Update from Qudus' blog

Jul 20, 2010

Felasophical views on Femi Kuti – Broadway deception

Felasophical views on Femi Kuti – Broadway deception

A Basic Aikido philosophy states that the strength is not in muscular force, but in flexibility, timing, control and modesty, its humanitarian purpose is to purify one’s aggressive reactions to conflicts of ego, “But people will say Femi, you don’t take the kind of risks Fela took…” this witty statement by Omoyele Sowore, that was meant to be followed by a question, will lead to a (no)interview with the son of the Afrobeat legend, Femi Kuti at the Fela! Broadway performance in New York. Before the arrival of the question that never came, revelation came; one could sense plenty ghosts of pretense past all came knocking at Femi’s heart for freedom, but for a Femi who is always on guard, swiftly seek escape routes to cover his open sore, like a boxer he counter-attacked “Who says?” having no clue of who Sowore was, he went on with his jabs “…Are you talking as a Nigerian or as a fool or as a naïve person?” amidst his many rehash “Do you want me to be killed like my father before you know that I am taking risks? you have to apologise before i answer your questions” Femi categorically stated that absolutely nothing was wrong with a Fela! on Broadway which was what concerns me the most and eventually prompted the coming alive of this piece of writing.

Fela! On Broadway.

"Moneymaking and historical memory are allies in the extension of capitalism. You cry with one eye and wipe it off with a cold beer, leaving the other eye open for gambling."

Toyin Falola, Nigerian historian

Folk heroes will at one moment or the other pay the price they refused to pay while alive, Bob Marley did, even Che Guevara did pay the marketable price he owe the world, and now it’s perhaps the time for Fela Kuti despite his Felasophy. Fela! Will be on Broadway till the 2nd of January 2011 and tickets range from 59$ to 127$. According to sources from Wikipedia “Broadway theatre is usually considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. The Broadway Theatre district is a popular tourist attraction in New York.” And according to The Broadway League, “Broadway shows sold approximately $1.02 billion worth of tickets in the 2009-2010 season, compared to $1 billion in the 2008-2009 season” in essence the dialectic of shows on Broadway is primarily linked to how much rather than how well, and this fundamentally go against Felasophy.

Some purists may find this development derailing, because more than a musical rhythm, Afrobeat is a rhythm of “otherness” realized largely in songs and lyrics, but also in cultural and political actions. Most acolyte of Afrobeat and its protégés often think of Afrobeat as a tool for speaking out the obvious truth in the name of the masses, but Afrobeat is above all an aesthetics of cultural politics. Its performance is equally characterized by the creation of a liberal cultural space that is admissive of a free discourse of society’s fears, doubts, and inhibitions. Now that Fela is on Broadway – or rather Broadway is on Fela – there is no reason to appear condescending about that; it will be fair enough on the legend and his legacy, to make way for a free discourse on the pros and cons of these “goodwill” that might require us to “cry with one eye and wipe it off with a cold beer, leaving the other eye open for gambling."

Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti and many other legitimate personalities have lent their voices to the pros of having Fela! On Broadway, which is the reason why I focus more on the cons for a balanced discourse. Even though I have not seen this show after a brief encounter with (the choreographer) Bill T Jones during a US tour in 2008, but knowing what a Broadway show entails and the publicity claim of it being “the true story of Fela Kuti” is deafening. Here I speak solely of its significance and not a reviewer of the show. The grandeur of Fela Kuti diminishes, as I’m certain that its exploitation on Broadway will certainly drain off deep content to attract consumers, and so its power worn-out by the parasitic deconstruction of commercial productions. Afrobeat is the symbol of this Fela! for mass media. By associating a symbol with a product, rather than letting it exist as the signifier of its framing experiences, it is robbed of its meaning and sense of truth. The commercial exploitation of Fela Kuti and all that he represents will only help in widening the rift between ideals and festivity, between choice of words and the truth. It will therefore, assault the ideal realm and appropriate subjective significance of Felasophy, and might in the end lose its ability to inspire metaphysical truth.

A set of Fela’s ideological outlook referred to as Felasophy (as stated in Sola Olorunyomi’s book AFROBEAT! fela and the imagined continent), builds the basis at which Afrobeat lies, the Afrobeat as championed by Fela engage a broad spectrum of ideas such as the African art and civilization, notions of slavery and western technology; views on religion and colonialism; his reaction to multiple imperialism and collaborating elites; his vision of Pan-Africanism and his version of “what to be done.” Other concerns range from the nature of knowledge production and its distribution, architecture, spirituality, citizenship, economy and development, to traditional medicine and the use of herbs, the environment, the judiciary and administration of justice, international relations and a myriad of other domestic issues.

