Olaniyan does several things at the same time. He captures the movement of Fela from an artist who imitates to an artist who has found his own distinctive voice that becomes Afro Beat. If Fela was many things, he was first a musician committed to developing his craft and its form. Olaniyan also traces the movement of Fela from an artist who at first created art for its sake, to entertain or for that matter for money, then to one who merely raised questions of morality (a benign humanism or reformism if you will) and finally to an artist who was socially committed. As a socially committed artist, Fela put his creativity, his music and its form in the service of African and Nigerian socio-political issues. Olaniyan in the introduction writes that in Fela’s development to becoming a socially committed artist, there are “three distinct stages that are recognizable: the apolitical hustler, the moral reformer, and the dissident political activist” (3).

Fela Kuti

The Music that Would not be Disappeared!

By Mukoma Ngugi (April 16, 2006)

Arrest the Music! Fela and his Rebel Art and Politics by Tejumola Olaniyan. Indiana University Press, 2004.

In 1977, Tejumola Olaniyan narrates, Nigerian soldiers armed with AK 47’s invaded a musical concert by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. The purpose was “To arrest the music” as per the order issued by the commanding officer (1). The officer meant for the soldiers to seize the musical instruments and disrupt the concert. But this particular phrase, Olaniyan by way of introducing the book tells the reader would not leave his mind. “It [the phrase] reveals, for example, the peculiar character of the relations between art, specifically oppositional music, and a postcolonial African state” (2). By shining light on the contradictions of the post-colonial state, the artist who during the fight for independence was a nationalist ally quickly became an enemy.

To further underline the relationship of the artist and his or her art to the post-colonial government, the phrase “Arrest the Music” recalls the issuance of an arrest order for Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s fictional Matigari whom the government understood to be a real life trouble maker searching the whole the country for truth and justice. It might also recall a time when a highly placed Kenyan government official became so exasperated with a trouble maker called Karl Marx that he was quoted as wondering why the government couldn’t just arrest him. After all he was easy to identify, a long white beard and a heavy head with white hair. This for all we know might have been the criteria used to arrest and detain Wole Soyinka in Nigeria during the Biafran War. The post-colonial authorities ban, detain, kill and exile efficiently but their bumbling efforts do provide the artist with potent occasions for satire.

Committed Artist

Olaniyan does several things at the same time. He captures the movement of Fela from an artist who imitates to an artist who has found his own distinctive voice that becomes Afro Beat. If Fela was many things, he was first a musician committed to developing his craft and its form. Olaniyan also traces the movement of Fela from an artist who at first created art for its sake, to entertain or for that matter for money, then to one who merely raised questions of morality (a benign humanism or reformism if you will) and finally to an artist who was socially committed. As a socially committed artist, Fela put his creativity, his music and its form in the service of African and Nigerian socio-political issues. Olaniyan in the introduction writes that in Fela’s development to becoming a socially committed artist, there are “three distinct stages that are recognizable: the apolitical hustler, the moral reformer, and the dissident political activist” (3).

It is the same movement give or take a stage that musicians who enter the fray of liberation politics undergo – for example, Paul Robeson and in our times Harry Belafonte. Improvisation of what becomes one’s calling is not just peculiar to musicians, before they became revolutionaries, Fanon was a psychiatrist, Che trained to be a doctor and Mandela was a practicing lawyer. From Malcom X himself a figure who continually transformed as called upon by the struggle for black liberation, Fela Kuti learned three lessons: “Knowledge is power”, “speaking truth to power” and “the significance, indeed the necessity of advocating and cultivating pan-African political and cultural relations and unity” (31-32). This connection between the African and African American struggle needs to be underlined. Pan-Africanism as an ideology or identity finds full expression in Diaspora figures like W.E.B. DuBois and George Padmore. At the risk of oversimplification, Black Power in the 1960’s becomes Black Consciousness in the 1970’s in South Africa. Thus the “radical African American Nationalism” (76) that Fela adopts becomes not only a question of “speaking truth to power”, but also one of black people in the Diaspora speaking to each other.

Olaniyan sees Fela’s ideology as a “matrix” of radical black nationalism which ‘opened out to a much more expansive Pan-Africanism and Afro-centrism” and a “sturdy partisanship for the oppressed lower classes that could be described as socialist in orientation” and an “irrepressible libertarianism that frequently tries to be the anchor and articulator of the other two” (76). Fela’s solidarity with “the oppressed lower classes” was complete. “He lived in their midst, trumpeted their sounds to national attention, experienced their brutalization at the hands of official lawlessness, and even shared their poverty (81). Recalling for me Albert Memmi’s notion of class suicide, Olaniyan offers this aspect of Fela who is not born into the oppressed lower classes as “consummate an example of class suicide as we can get in the world of actual struggle” (81).

Flaws and Contradictions

But Fela as Olaniyan recognizes is also fraught with contradictions and tragic flaws. As has often been the case, women are understood as the repositories and keepers of culture. To protect African culture from Western culture, African women have to be cleansed off lip-stick and mini skirts, circumcised, kept away from schools, driven from politics and domesticated. The domestication is done either through brute force (a few years ago it had become the norm in Kenyan and Tanzanian cities that women in mini-skirts were to be publicly forced to take them off and wear a kanga) or through the pedestal of veneration where the woman becomes a the symbol of a pure Africaness, the African queen.

The effect of either suppression or veneration is the same – African women are silenced in both the private and public spheres (if such a distinction is even worthwhile making). In this bid to protect African culture from Western culture through the African woman, the kind of cultural nationalism that Fela adopts and propagates either suppresses or venerates the African woman. Lady, one Fela’s most popular songs understands the struggle for equality between the African male and woman as being infected with Westernization. Conversely, a domesticity where the African man reigns supreme over the African woman becomes African culture. Because Olaniyan actually vocalizes some of the contradictions that Fela could not, Arrest the Music becomes in part a critique of national liberation ideologies and politics that attempt to authenticate and restore a version African culture that rests on the suppression of the African woman.

Olaniyan is also careful not to fall into the pitfalls that a lot of critics analyzing African art fall into – the pitfall of seeing African art as always functional. In this rubric, an African artist pursues truth alone and beauty is incidental. The artist never pursues beauty in the service of the truth if we may pull a reluctant John Keats into the debate. In offering a critique of Things Fall Apart, critics first see it as a response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On the other hand, Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters which in part deals with the imagination and the artist’s role in newly independent states is for the most left on the wayside of African literary criticism. In both instances, the art of how the story is weaved is not part of the critic’s concern. In short very few critics deal with the African artist as an artist who is first moved by images and sounds and carefully works to articulate them.


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