Over the past two years, the Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis award-winning Broadway production FELA! has been captivating audiences in New York City. On Nov. 13 another packed house at the Eugene Oâ€™Neill Theater sat in utter fascination during the two-and-half-hour musical that depicts the life and times of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, perhaps the most well-known African composer and musician spanning the 1970s to 1990s. Fela founded Afro-beat music.
The audience was diverse, with expatriate Nigerians and other Africans from the continent, New York residents of all backgrounds and tourists. The musical covered the pioneering and ground-breaking compositions of Fela whose albums sold broadly throughout Africa, Europe and the U.S.
The musical, which won three Tony awards, among others, in 2009, illustrates not only how Fela was shaped by historical forces in Nigeria, as well as the entire region of West Africa, but how his visit to the U.S. in 1969 impacted his social consciousness.
When Fela was in the U.S., he was heavily influenced by the Black revolutionary movement of the period. He was introduced to the struggles waged by the Black Panther Party and others by his close friend Sandra Izsadore of Los Angeles, played in the musical by Saycon Sengbloh. Video footage of the BPP is shown.
This musical immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with the women dancers, known in the musical as queens, moving through the aisles. The actor who played Fela, Kevin Mambo, maintained extensive communication and direct dialogue with the audience.
A full jazz orchestra, reminiscent of Felaâ€™s own Africa 70 and later Egypt 80, started playing some 15 minutes before the curtain rose. These musicians, along with actual recordings of Fela, created a cultural atmosphere. The musical mostly takes place in Felaâ€™s club, The Africa Shrine. On the theaterâ€™s walls are photos of Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and projected articles from the Nigerian press during the 1970s.
The musical makes reference to the role that international finance capital such as BP, Shell and the International Monetary Fund has played in super-exploiting the resources and people in Nigeria.
Whether the audience remembered the real Fela or not, the musical is an excellent introduction or reintroduction to one of Africaâ€™s greatest cultural phenomena of the 20th century.
Social significance of Felaâ€™s life
Felaâ€™s life and family history paralleled the anticolonial, national independence and Pan-African struggles in Africa and within the Diaspora. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a feminist who fought for the liberation of Nigeria from British imperialism.
Ransome-Kuti was reputed to have been the first woman to drive an automobile in Nigeria. She is also known, as noted in the musical, for traveling to China to meet with Chairman Mao during the height of the revolutionary period in that Asian nation.
Felaâ€™s father was a protestant minister, the Rev. Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He was an educator and the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Going back even further, one of Felaâ€™s ancestors was sent to South America during slavery, but later freed himself and returned to Nigeria triumphantly.
Even though Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, the country remained a neocolonial state that moved closer to the U.S. during the 1960s. A secessionist war took place between 1967 and 1970, when the eastern region attempted to break away from the federal republic that was then under military control. The revolt was defeated.
It was the role of the military in Nigeria that drew Felaâ€™s ire. His outspoken criticism of political repression and corruption under military rule resulted in several attempts to prosecute him on trumped-up charges.
After Fela released his world-famous album â€œZombieâ€ in 1977, where the army was ridiculed in an extended rhythmic title track that lasted over 25 minutes, the efforts of the military government to silence him accelerated. In 1978 a thousand soldiers surrounded his home in Lagos and later invaded the residence, attacking and assaulting women, destroying and stealing property. The home was burned down by the soldiers.
Funmilayo was living there at the time. She too was assaulted and later thrown out of an upstairs window, resulting in her death. Fela later issued an album about the attacks called â€œCoffin for a Head of State.â€
In 1984 when Fela was set to leave Nigeria on a world concert tour, he was arrested on the airplane and charged with illegal currency possession. He was convicted and spent more than a year in prison.
An international campaign ensued, demanding his release. Eventually he was freed from prison in 1986 and traveled to the U.S. for a series of concerts.
In Detroit in 1986, Fela and Egypt 80 played a three-hour concert at the newly refurbished downtown Fox theater which this writer attended. The concert host Nkenge Zola, a broadcast journalist working at the time at the local affiliate of National Public Radio, who promoted African music, reminded the thousands in attendance that many people had come by the studio in 1985 to sign petitions demanding Felaâ€™s release. Fela traveled to the U.S. two other times â€” in 1990 and 1991. His last concert in Detroit was in August 1991.
As political repression intensified in Nigeria, Fela was charged with murder by the military government. The charges were baseless, but they prevented him from traveling outside Nigeria to earn a living and to seek medical treatment for his deteriorating health.
Fela died on Aug. 3, 1997, two months shy of his 59th birthday. His funeral was attended by an estimated 1 million people in Lagos.
This production in New York has made a tremendous contribution to contemporary African culture and its relationship to the broader struggle against repression and neocolonialism. This writer hopes the production will go on tour around the U.S. and eventually to the African continent, where it would undoubtedly be well received. FELA! is currently playing in London.