As Nigerians pause to remember Fela Anikulapo, the late King of Afrobeat, Azuka Jebose has given an insight into the life of the icon.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti
This week in 1997 was tragic for the nation and the Anikulapo Kuti family. Nineteen years ago, Nigeria lost its most known music personality and voice of the disenfranchised, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
The Kuti family lost a dear son, father, grandfather and uncle. He died August 2, 1997 and was buried five days later, August 7, by a grateful nation and proud family. This week is the 19th year anniversary of the death of our social engineer and national icon that created a brand of music, Afrobeat Music, the weapon of our future.
In this special memorial, Azuka Jebose remembers the unique and privileged moments with late Fela Anikulapo Kuti:
Through his polyrhythmic music and bohemian lifestyle, Fela’s home became the temple where frustrated Nigerians gathered to be pacified, sanctified, sensitized and sanitized. He redirected Nigerians toward self-pride, dignity, consciousness and proud. He encouraged his generation to demand their rights from the then military rulers. Fela’s messages were not new. He told our stories as they happened to us every day in our nation and continent, with fearless aura.
Nigerians heard a fellow citizen bluntly trumpeting these provocative calls to actions and empowerment,self-sacrifice for the love of our dear native land, that had been made popular by such African leaders and pioneers as Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and his late mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, who led the famous Egba women’s arbitrary taxation revolt in 1948.
These Nigerians who daily assembled at the Kalakuta Republic to be regaled by these thought-provoking aphorisms from a man who, though, was raised with the trappings of privilege, turned his back on his middle-class upbringing, to champion the cause of the underlings. These daily visitors, tourists and onlookers alike were held in awe of Fela’s brave challenges of the status quo as established and determined by the then military that held sway over Nigeria from 1967.
Many of us who visited Kalakuta Republic, at that time, were just curious and interested in drawing our own conclusions on the tales, innuendos and rumors of his bohemian lifestyle, sexual promiscuity, his hedonistic lifestyle and easy living than serious aficionados of Afrobeat music. Fela was an enigma, a masquerade you could only view in totality by dancing around it.
Therefore, to understand Fela, one must always be around wherever he was to soak in the rudiments, history, and context of his musical style of which he was a pioneer and revolutionary.
I occasionally spent my “long recess” periods away from school, by joining the sea of heads at the frontage of his Idi-Oro, Mushin; Kalakuta Republic command centre. I would also stretch my neck to have a glimpse of this larger than life figure and his women who always dressed sensually in colorful African fabrics.
I was a naïve curious boy undertaking a pilgrimage to the hallowed throne room, only to see the priest and officiating elders gather in a conclave, performing rituals that were sophisticated, rituals that more than expressed their total rebellion against the government . But in the same ritualistic stance, one could also appreciate the best of our cultural values with their fashion statements and body decorations.
The Afrika Shrine was the music and business centre of KALAKUTA REPUBLIC. Afrika Shrine was a panoramic society, a polyrhythmic nation, interlaced with rich multi-cultural, criss-cross rhythms that exploded with happiness; Afrika Shrine was a less-than-one-Kilometer suburb, where all things were bright, beautiful or bad. You could live and die happily at the Afrika Shrine and the dwellers would celebrate your death and mourn your loss.
They would hustle with you. The dwellers were their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Afrika Shrine was a shining city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. It was birthed in Pan-Africanism: a bustling commercial centre serving at all times, the basic necessities of life and liberty- sex, drugs, and alcohol. It was a global village square dedicated to the enjoyment and circulation of Afrobeat hospitality, free spirit, and mass appeal for everyday people, regardless of creed, color, character, class, affluence, and influence. Live it. Love it. Loathe it. You couldn’t ignore its intrigues as an independent capital of Kalakuta Republic, a ‘nation’ inside the then troubled nation-state of Nigeria.
THE TRIAL OF FELA:
In 1984, the Federal Military Government, led by General Muhammadu Buhari and late Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, arrested Fela for violating the foreign exchange/ anti-sabotage decree 2. He was allegedly found with US$1,200.00 in his possession at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Fela was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles for summer concert tours of United States.
His arrest became the hottest trending news. But the government needed to make an example of a violator of the law, to prove to Nigerians its unyielding determination and seriousness to fight the War Against Indiscipline, WAI. Fela became the poster child for the execution of such military agenda.
The then Punch City Editor, Feyi Smith, anchored the spectacular trials of Fela by the military tribunal in Lagos. I joined Smith sometimes as he scheduled for the coverage. I was posted from the Onipetesi Punch office to the City as a reporter.
Fela Anikulapokuti’s arrival from prison to the trial venue seemed then choreographed by the government and the media for the daily sea of spectators curious for a glance at the “stubborn, radical and fearless musician” threatening the mighty and powerful military regime. As he stepped out of the ‘Black Maria,’ he turned round, gave his symbolic Black Power clenched fist defiant salute - a special gesture and a sign of appreciation- to the legions of fans that thronged the court premises in solidarity, each day of the trial.
