Rhythm and Rebellion - a review of Fela Kuti’s activism and music

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Daniel Obubo
06/05/2022

Rhythm and Rebellion - a review of Fela Kuti’s activism and music

Through time music has been a medium for change and has held an important role in shaping political narratives worldwide. In an analysis of the role music plays in the political sphere of postcolonial Africa, Nyamnjoh & Fokwang (2005) argue that Africans have shaped and been shaped by their music. As new nation states were birthed at the departure of European colonizers, one example of the power inherent in music as a tool to shape society is seen in the lyrics of national anthems. National anthems illustrate the timelessness of music’s political power over the citizens. The words of national anthems sought to guide citizens in their loyalty and formation of a national unity and identity. As the new African political leaders took stage their administration was not without scrutiny. This review essay will focus on the popular Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti, specifically analyzing sections from two of his songs and illustrating how through his songs Fela Kuti demonstrated a myriad of tensions, struggle for power between the ruling political parties, political elites, common people and most especially the confusion and complexity that emerged from the African identity after the European colonial encounter. This review will show just how influential Fela was as a rebellious musical activist and his ability to harness music as a tool to criticize a corrupt government.

Before reviewing the works of Fela Kuti it is important to introduce him to set the stage for the type of music he made and why he did so. Fela Kuti was a musician and a political activist from Nigeria. Fela was born into an aristocratic family and was educated in the United Kingdom. He is presently known as the father of afrobeat, a genre of music that fuses Nigerian Fújì and Highlife with American jazz, soul and funk.

An anti-colonial critique is heavily embedded in his works, he believed strongly that colonialism was the root cause of the socio-economic plight in Africa. He was also heavily vocal about European cultural hegemony enacted by colonialists that was and is still subjugating Africans. This European hegemony can also be seen in the narratives pushed by multinational corporations and as well as the religious exploitation. Fela clearly expressed White supremacy as a problem that still exists in Africa today, the heavily entrenched idea that the white man or in pidgin English ‘Oyinbo’ man is superior to the black man in every way, culturally, politically, intellectually and so forth. This is a byproduct of the conditioning that takes place in colonialism that leaves the dominated party believing that they are indeed ‘less than’. Fela takes issue with this especially by embracing African traditions such as the Yoruba religion, the religion of his ethnic group in Nigeria. With the introduction of Christianity, indigenous religions were cast aside as backward religions with ‘false’ gods per instruction of the bible, which pushes the ideology of one god and eternal salvation through Jesus Christ.

According to Olaniyan (2004), pan-Africanism was Fela Kuti’s raison d'être, he was heavily inspired by the Black power movement in the United States which was also going through major civil rights movements. His dream however was a united democratic African republic. Fela Kuti consciously chose to write and sing his songs in pidgin English or his native Yoruba language, one can see this as a way for him to have more ownership over his art by inflecting domestic linguistic traits into his music. This choice to sing and write in pidgin English was also a deliberate act of rebellion. Coming from an influential family, Fela Kuti’s first act of rebellion was moving away from the medical profession that his family had hoped he would follow. Instead Fela Kuti chose to follow music which was seen as less prestigious than a medical career.

Fela Kuti was a popular critic of military governments and dictatorships in Africa especially Nigeria, during his musical prime in the 1970s, Nigeria was under an authoritarian military government, therefore his music focused on lampooning crooked government officials, and criticizing the corrupt and brutal practices of the military administration. Songs like ‘Zombie’, a song that likened the Nigerian armed forces to mindless zombies and tools of the government particularly angered the Nigerian government. As a response they regularly retaliated by raiding his studios, destroying his recordings and harming his band members.

The most notable raid, the Kalakuta Republic raid occurred in retaliation to Fela declaring his compound an independent republic to the Nigerian state. It is retold that one thousand soldiers stormed the Kalakuta Republic, a communal compound where Fela lived with his family and band members. This however only acted as a catalyst to create more music criticizing the government and its dehumanizing practices earning him over 200 arrests and 20 months in prison. Most notable of the songs he wrote in retaliation to state sponsored brutality are Sorrow, Tears and Blood and Unknown Soldier. 

Fela Kuti passed away from complications with AIDS on the 2nd of August 1997.

