Fela's fella comes out fighting
Afro-Cuban scholar takes on Broadway and rails against the West.
Carlos Moore, the Afro-Cuban scholar and biographer, seems to invite trouble and controversy like his famous subject, Nigerian Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.
Moore has not been home to Cuba in decades and until the late 1990s he travelled on United Nations documents—Cuba wouldn’t issue a passport to him.
Moore recently filed a $5-million lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court against the producers of the Broadway musical Fela! for copyright infringement. He claims that the production ripped off This Bitch of a Life, his authorised biography of the founder of Afrobeat, originally published in 1982.
He was in Johannesburg to attend a conference on the African diaspora organised by a Ghanaian scholar, Kwesi Kwaa Prah, and to relaunch his biography of the African music icon.
The conference is examining the trek of blacks in the diaspora back to the African continent and the effects this has had. There are thriving communities of blacks from the diaspora who have, over the centuries, come back to settle in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Angola.
“There are a lot of people who are coming back to Africa. But what are we returning to?” Moore asks. He questions how those who have always lived in Africa should deal with the returnees.
Moore vs the producers
About the alleged use of his book for the Fela musical, he says: “They used my book from beginning to end.” It’s a claim the producers dismiss, pointing out that “Fela’s life is public knowledge”. But, Moore says, “there are parts of the book in which Fela revealed things he had never revealed to anyone”, so the claim that Fela’s life is public knowledge is disingenuous.
Fela is quoted in the biography as saying, in his overly dramatic manner: “Listen, man, I am gonna tell you some heavy shit-o that I’ve never told anybody ...”
The chapter titled “Afa Ojo”, for example, is not included in the African edition of the biography, in which, in a suicidal moment, the pop star heard the ghostly voice of his mother pleading with him not to. Moore says this section of the book was composed by his former wife, a writer and poet, and used poetic licence rather loosely.
Moore says also that “some parts of the book were written in the first person because I got permission from Fela to write in that way, integrating my narrative with Fela’s narrative. Sometimes it’s difficult to know the point at which Fela’s story ends and where mine begins.”
Moore met Fela when Moore moved from France to Nigeria in the 1970s. He was working as a journalist for the Agence France-Presse and landed up doing public relations work for the Festival of African Culture (Festac) there.
“One day I was with my wife at the market when I heard the most extraordinary piece of music, very beautiful,” Moore says, rekindling the moment he first heard Fela’s sound. “I had never heard anything like it before,” he says about the song, Shakara. Immediately he started looking for the song’s composer.
When he finally met the icon through a mutual friend, the first words the Afrobeat musician threw at him were: “Welcome, Carlos, to this shit called Nigeria.” They became friends, a relationship that blossomed into that of biographer and subject.
In the papers he has filed Moore, who has two PhDs, says the producers of the musical offered him $4 000, an offer he rejected as “insulting and demeaning”. Instead he demanded “an advance and participation in the royalty pool”, a request the producers of the musical ignored.
Moore says the producers didn’t think he would challenge them in court because of the large sums of money required to sue.
“How can you take on Hollywood or Broadway? They didn’t think I would have the resources to challenge but then they didn’t count on the solidarity of the black community in the United States.”
He says influential people in the African-American community assured him that if it was a matter of money they would help him.
The Cuban-born scholar, now resident in Brazil, sees it is as part of a trend—the West ripping off of the arts from the developing world, which he describes as “modern-day slavery”.
When Hollywood appropriates developing-world icons, Moore says, they deodorise them, taking away their capacity for revolution. “Look at the films done by Hollywood on Steven Biko [and others]. Biko isn’t an agent of change,” he says.
Moore left Cuba when he was 21. “I supported the revolution but I realised the regime wasn’t respecting African culture.”
His opposition to the Castro regime resulted in repeated arrests and persecution by the communist state. With the country’s security police in pursuit, he slipped into Guinea’s embassy.
From there he escaped to Egypt and then lived in Paris where he studied at Diderot University.