photo & text by nacrowe
i was fortunate enough growing up to spend my middle school years in NIGERIA. it is hard to downplay what a transformative experience that was since it permanently altered the way i thought about myself and my relationship to the world. a healthy part of that experience was taking in the art and music that surrounded me during that period and FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI was a part of that. i was in LAGOS during his final years in the late 90s and his cultural influence by then in NIGERIA, as well as AFRICA in general as i would later learn visiting the continent, was huge. when i hear his music i can still see markets and people on foot whizzing by from the window of our company car.
FELA: THIS BITCH OF A LIFE (LAWRENCE HILL BOOKS, 2009) compiled and edited by CARLOS MOORE was originally published in translation in France in 1982 and is a transcribed compilation of sorts of famed-AFROBEAT musician FELA taped-conversations and formal interviews with friends of his and 15 of his 27 wives. that being the structure of the book, it tends to be a bit conversational and jumbled to follow, but then that is the point. it is meant to be an historical primary document of sorts. didn't bother me in appreciating it. should also mention that much of it retains its pidgin dialect, which is intentional. if you are unfamiliar with the pidgin english spoken in NIGERIA, here is an informative 2008 NEW YORK SUN ARTICLE i used to have my high school students read back in the day before tackling a WOLE SOYINKA poem or CHINUA ACHEBE novel.
i think the proper prism to be aware of when reading his words is to be aware of the influence of EUROPEAN COLONIALISM on the AFRICAN mindset. lots of AFRICAN nations in the 1960s were dealing with issues of self-determination and identity after gaining independence. it is still an ongoing process. within NIGERIA during this period an existential dilemma as many of the children raised by parents that were indoctrinated by their EUROPEAN overlords largely rejected those foreign colonial religions, values and mores. or at least put them in check.
writers like the aforementioned SOYINKA and ACHEBE as well as FELA himself were raised in schools that taught the BRITISH curriculum. SOYINKA and ACHEBE took those classic western narrative and poetic forms and bent them to their will, infusing them with the AFRICAN oral history tradition. FELA was formally trained as a musician in the UNITED KINGDOM. all ultimately used this knowledge to question and critique the forms themselves, which is interesting.
THIS BITCH OF A LIFE really gets into how FELA saw his relationships with music, authorities, women and politics within the prism of PAN-AFRICANISM and the return to traditional AFRICAN customs and values. what is interesting is when these clash with western ideals, such is his embrace of polygamy. his views of a male-dominated society would seemingly contradict his appeals for liberation for all AFRICANS, but in context as the interviews with his wives show, they seem in keeping with a pre-COLONIAL mindset. interesting stuff but sadly shows the level to which his sexism influenced and dominated those who relied on him.
it also is contrary to what i saw growing up out there. what i saw was empowering. women in NIGERIAN society where in charge of things like the markets, which were the central hub of daily life. sure the men grew and built things, as FELA enthuses in the book, but women marketed and sold these commodities. when i think of NIGERIAN women, the first thing i think of is shrewd businesswomen. that and their overwhelming ferocity. you see, if men couldn't handle something then the women took over, and they took no prisoners. the company my father worked for was in negotiations with a local union and the talks failed. when that happened the wives overtook our compound, in some cases uprooting the gates and dismantling walls. when i was at TEACHERS COLLEGE for graduate school i had a professor that, interestingly enough, was ACHEBE's eldest daughter and i told her that if i had to choose between fighting MIKE TYSON in his prime or any angry NIGERIAN women, i'd take TYSON immediately. she agreed. long story short, FELA's account on the nature of NIGERIAN women is false and evidence of his shortcomings. which i am fine with, the dude was a complicated.
i'd argue that his ire towards the military government during this period, which ultimately led to the murder of his mother and raping of his wives at the hands of soldiers, is legendary and what his lasting legend and broader political and cultural appeal is based upon. to him their biggest failure was turning AFRICANS against themselves in appeasement to interests of EUROPEAN powers. its hard for me to argue against that. and most NIGERIANS i have come in contact with still hold him in high regard for carrying the flag for freedom in the face of volatile criminal military dictatorships.
if you are a fan of FELA or AFROBEAT or interested in AFRICAN music and politics, then i cannot recommend this book highly enough. but then again i am biased because i would appreciate anything based on the life and music of FELA.