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By Dami Ajayi

Saturday, August 3, 2013.

I am listening to Lagos with my eyes closed….Chris Abani


Perhaps the safest place to begin is at the intro of Koola Lobitos’ resplendent jazzy riffs on one of Fela’s numerous paeans on Lagos, Eko Ile1.  Perhaps not.

Perhaps it might be prudent, and by far more profitable, to dig into Fela’s discography; to tune his chronological influences to an era when Yoruba folklore, populist street songs and American Jazz pulverized into what he called Highlife Jazz, a neo-colonial erratum, in his opinion, with a benefit of hindsight.

Songs like Waka Waka come to mind; sterile love songs carefully arranged to share a semblance with American jazz. It was the vernacular lyrics that told on Fela’s disguise, betrayed his African-ness, his attempt at galvanizing, creating a hybrid that was not commercially acclaimed, that told on his dissidence, that prophesized—in metric proportions—the extent of his deviance.

He sings brashly about a pursuit of love that challenges geographic span. A journey from Ibadan to Lagos by foot is no small feat. It reflects not only the extent of love but also gives the direction of cosmopolitism.

In Lagos Baby, he sings about Lagos women and their avarice; he chastises flirtatious Lagos boys.

In Onidodo Oni moin moin, Fela becomes the unreliable narrator of an epic fight in a popular Lagos street, Lafiaji. A food-selling street hawker’s frustration cum boredom prefaces Fela’s reflection on a perhaps (pre-colonial) Lagos with the jaunty rhythms of his band as accompaniment.

Suffice to say, Fela’s early description of Lagos was tangential, circumstantial and fantastic.


Enter Fela’s Monday Morning in Lagos. He sings; I loosely interpret:

Saturdays are for spreading tents in Lagos,

Sundays are for drinking the booze of life,

On Monday, things change, debts become unobtainable,

Credits won’t be given, drinks become expensive;

On Monday mornings, Lagos has no time for nonsense.

I daresay a generation has passed and Lagos hasn’t changed much. If anything, the Owambe weekend culture has transformed to a booming multi-billion Naira industry. There is still that existential angst hanging down the Lagos atmosphere. The streets still pulsate with urgency, only stopping  occasionally for a recess, usually public brawls or administration of jungle justice; and even then, during these recesses, arty dodgers and professional pickpockets mill about seeking out the occasional Suegbe who lets his(/her) guard down.


Carlos Moore, Fela’s official biographer, thinks very highly of Trouble Sleep Yanga Go Wake Am (Palaver). Beyond the aesthetic musical arrangement, its showiness as the signature Afrobeat tune of the early Seventies, Palaver is steeped in the raucousness of Lagos; it chronicles the lives of ordinary Lagosians—wastrels, street-smart landlords, venal policemen, even rodents—and the gamut of life events they experience.


Lagos traffic is epic, unrivalled. Fela sang Go slow in the Seventies and more than three decades after, automobiles in a gridlock on Lagos roads is still a grim characteristic, the relentless status quo. Even pedestrians are not spared.

Lagos traffic has spilled into nearby states, extending beyond the geographical boundaries of Lagos itself, like Lagosians. Lagos suburbia is an expansive phenomenon swinging beyond the reaches of Lagos, down Lagos-Ibadan expressway, through Wawa, Arepo, Magboro, Ibafo, Asese, Mowe, all the way to Shagamu to accommodate an everlasting shortfall. Add to this the Lagos-Abeokuta expressway, Ota and environs.

Yet the city hungers for more. People arrive by the droves daily: school leavers, graduates, apprentices, ex-youth corp members and even middle-aged late bloomers.

Everyone is tied to a focus: to make it, as if being in Lagos is synonymous with success.


Ikoyi’s myopia hardly sees beyond

Finery, beyond visual percepts like manicured

Foliage, old orchard trees, bougainvillea

And an occasional power cut 2

Fela coined Ikoyi Blindness to describe a certain tendency amongst the Nigerian elite class. He criticized the snobbery of the working class by the elites who resided in high brow areas like Ikoyi. In recent times, high brow areas have spread across the Lagos Island and Lekki peninsula to accommodate the nouveaux riches.

This imperviousness to the sufferings of the masses by the influential is aptly depicted in the cover art: a blindfolded grumpy cigar-smoking man scrambles through a Lilliputian working-class neighborhood.

The uneven social divide persists in Lagos, nay Nigeria, in spite of our democracy. Our politicians remain kleptocrats motivated to hemorrhage the country’s financial reserves on flippant issues.

But Fashola, the Lagos Governor often described to have tamed the city, is an exemplar of what good governance could achieve in Lagos. One is also certain that if Fela was alive, Fashola come under his blows, especially for some of his anti-populist policies.



Perhaps a good place to end is Fela’s assertion in his Seventies track, Eko Ile3, that there is no place he could call home except Lagos. Perhaps not.

Fela lived most of his adult life in Lagos. He took his last breath on Victoria Island, in defiance of Ikoyi Blindness, a career of police lock-ups and a well-rounded life of a reprobate.

His commune, Kalakuta Republic where his remains was buried, is a museum under the auspices of Lagos State Government.

The terrace of Kalakuta Museum is a fine place to observe an aerial view of Lagos; a place to listen to Fela’s music with your eyes closed.


  1. Eko Ile by Fela Ransome Kuti and Koola Lobitos, 69 L.A Sessions

  2. Excerpt taken from Lagos Bunnies, an unpublished poem

  3. Eko Ile by Fela and African & 70 Band.

Dami Ajayi is a medical doctor, creative writer and a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine Saraba.

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