A GIFT FOR FELA KUTI
Do you have some time to spare this weekend? I’d like to invite you to an interesting outing. Oh no, Asa is not in town again; they have not opened yet another Chinese restaurant in my neighbourhood; and I’m certainly not throwing a party.
I’m inviting you to Lagos. To a place in Ikeja called Gbemisola street. I’m inviting you to Fela’s home and final resting place.
Because I’m a nosy reporter, who is yet to master the art of minding his own business, I took a stroll around the late musician’s house last weekend, the weekend that marked the 11th anniversary of his death. Since 2004, it has become an annual ritual for me, to take a trip to Fela’s house, at periods marking the anniversary of his death (August 2) or his birth (October 15). At times, I’ll go inside the house, exchange pleasantries with occupants, dole out a few wads of naira notes, and inhale an overdose of marijuana. At other times, like last weekend, I’ll just wander around, thinking profusely and shaking my head in a manner that may suggest to on-lookers that ‘all is not well with me’.
A sad smile played on my lips last Sunday as I drove round Gbemisola. Definitely, all is not well with me, I thought to myself. But then, if Fela’s home and final resting place can be in the kind of sorry state that it is, then it is certain ‘all is not well’ with his multitude of friends, fans and followers.
When Fela died on August 2, 1997, the entire country was consumed with grief. Everyone was pained. In between sobbing and wailing and gnashing our teeth, we all took turns to extol his virtues and emphasize how he’ll be sorely missed by a people plagued by mis-rule and by a music industry desperately in search of direction. It was difficult not to like Fela. The youths, usually deviant and rebellious, loved him, his music and what he stood for. And the adults were divided into two classes: those who loved his music but couldn’t stand his weird lifestyle ad those who loved him and his music. There was none who did not like Fela’s afrobeat. The rich instrumentation, the polyrhythmic percussion, the call-and-response pattern, the horns and trumpet solos, the groove of the guitar series and Tony Allen’s drums, and the prophecy of Fela’s lyrics. It’s wrong to say it was difficult not to like Fela’s music. Because, really, it wasn’t difficult. It was impossible! The multitude of Fela-followers who gathered for his burial, the multitude who followed his coffin from the Tafawa Balewa square, on Lagos Island, to his home in ikeja, was a testimony to the kind of love we had for Fela and his music.
And as we all know, Fela was not a local champion. His death attracted global media attention and the thousands of musicians he inspired as today, scattered all over the world, spreading the gospel of Afrobeat and keeping memories of Fela alive. Don’t be surprised if you walk into a bar in Moscow, and the resident band is rendering their own version of ‘water’. Or you’re at a carnival in New York, and the most popular band is a group of white guys called ‘Antibalas’.
Like Bob Marley and James Brown and Elvis Presley, anyone who knows the colours of good music will gladly pay Fela obeisance and accord him the kind of homage only true geniuses deserve. And, just like Marley, he earns a few more feathers on his cap for his activism and pro-people lyrics. He may not have won a Nobel Prize or a Grammy, but we all know Fela was one of the greatest men to ever walk to surface of this earth. You know it. I know it. The world knows it. Even the highly-respected TIME magazine continues to list him among its class of the world’s greatest revolutionaries.
So, how come, back home, we his people; the people he lavished his musical talents on; the people he fought for throughout his career; how come we have forgotten him so suddenly? It’s only 11 years since Fela passed on, yet it looks like he’s been dead forever. On august 2, this year, just like the year before, there were no memorial advert in the newspapers, no memorial lectures, no friends, fans and followers gathered at his graveside to lay wreaths of flowers. I passed through Gbemisola Street. It was like just any other day.
To make matters worse, apart from his marble tomb, which still glitters as ever, the one-storey-ed building Fela lived until he died is in tatters; seriously in need of refurbishment. On the outside, the white paint has peeled off, giving way to fungi and other microbes. Most of the louvers are missing and the roof giving way. You can imagine what it’ll look like inside; inside Fela’s home.
Fela’s kids are alive and well. Dede, his ‘adopted’ son is doing well, performing fela’s songs all over the world and getting paid in full. Seun, his last son is presently touring the world, promoting his debut album after years of leading Fela’s Egypt 80 band. Femi, now the chief priest at the New Afrika Shrine, has grown to inherit his father’s throne; he has grown to become so much like his father: eccentric, polyamorous, hardworking and overtly critical. But he and his elder sister Yeni have yet to find it necessary to refurbish their father’s home. Even if they don’t care about turning it into a tourist destination, they could at least do it because that’s the premises their father will ‘live’ for the rest of his life! If the dead could see; if they could distinguish between good and bad; if the dead could write a song, then I imagine the kind of 35-minute lamentation Fela would record, condemning his kids and his fans and his friends, and screaming loud through his vocals that ‘na only eye service people sabi. Once you turn your back, everybody go bone’. Picture him stamping his feet on the floor, Howie T-sized marijuana between his fingers, as he hums the song this minute, then throws a yabis the next. They’ll be lucky if he doesn’t disown them all and head to the Little Saints’ orphanage to adopt a dozen kids…
If he were to be alive, Fela would have clocked 70 on October 15, 2008. There would have been hundreds of concerts, lectures, and exhibitions in his honour. Celebrities, government dignitaries, fans, self-appointed friends, and followers would have trooped to his home to pay tributes. Newspapers would dedicate pages to long articles in his honour; the rest of the pages would be filled with Congratulatory wishes: ‘birthday wishes to a true genius’; 70 gbosa to baba 70’, ‘abami eda has come of age’ etc etc. even Obasanjo, his ‘arch-enemy, would be tempted to place an advert.
But death is a terrible thing. Just as the 11th anniversary of his death has passed without any fanfare, his 70th post-humous birthday may go ‘uncelebrated’ too, if we’re not careful. So far, the only visible plans to honour him on October 15, is the annual Felabration concert being put together by Yeni Kuti and partners. I think Fela deserves more. Maybe we can start by totally refurbishing his house, and rehabilitate the dozens of clueless youths regularly holed up in there, smoking weed.
It’s over 30 years since Elvis Presley’s death – also in august- yet, his ‘home’ in Memphis, opened to the public since 1982, continues to attract nearly a million visitors yearly. Called ‘Graceland’, it is one of the five most visited home tours in the US, and the most famous home in America after the white house. The property’s economic impact on the city of Memphis is estimated at nearly $200M annually.
We can create another Graceland in Lagos. But first, we need to make Fela’s Gbemisola property a pleasure to behold. Then we need to find out who’s in possession of his saxophones, his trumpets, his original lyrics book, his costumes, his underwear, and his shoes. We need to gather all the mementoes and memorabilia – for, what’s a visit to Fela’s world without hitting your fingers on ‘his’ Keyboard?
But, really, whether we choose to refurbish Fela’s house and lock it up, or exploit tourism cum business opportunities therein like in he case of Marley and Elvis; Whether we all support Felabration or throw up other initiatives that would celebrate his life and times, I think we, as his people, owe him a befitting 70th birthday gift.