi Marciszewer, a sound engineer who has worked with three generations of Kuti.

“There have already been industry exhibitions on Fela’s musical contributions,” says Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, heritage curator at Cité de la Musique-Philharmonie de Paris. “We wanted to offer an entry into the subjects of sound and politics in order to think about it in a global way. This material resonates all the more in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and the End SARS movement in Nigeria [demonstrations against police brutality and oppression that strongly mobilised Nigerian youth in 2020]. Movements that have reactivated Fela’s discourse.”

Controversial musician

A map reconstructs the location of legendary clubs in Lagos and its suburbs. Archival photos reveal moments from the artist’s life spent at the Republic of Kalakuta, his residence, the seat of his political projects and an alternative community free of Nigerian laws. The “queens” – wives, dancers, singers and activists – take their rightful place in a series of portraits magnifying them as Fela’s artistic and ideological inspiration, faces coloured with war paint.

“At that time, the outside world did not understand how Fela could have 27 wives, and the only thing people remembered about this story was the domination that he was said to have exercised over them,” says ID. “But they were also an integral part of his project. This exhibition allows us to understand the man behind the sensationalist portrait that has too often been painted of him.”

His signature costume was nothing more than a tiny piece of fabric with a colourful, childlike print. A collection of his underpants is displayed here in a series. The singer wore them on stage as well as around town, using his slender figure as a sign of protest opposed to the corpulence of the Nigerian elites, as well as to show off his numerous scars – signs of the police brutality of which he had been a victim. All this material was obtained from the diaspora in Europe, but also from the family in Nigeria, who made an enormous contribution to the exhibition’s installation.

Among them are the artist’s sons and grandsons, Femi, Kule and Made, and his eldest daughter, Yeni Kuti. “We had to understand the terrain from the inside in order to decentralise our gaze and approach this history, which is as political as it is musical, with the necessary distance, liberating ourselves from our French point of view,” says Mathilde Thibault-Starzyk, exhibition curator.

Decolonising the imaginary

If the chosen method rightly focuses on the decolonisation of minds and imaginations, it also shows the particular role France has played and continues to play in the Fela saga. He who never had the desire to export his music had to go international and conquer Europe. He surrounded himself with some 70 musicians and dancers to perform on the prestigious stage of the Berlin Jazz Festival. The year was 1978.

“It was the first time I had travelled outside Nigeria,” says ID. “In the 1980s, Fela was very controversial. Some saw him as the African Che Guevara, others as a dictator, again because of his wives, so in Germany it didn’t really take off. Then, in Italy, when Fela was due to meet the head of the Communist Party [CP], the CIA planted 40 kg of marijuana in our suitcases… The CP ended up blacklisting us. France wound up being our only home. It was the days of Jean-François Bizot and Radio Nova. He gave us a lot of support.”

Inside the display cases are press cuttings from Actuel, Afro Magazine, Manu Dibango’s monthly music magazine, and a 1984 supplement to Jeune Afrique on the Fela phenomenon. In a France marked by the rise of world music and anti-racist movements, such as Touche pas à mon pote and SOS Racisme, the resistance figure that Fela embodied found a resounding echo. “It was our first visit to Europe without a scandal,” says ID. “And this tradition, this link with France, continues today”.

French distinction

Fela Kuti died on 2 August 1997. ©Screenshot/Arte TV

Flashback to 3 July 2018: Emmanuel Macron swaying his hips at the Shrine, 45 years after its creation. The objective of this visit to Nigeria was no secret: to conquer new markets. “At first, Nigerians did not take kindly to the arrival of the French president at the club,” says Femi Kuti, proudly standing in a wax suit in front of a print of his father holding a trumpet. “They called the visit ‘colonialist,’” he says. “But you can’t overlook the role France played in promoting our music from the 1980s onwards. All the articles written about my father first appeared in the French press,” he says.

“Should we be enemies or find common ground to move forward?” the musician says. “I prefer the second option, because some of the actions of the current president have been good for Africans, especially those involving art, music and literature, such as the Africa2020 Season, and I respect Macron for that,” says the younger Kuti, who was recently awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres medal by the French Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak.

According to ID, there is no doubt. This distinction, specially organised for the exhibition, is nothing other than “the consecration of all that Fela and his heirs have done for music, and the proof that Femi has been able to make his own mark without copying and pasting his patriarch”, so that the history of Afrobeat continues to write itself.

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