Fela Kuti would often perform with a painted face and thick chains draping his slim body's bare chest; he'd stalk the stage playing sax, keys and drums while chain-smoking enough cigar-size spliffs to make a Rasta village jealous. Scantily clad female dancers gyrated around him, while 15 or 20 drummers, guitarists, horn players and more wailed on anthems praising pan-African solidarity and lambasting corruption and colonialisms, tunes with evocative titles like "Zombie," "I.T.T. (International Thief, Thief)," or "Beasts of No Nation." He sang in Pidgin English so he could be understood across the African continent.
Offstage, Fela was an uncompromising social activist. He championed traditional Yoruban religion and declared his band's commune and recording facility, the Kalakuta Republic, a sovereign nation. After "Zombie," a 1977 attack on the Nigerian military ("Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think"), some 1,000 soldiers struck back and burned down Kalakuta, threw Fela's mother and brother from a window and beat the musician within an inch of his life. Fela's mother died from her injuries and he delivered her coffin to the residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo, president of Nigeria; the song "Coffin for the Head of State" memorialized the action. After the official investigation blamed an unknown soldier, he answered in the song "Unknown Soldier." His music made him a hero to the poor and downtrodden of Africa, but at best a cult figure for America. Until now.
All those things that were Fela — the music, the politics, the outrageousness — are woven together in Fela!, the Broadway musical written by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, which runs through March 4 at Detroit's Music Hall for the Performing Arts. It arrives two years after its Broadway premiere with three Tony Awards, following successful runs in London and Lagos, and tours in Canada and the United States.
Rikki Stein — Fela's manager for 17 years and a Fela! creative consultant — contrasts the show's reception in this country and back in Nigeria: "We took it to Lagos in February. It opened at the Shrine [a nightclub near Kalakuta]. It was phenomenal, the reaction of the audience. They know the words of the songs and laugh at all the jokes. In the United States, it's a story; in Lagos it's history. From the perspective of Nigeria's young people, it's revealing of the past. For the older people, it's a trip down memory lane. His lifestyle was so radical, particularly as far as the middle class was concerned. I really miss the guy, and finally the world is catching up on what he was doing."
Fela Ransome Kuti was born in 1938 in Nigeria's Ogun state. Claiming that Ransome was a slave name, he later changed his middle name to Anikulapo, which means "he who carries death in his pouch." He came to his activism through his family. His minister-school principal father helped organize Nigeria's first teachers union and became its first president. His mother fought against British colonial rule and helped Nigerian women win the right to drive. She met with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah as well as China's Mao Zedong. Nobel laureate novelist Wole Soyinka is a first cousin to Fela.
Fela's two brothers became doctors, and in 1958, despite the fact that he had been playing music since age 8, Fela was sent to London to study medicine. Instead, he enrolled in the Trinity College of Music and formed a band that played jazz and easy-going Nigerian highlife music. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and continued his jazz-highlife fusion while searching for something more in the music. Four years later, he coined the term Afro-beat for his revolutionary new mix of traditional Yoruban music, highlife, jazz, funk and rock with chanting call-and-response vocals. His philosophy was developed further after a 1969 visit to the United States, where he learned about the black power movement. Deported for working without a permit, he renamed his band Africa '70, redirected his lyrics from romance to politics, threw himself into social activism, formed the Kalakuta Republic and put himself on the path to becoming Africa's most popular musician.
His reputation was growing in 1970 when he met and recorded with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Baker made a rare early film of a Fela performance that can be found on YouTube.
The Kalakuta Republic was Fela's base of operations. Most people associated with the band lived there, his recording studio was there, and he opened a club called the Afro Spot at a nearby hotel where he performed weekly 2 a.m.-to-dawn shows. The club was later named the Shrine, and he called his intense performances — wherein raw ensemble horn lines gave way to adventurous solos ripping through walls of sound woven with funk-styled guitar lines and Yoruban drumming — "the underground spiritual game." Think of P-Funk meeting Sun Ra with Bob Marley overtones.
The philosophical underpinnings of the music were laid down at weekly political discussion groups held at Kalakuta. Fela's compositions were often direct outgrowths of the discussions.
"Fela always had his saxophone with him and would play at any time," says self-taught artist Lemi Ghariokwu, who designed 26 of Fela's album covers starting in 1974. "When there was a pause in the conversation, he would play."