Femi Kuti's relation to this Felasophy is quite misleading, as one might already note that in the tribute version of “Water No Get Enemy,” one of Fela’s most anthemic songs, in which other American hip-hop, soul and funk stars collaborated with Femi Kuti, for the Red Hot Organization. A line was deliberately omitted from the track:
T’omi ba pa ọmọ rẹ, omi na lo ma lo was not translated, thus, If water kill your child, na water you go use was substituted by “we don’t want that now.” Fela's point, which is part of his Felasophy manifesto, is that, as opposed to monotheist beliefs, nothing is intrinsically regard to as good or bad, that as pure as water could be, it has its negative/destructive attributes. In censoring Fela’s intellectual property, Femi has apparently dealt with things “diplomatically and gracefully.” As he explained to the New York Times.

I want that brand called FELA!

Many factors inform the classification of Fela’s musical practice as popular (music) art, as distinct from mass (music) art. Mass art as it were, presumably panders to the whims of its clientele and does not engage them in problematizing their social situations in a manner that popular art does.

Sola Olorunyomi

In an interview conducted in 1992, Fela denounced Afrobeat as “a meaningless commercial nonsense with which recording labels exploited the artist.” With this latest development, Afrobeat steps one more mile away from popular music to mass music. It is imaginable to believe –or believable to imagine – that the son looks like his father, and aspires to transcend his role, then begins by evoking aspects of his symbolism, both in form and in content, until the son becomes the father of his own son and so on. Without any doubt in my mind Femi Kuti is a skillful musician and a major custodian of part of the Felagacy that most of us benefit. What however, makes it almost impossible and pitiable for Femi Kuti –as well as numerous proponents of Afrobeat ideals – is that, some are temperamentally apolitical and lacks the technical and intellectual capital required, to trail the path of the great Fela and the Afrobeat agenda. Voila the birth of a new age of Afrobeat for sale, that still sing on behalf of the masses and express a Pan-African yearning without a prior knowledge of the underline ideology from which Fela easily drew his vocabulary and allusions.

The American public has been flooded by an eternal parade of commodities and fabricated spectacles that keep it preoccupied with the ideals and values of consumerism. Traditional cultural values of Western society are already degenerating under the influences of corporate politics, the commercialization of everything and the impact of mass media. Fela! on Broadway is only but an accomplice in the collective viewing experience and consumer trends, without integrating it “in problematizing their social conditions,” which is the basic transformative experience in encountering Fela Kuti and his ideology. Now that Fela! Will begin national and international tours, in Which Lagos will be one of its destinations. Even though Fela drew his musical temperament from Lagos, but contemporary reality no longer thrives on the social context in which he did. Lagos is now a unipolar world of its own, with the abiding influence of the intellectual Lagos youth being determined more by Lady Gaga and Stock market, than Fela Kuti or Kwame Nkrumah. So, a dissimilar approach to FELA! In Lagos is not guaranteed.

Alternative chitchat also has it that following FELA’s! success on Broadway, the big screen is taking its turn on the legendary. Steve McQueen, the producer of the popular film “hunger.” That stormed Cannes festival in 2008, is presently working on a biopic movie still on Fela! He shall be writing the script, in collaboration with Biyi Bandele; one Nigeria’s most versatile and prolific writers in the U.K. ‘capable of wild surrealism and wit as well as political engagement.’ The movie will be based on Michael Veal’s book, Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon and It will be co-produced by James Schamus, who said ‘The Broadway show is pure joy, but Steve and Biyi’s vision is very cinematic and distinctive. Fela was a revolution figure in world culture’. To accompany the team, Fela will be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nigerian-British actor who already worked on a fiction linked to Steve Biko “Red Dust” in 2004 and many others. If this production turns out to be a well-done, perhaps it will attempt redemption of the Fela imagery, and if it fails, the next thing is to expect an amusement park called FELALAND somewhere in the west.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all these deep digging comments. Never can it be enough of discussions about Fela and the Nigerian music scene as a whole. Too many wrongs have been committed and too many people suffered and died in the process, leaving no voice. But as we see things and facts that are beyond words, drama and suffering come out bit by bit. Unspoken history reveals itself by other forces.