He didn't take no shit!
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Fela’s sound was the sound of his life, the fierceness of his living, taking the Nigerian government head-on: the same government that threw his mother out a window and killed her, the same government that burned his compound down to the ground, the same government whose soldiers raped his wives, the same government that jailed him over and over (over 200 arrests), that same government!
Fela went straight at them. Man must be mad. Government go crazy, he go crazy back.
A song like “Coffin for Head Of State,” written to commemorate a singular event. Upon his mother’s death, Fela paraded the funeral to the government state house and deposited his mother’s coffin on the state grounds.
A song like “Zombie,” written to judge the soldiers who destroyed his compound, raped his women, beat him into jail, beat him in jail, and threatened to kill him once Fela was let out of jail. Fela called them “zombies.”
The depth of Fela’s music comes from an unprecedented fierceness. To put it into perspective: when Marley got shot in Jamaica, he went into exile. But Fela returned to make the Nigerian government face his music time and time again. This was literally music that could get you killed!
Imagine what you had to do to keep a band together after they kill the leader’s mother, put the leader in jail, rape all the women in the compound, and burn everything down. (I know I’m repeating myself, but, folk, you got to understand, we’re dealing with a higher power here.) Undoubtedly, the most committed musician of the twentieth century. Period. No one else even comes close.
Fela wounded after the bloody episode of 'Unknown Soldier'
There is a documentary that is must viewing if you are at all interested in Fela: Fela Kuti – Music Is the Weapon. Given the complexity of Fela’s character, it is no surprise that the documentary is in both English and French, with each version including footage that is not in the other. Get to it, get to it if you really want to understand the power of Fela’s music.
One other thing I know for sure, the man was a shaman, a priest, had a connection to the spirit world, went there often and more oftener than any other musician in terms of transporting a whole village of people.
I had the privilege of seeing him a number of times. Once in Atlanta, he was preaching between songs and someone from the Nigerian community complained in Yoruba. Fela challenged the challenger. It got heated up in there.
Finally Fela called his challengers cowards and sell-outs who ran to America and were too scared to go back to Nigeria and fight the government, and now all they wanted to do was make money, sing, dance, shake their asses and forget about the struggle.
Well, Fela, he spit on them, called them all kinds of names, and preached even harder, and then when the band started up, they played even harder than hard. Man, you no get Grammy for this kind of shit!
That’s where “Colonial Mentality” comes from. It’s not just a song, it’s a condemnation of a condition. I believe that the songs had to be long and hypnotic ‘cause Fela was bucking up his folk to confront colonialism and neo-colonialism, confront guns and death.
If you knew you were going to get beat for playing such music, would you play it, would you listen to it, dance to it? Well, would you?
Fela’s music was trance music specifically designed to give
With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.
Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.
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