But in fairness to the law, Fela’s larger than life persona did not deter them. Fela, in November 1984, was found guilty of violating decree 2 and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison. The reactions to “which kind injustice be this,” was one of shock and awe as some police and military officers that provided security everyday of the trial, in anticipation of security breaches, were shocked by the verdict that Fela had been found guilty and would begin a five-year jail sentence effective immediately. I captured the mood and reactions of that moment. The next day, Punch captioned my story on its front shoulder: “SORROWS, TEARS, MINUS BLOOD ”
‘DON’T FORGET, I’M A PRISONER’
Aviation activist, writer, pilot and on –air-radio personality, Late Jerry Eyituoyo Agbeyegbe, came to my entertainment desk at The Punch on a Friday evening and informed me, he spotted Fela Anikulapo Kuti at the Presidential Lounge of the local wing of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. Fela was ill and was being transferred from the Borno State Maximum Security Prison to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) for further treatment and observations. Jerry Agbeyegbe was a freelance airport correspondent for The Punch.
Fela was a high valued prisoner and his movement was being seriously guided and guarded to prevent any leaks to the media. Jerry urged me to follow the story. On Sunday morning, between 7.30 and 8, I banged on the gate of Fela’s younger brother, Late Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti’s residence in Anthony Village, Lagos. Nike, his daughter came to the door. I introduced myself as a reporter from The Punch Newspaper. From his toilet seat, I heard Beko instructing her to “Je ki Azuka wole” ( Let Azuka in). I walked in and followed the sound of Beko’s voice to his toilet. He was sitting on the commode, under the early morning bowel pressure and exercising his right to morning bowel movement!
“Uncle Beko, Fela has been admitted at LUTH, I want to go with you to visit him, sir.” He stared at me for long seconds. Still muted, I repeated my plea. He reached for a pack of Benson and Hedges cigarettes lying on top of the toilet hand wash sink and offered me a stick of cigarette. “Uncle Beko, you know I don’t smoke.”
He smiled cynically and said, “You are a damn good reporter. You know where he is, why are you disturbing me this morning? Go and look for him.”
Beko dismissed me from watching him foul his Sunday morning dwelling place with his nonsense. His refusal confirmed Agbeyegbe’s classified information.
I left Beko’s house and went directly to the hospital. The security scene at the LUTH admissions centre suggested that a Very Important Prisoner of the federal military government was on admission. As I walked down the covered alley, I saw Fehintola, one of the queens – that was how Fela called his retinue of female followers – leading few queens walking out from the building. Fehintola had Seun strapped on her back. After we exchanged greetings, she motioned me with her head the direction I should go.
In front of this building were three mean military police personnel clutching their AK 47 rifles. They looked ready to deal with any of those miscreants coming from the Kalakuta Republic with a mind to spring Fela out of prison. But I knew I must get past them surreptitiously; unhindered and without interception.
As I entered the admission hallway, I moved quickly toward the direction Fehintola pointed and there was Fela and few visiting members of the Egypt 80 Band. He was in his prison uniform, sitting on his bed.
Femi Osunla, famously called Femi Foto, Fela’s longtime media relations mouthpiece, and photographer, stood to leave the partitioned room when I opened the curtain and walked in.
“I beg no forget to bring the sponge tomorrow,” I heard Fela instructing Femi as I greeted him. “Aaah, my slim friend from Punch abi?” Fela asked.
I nodded, wondering how he quickly recognized me. He motioned for me to sit beside him on the bed. I sat there as he played with a little girl.
When most of the visitors had left, I asked after his health and what was wrong with him: “My brother, dem give me this kind food for prison wey just dey disturb my belle … I don dey shit for days.”
“Fela, would you mind if I recorded this interview?”
He gave me the similar cynical smile Beko beamed at me earlier that morning as he said, “Hmmm. Azuka, I beg no interviews today till I’m well …. I beg … I beg….”
“Okay, what message do you wish to send to your fans?” I asked.
He hesitated for few seconds and uttered a headliner, “DON’T FORGET I’M A PRISONER”
I left the hospital and went to Femi Kuti’s house at Bariga. Femi was ready to leave for the Shrine’s Sunday Jump gig when I arrived. Soon, Fela’s children, Femi, Sola, Yeni and keyboardist, Dele Sosimi and I headed to the Afrika Shrine, Ikeja, a few minutes after I arrived. Later, as the jump was cranking up, I saw Beko walked into the Shrine, I approached him and said, “Uncle Beko, I saw Fela at LUTH.” He stared at me, offered me a stick of Benson and Hedges again. I said, “Uncle Beko, how many times will I tell you I don’t smoke?”
He replied, “Oh, pele Azuka, you told me that this morning."