parody by nacrowe
a little less than a year ago i did a radio show (linked HERE) on the global cultural impact of the legendary NIGERIAN AFROBEAT composer/musician FELA KUTI, easily one of the most consequential artists i have come across during my lifetime. i have written and spoke at length about my middle school years living in NIGERIA in the mid 90s on this blog, even wrote a review (linked HERE) of a recently published english translation of a french book consisting of interviews with him and his many wives.
to sum up his legacy, he was a singular artist that sought to bolster AFRICAN identity in a post-colonialist context where native customs were beginning to self-define as primitive and anti-modern. his music and art pierced that bullshit right between the eyes and gave his people a dignity and cultural awareness that has only flourished since his passing. you can hear such now in his sons FEMI and SEUN and the work of LAGBAJA and his peers like TONY ALLEN (formerly of his backing band the EGYPT 80) and KING SUNNY ADE among many many others.
for years i have shared his music with friends and students in other places i lived and taught including JAPAN, VENEZUELA, ALBANIA and MYANMAR. especially in countries struggling to find their own voice in a world that requires you to act, speak and look a certain way (usually in a euro-centric mold), his example was my way of letting my students know that you could be yourself and embrace your local community, whether or not such is valued by the broader global marketplace of ideas and culture.
they'll come around. they did with FELA.
photo by veronica serrano
its crazy seeing all the shortages of things like toilet paper and basic food stuffs happen stateside these days, basically because i've experienced it all before.
this is the kind of thing i saw happen in the mid 90s during the isolated military regime of SANI ABACHA in NIGERIA and in VENEZUELA shortly after the death of HUGO CHAVEZ when NICOLAS MADURO took over in 2013. in both cases once you saw a desired product on a shelf you knew it was only a matter of time (usually within hours) that such would be gone to return who knows when.
in NIGERIA the company my father worked for got around this with large annual shipments (one per family) that were sent via international container ships that would take months at a time. you'd fill these things up by weight stateside during the summer and then see them in AFRICA in late autumn. it was crazy because you'd purchase a year's worth of any particular item (candy, napkins, detergent, etc). but it worked and meant you weren't relying on the local market for basic necessities, which was a good thing given the corruption of the military dictatorship of the time.
recent photo by nacrowe somewhere in new jersey
VENEZUELA was a different experience altogether in that i entered the country during a time of immense upheaval and change. CHAVEZ during his reign had nationalized various industries and kicked out foreign investment in things like oil and manufacturing. the UNITED STATES in particular used to manufacture napkins, paper towels and toilet paper in the country and after CHAVEZ' decision they merely relocated the factories to COLOMBIA (which in turn assisted in stabilizing their economy). i taught for two years there and over that time their currency spiraled out of control. the inflation was the highest in the world. since 2016 their currency has inflated 53,798,500%.
so what does that mean in human terms? it means people don't save, they spend because every day you wait the money has less value. prices are always climbing and basic common necessities like bread, food stuffs and household paper products are out of range for most to buy. during the end of my time there i went to COLOMBIA for a job conference. during my time in BOGOTA i brought two bodybags with me and filled them with deodorant, toilet paper and HARINA PAN (a cornmeal used in arepas, empanadas, etc). when flying back in VENEZUELA the officials there asked me point blank if i had any of the items on a checklist in my possession (the first three items being DEODORANT, TOILET PAPER and HARINA PAN). they weren't looking for drugs or weapons. i told them i didn't have any of those and they didnt check.
i brought those back to the school i worked at and over a few days passed them all out equally to the workers at my school. these included the gardeners, custodians, clerks, guards, drivers, etc. essentially i was handing them commodities that would appreciate with time and be worth more than their paycheck.
think about that. toilet paper, deodorant and cornmeal. now i don't think that the UNITED STATES will ever get to this level, but what i did learn in these situations is the resilience and dignity of NIGERIANS and VENEZUELANS i met. they really saw their individual needs in the context of their families and greater networks of friends. these desperate situations showcased what a true community was all about. i did what i could in VENEZUELA to the people i was around, but things have gotten much much worse since then and the rise of TRUMP has only made things worse.
not a day goes by i don't think of VENEZUELA. my goal is to return one day. NIGERIA i hear from friends has gotten much better as the government has succeeded in changing over its power a few times in fair elections, bringing in foreign investment. im glad that is the case.
photo 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.
photo by karl burhop
ok i admit that its more than a little strange to write a profile on yourself. but here i go.
as creative director of DEER GOD i basically have a hand in everything we do that is non-audio. that basically boils down controlling/editing all things visual and written. of course we work as a team and frequently collaborate and take cues from one another, but i more or less take these efforts and produce the final product.
out of the whole team i am probably the last to the party in that i was not involved with audio or video production until a few years ago when i returned from overseas. for the better part of the last decade i was involved with education having taught secondary english abroad at international schools in MYANMAR, JAPAN, VENEZUELA as well as a stint as a peace corps volunteer in ALBANIA. my start as an educator was in NYC where i got my masters at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY and had brief stints teaching at both BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL (student teacher) and STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL (long-term substitute). my bad timing entering the field in the wake of the great recession meant that no new positions were available as older teachers delayed retirement and an effective freeze was put on new hires. thus i had an IVY LEAGUE degree and recommendations from two of the top public high schools in the nation, but no prospects.
so i went and taught overseas.
due to my parents work i spent time overseas growing up in NIGERIA (middle school) and KUWAIT (junior year of high school) and attended high school in both MASSACHUSETTS (NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON) and CALIFORNIA (ROCKLIN HIGH SCHOOL). oh yeah, and i was born in SPAIN.
my passion as long as i can remember photography as i would take photos of my travels (somehere around 60+ countries). i think my passion for other cultures and worldviews informed my (brief) teaching career and most definitely is a part of what i bring to my current visual work here at DEER GOD. if interested, check out my photos above.
the rest are linked HERE.