Stein says, "Fela was at odds with the authorities more than anything else. The best night was when we met once a week to discuss issues. He was akin to the 19th century pamphleteers. They would crank out tracts that would be distributed to the people. Fela's mode of communication was music. We'd have a discussion and he'd go write about it. Over time he began to sing and talk about issues that weren't only Nigerian. His message does have relevance, resonance in Detroit. "
Fela's parents were social activists, yet they still had entry to Nigeria's polite, bourgeois society. Fela totally rejected it as a colonial mind-set, and preferred what he saw as traditional African values. The song "Gentleman" lays out his stance: "I no be gentleman at all, I be Africa man original." Middle-class Nigerians were horrified when their daughters wandered over to Kalakuta or the Shrine where Fela reveled in all-consuming sensuality. His appetites were legendary.
"He liked to eat," says Stein. "When I ordered food for Fela, I would order six meals. He would wolf it all down. He liked to eat; he liked to fuck, a lot, and play music."
In 1978, to mark the anniversary of the attack on Kalakuta, he wed 27 women at the rebuilt compound — a repudiation of European marriage and mores in favor of polygamy. He pointed out that European men cheated in their marriages, and said they should bring their mistresses home to live with their wives. Later he developed a revolving system of 12 wives at a time before renouncing marriage altogether in a mass divorce.
For years he bought space in newspapers to print his controversial opinion pieces; he formed his own political party and was blocked in an attempt to run for president in 1979.
"He was on a mission for the mental liberation of Africans," Ghariokwu says. "The colonial mentality has been a problem in Africa for hundreds of years. Presently, it's self-colonization bringing the same forces to bear. He was a complex character, an egalitarian, a social critic. He was so brave in taking on the military governments of Nigeria. He didn't give up."
But there was a price to pay. In addition to numerous beatings, he was jailed for 20 months in 1985-86 on trumped-up charges of currency smuggling. Stein says Fela was arrested more than 200 times. He was banned from Ghana after a riot broke out during a concert there. In 1993, he was charged with murder but was exonerated after several months in jail. But that year he stopped recording and began to fade from view. In 1997, he was arrested for possession and drug trafficking. Months later, Fela died from conditions related to AIDS.
In 1999, Universal Music France remastered 45 Fela albums and released them on 26 CDs. Since then, a number of other re-releases (including a recent Questlove-curated vinyl box), a film, and the music careers of Fela's sons Femi and Seun have helped keep his music and ideas alive in popular culture, as have a proliferation of Afro-beat bands, seemingly in every big city in America. Fela!, which started out as workshop collaboration — now backed by Jay-Z, and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith — has taken his posthumous popularity to an unprecedented high.
Locally, Fela! is something of a programming departure for Music Hall, which is more known for jazz acts and Tyler Perry plays. Most Tony Award-winning shows land at the Fisher or Fox theaters, but Music Hall President and Artistic Director Vince Paul saw Fela! before it hit Broadway and was determined to bring it to his stage.
"Our mission is to evolve culture and discuss issues through dance and drama," Paul says. "There are parallels between what is happening in Lagos and what is happening in Detroit — social injustice, greed, who's the teacher. It was so uncanny. I thought, 'Detroit has got to see this.' It became a hassle. It probably wouldn't have if the play hadn't gone Broadway."
In fact, the Fela! phenomenon isn't just at Music Hall. Paul created partnerships with dozens of local organizations and as a result there are Fela-related events all over town. The Wright Museum of African American History and the Carr Cultural Arts Center have exhibits of art inspired by Fela. Ghariokwu lectured on African art aesthetics at the Detroit Institute of Arts last week. Wayne State University, Wayne County Community College District, the University Music Society at the University of Michigan and some area high schools are all hosting events related to Fela and his music. In addition to the coup of bringing in the show, Music Hall is creating a model of how to engage the community in productions.
"Arts are important," Paul says. "A revolution could start over a play. I ran it for three weeks as opposed to a week because I felt like the message wouldn't stick around if it ran for just a week. If we could have it for two months, it would have been better. It's fun; it's great; it's going to stick in your brain. I wonder if we aren't teaching a lesson of what we can do if we work together."
Paul sounds like he's ready for one of those meetings at the Kalakuta Republic, where Fela and his compatriots wrangled out their ideas. Fela's life work was a struggle for the disenfranchised. And if a play about his life can bring a community together, then maybe that will engender a smile from Fela beyond the great divide.
"I always think of him laughing," Stein says. "I consider Fela to be a social engineer. He couldn't have gone through all the punishment and sacrifices that he made unless he was full of love. His message was universal."
That's why people in Detroit should be able to smile, even laugh, at a play about a musician from Nigeria. He's universal.
Fela! runs through March 4, at Music Hall, 350 Madison Ave., Detroit; 313-887-8501. Moving to His Own Beat — Fela: The Man, The Movement, The Music is on exhibit through April 1, at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800. Say Yeah Yeah: A Felatastic Detroit Artists Exhibition is on display through April 9, at the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center, 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-965-8430; works by Lemi Ghariokwu are on display there through Feb. 18.