Finding myself in New York recently on a rainy autumn afternoon, I made my way to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Manhattan’s bustling mid-town. On approaching the theatre, I saw a giant poster of Fela! with a huge picture of the Nigerian Afro-beat star atop the building. This was the latest hit musical on Broadway in the world’s Mecca of theatre in the city that never sleeps.
I marvelled at the fact that the Nigerian superstar, whose radical political stance and Bohemian lifestyle — he smoked marijuana, wore underwear on stage, married 27 wives and died of Aids in 1997 at the age 58 — had finally achieved entry into the global mainstream. Fela Anikulapo (”he who carries death in his pouch”) Kuti — the first cousin of Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and past collaborator of Hugh Masekela — had been widely celebrated as a musical icon across Africa, but was less well known in the West.
The two-hour show, based on a book by Jim Lewis and directed and choreographed by Tony Award-winner Bill T Jones, was set in ”the Shrine”, a commune of debauchery in my childhood city of Lagos, where the humorous Fela entertained and educated the country’s middle and lower classes, often singing in the pidgin English of the masses to speak for the voiceless and powerless. He had earlier declared this site the sovereign ”Kalakuta Republic”, outside the jurisdiction of the Nigerian military regime. Many of Nigeria’s conservative middle classes saw Kuti as a Pied Piper of Perdition, leading the youth astray.
Fela! tells the story of the life and times of its subject: his priestly, musical grandfather and father, Fela being sent to London to study medicine and turning instead to music, his political education in the United States during its civil rights struggle and his creation of a unique musical style based on a fusion of African high life and American jazz and funk.
The show mostly takes place just after the Shrine was stormed in 1977 by 1000 soldiers of military autocrat General Olusegun Obasanjo, taking revenge for Kuti’s biting satire and boycotting of the government-sponsored World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. Many of Kuti’s wives were attacked and allegedly raped and his mother was thrown from a window, contributing — many believe — to her death a year later.
From my second-row seat, I witnessed the extravagant, well-choreographed set involving nine of Kuti’s skimpily clad ”dancing queens” with braids and braces and painted faces, with whom a lavish wedding ceremony is staged. The audience is invited to get up and dance in what sometimes feels more like a concert than a musical. A multiracial band, Antibalas, with a heavy horn section, played Kuti’s tunes throughout the evening.
The character playing Kuti appeared triumphantly on stage in the musician’s signature embroidered costumes, taking off his shirt, making feline dance moves and alternately playing the saxophone and engaging in yabbis (political education) sessions with his audience, in which he berates the passivity of Nigerians in the face of oppression by brutal securocrats who are derided as ”zombies”.
The theatre was packed to the rafters with a diverse audience containing many Africans in the diaspora. The stage was exuberant, with a picture of Kuti’s mother permanently on display. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was one of Nigeria’s earliest feminists and a heroine of the country’s anticolonial struggle.
She helped shape Kuti’s radical pan-African political views and the show is centred on this relationship, with shapely Tony-winning African-American actress Lillias White singing operatic solos from a balcony above the stage in a bid to convince her son not to abandon Nigeria for exile.
The musical sees a melancholy Kuti constantly hallucinating like a black Hamlet in a haze of smoke, while using African masquerades as intermediaries to visit his mother in the land of the ancestors in the spectacular ”Dance of the Orisas”.
The show also highlights the role of another woman who greatly influenced Fela’s political awakening: former Black Panther Sandra Izsadore, who introduced the Afro-jazz star to the work of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Fela’s relationship with women was complex and paradoxical: although feminists criticised his misogynist views on the traditional role of women in songs such as Lady, he married his ”dancing queens” as a potent protest against women who had been physically attacked and widely depicted as prostitutes.
The show has flashbacks of famous newspaper headlines and incidents in Kuti’s life, which involved many spells in jail. It captured well his insatiable musical and sexual appetites that seemed to fuel his genius.
Purists will inevitably quibble that some of the best-known songs were omitted, that the accent of the alternating lead actor — Emmy-winning Zimbabwean-born Kevin Mambo — was not Nigerian enough and that some of the famous incidents in Kuti’s life were not properly conveyed. But leaving this Broadway extravaganza, I observed the multiracial audience in the world’s most cosmopolitan city and knew that Kuti had finally achieved, in death, the immortal status that eluded him in life.
Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town