The first time I saw afrobeat icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, it was at the beach, where he was performing in front of a mammoth crowd. It was Christmas in 1992. I was too young to understand everything going on around me, why people were screaming and why he was loved so much. It all made sense a few years later when I became more aware of society and its issues — of government and the people, and the voice that Fela represented with his music.
Fela led a great army of music minds with original afrobeat sounds as a weapon. His lyrics exposed the corruption in the political ruling class which attracted to him lots of mistreatment, and soon enough his music became popular with individuals all over Africa, but deeply unpopular with the influential ruling class.
He was attacked by government agents known as “unknown soldiers” and his home and studio burnt down. His mother was thrown from a window, sustaining fatal injuries, and he was locked up for 20 months. In 1996, Fela had appeared in court more than a hundred times. He arguably remains, in my opinion, the most persecuted musician on Earth.
Yet, though, he remained fearless with his music; he became a social commentator and crusader, the voice of disenfranchised Nigerians. Simply put, he was a man of the people. Fela saw music as a weapon of the future, a weapon of the progressives, and a weapon of the givers of life. A lot of people saw him as a prophet of freedom.
In his words: “My people are scared of the air around them, they always have an excuse not to fight for freedom.”
Fela wasn’t interested in the glamorous life, all he cared about was causing changes through his music and how the average Nigerian could have a better life. Because 20 years later, we still suffer from all those things Fela sang about. The roads are worse than ever, citizens provide their own water, electricity and security. The education and health sectors are in shambles, and billions of dollars are still looted annually from the nations treasury by corrupt leaders.
In the early 21st century, a few Nigerian artistes were still interested in causing a change with their music. Idris Abdulkareem sang “Nigeria Jagajaga,” which talked about the dilapidated state of the nation. African China sang “Mr. President,” pleading with government officials to lead well, and many more.
Fast forward to 2017, Nigerian artistes only care about making money and jetting off to splendour. Artistes no longer sing with passion or for the love of their craft, socials issues are noticeably absent from the themes and lyrics of their songs. They now see music as some sort of poverty alleviation or get-rich-quick scheme. They are all in for the money. The only recent deviation from this is Orezi’s afrobeat-drenched “Cooking Pot,” where he criticized and instructed, as Fela would do. Although Fela Kuti is no more, he is still remembered as an influential icon that was brave enough to boldly voice his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music.
We will never see another Fela again, but Nigerians could make do with something close.