Rebellious Language 

Before delving into Fela’s lyrics it is important to contextualize his use of language to understand why he writes in the manner he writes, to do this we need to understand the circumstances through which the Nigerian Pidgin English became popularized. While writing his music Fela chose a contextually appropriate language to be understood by the working class in Nigeria. Pidgin English is a form of English that is spoken in Nigeria as a result of the colonial encounter. Pidgin English goes against most of the norms of the standard variant of British English and in a country like Nigeria with multiple ethnic groups, it allows for interethnic communication, and serves as a lingua franca especially for the working class. Through colonial administration, English became the official language of Nigeria. Nigerians adopted standard English but adapted English into Pidgin English for its own local ownership and comfortable use (Olaniyan, 2004, p.47)

Pidgin’s syntax is indigenous while its vocabulary is primarily English. For example, Fela sings “Who be our teacher na Oyinbo?” translated it says “Who are our teachers? White people?” Fela also uses Pidgin English in a disruptive manner, paying little heed to established literary conventions in the spirit of rebellion. For example, towards the end of the song Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense he sings “This is the conclude of my song”, rather than using the standard British conjugation of the verb ‘to conclude’ which would be “This the conclusion”.

In the following sections the lyrics of two of Fela Kuti’s songs, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense and Sorrow Tears and Blood will be reviewed. The lyrics are referred to in bits, the portions referred to are in bold in the full text placed in the appendix of this paper.

Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense 

This song is Fela’s commentary on the 1979 democratic transfer of power to Shehu Shagari after years of military rule. Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense discusses culture as the ultimate teacher and encourages Africans to embrace their own cultures and traditions over that of their colonizers. He sings about the transplanting of democracy and how a political ideology cannot be used in a one-size-fits-all method. In the lyrics, we see Fela refer to the fact that Europeans and Africans are not in the same category, by this he means that our socio-cultural contexts are different and thus our political ideologies have to take into consideration the realities of a post-colonial nation in the process of building its own national identity. Fela Kuti makes reference to the fact that even in imitating a western style of democracy, the Nigerian process was marred with electoral rigging, he faults former colonial governments for not intervening and thus enabling a skewed version of democracy that institutionalized corruption. In popular Nigerian parlance the English word madness is referred to as crace from the word ‘crazy’. Fela plays on this term by stating that democracy in Nigeria is a mere demonstration of madness or as he puts it a demonstration of ‘crace’. Another central point Fela makes in this song is that there is no monolithic interpretation of democracy, he emphasizes this as he sings that there are multiple understandings of what entails democracy. Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense is a critique of western values and political systems that promote the idea that western political doctrine is the ideal form of governance in spite of the socio-cultural reality of societies.  

Sorrow, Tears and Blood 

Sorrow Tears and Blood dwells on the theme of police and military brutality, and the perceived complacency amongst the common people. Like most of Fela Kuti’s songs that deal with the bad governance, corruption, police brutality and the confusion of African identity as a result of colonialism, Sorrow, Tears and Blood still carries great contemporary relevance in the public sphere. In October 2020, Nigerian youths in different cities around the country took to the streets in what became known as the #EndSARS protests, which was against police brutality meted out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) who gained notoriety by targeting and brutalizing innocent Nigerian youth (Uwazuruike, 2020). In this song, Fela Kuti calls out citizens to become active in demanding justice and an end to dehumanization by entities of the state. Fela Kuti also then alludes to the complexity of being involved in dissenting, especially within a country still run by a brutal military regime. While condemning the complacency of Nigerian people in accepting to be mistreated, Fela Kuti reminds the listener of how other Africans have taken up agency and poured into the streets to protest against the apartheid regime in Southern Africa. As Olaniyan (2004) explains, this song was meant to be a commentary on the apartheid regime, but events that happened during a police raid on Fela’s home led to the song having a strong emphasis on police brutality in Nigeria and a comparison of Nigerian complacency and Southern African rebellion.

As a whole, this song represents the tension between common people and the state in repressive governments.  

Fela Kuti saw his music as the weapon against the oppressive Nigerian government and former colonial powers. Fela Kuti’s music remains important as power behind his lyrics resonates and is still relevant within the present-day political atmosphere in Nigeria. Contemporary Nigerian artists have continued Fela’s legacy of politically charged music. Fela Kuti exemplified a conscious postcolonial identity as he encouraged Africans to embrace their indigenous cultures and dismantle European ideological hegemony. His influence is still relevant in the struggle for #EndSARS and anti-colonial discourse in Nigeria, Africa and other parts of the world. 

 

References

Nyamnjoh, F. & Fokwang, J. (2005). Entertaining Repression: Music and Politics in Postcolonial Cameroon. African Affairs, 104/415, pp. 251-274. 

Olaniyan, T. (2004). Arrest the Music: Fela and his rebel art and politics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Uwazuruike, A. (2020). #EndSARS: The Movement Against Police Brutality in Nigeria. Harvard Human Rights Journal.

 

Appendix

Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense

Who be our teacher na Oyinbo?

Who be our teacher na Oyinbo?

All of us see the first election

And the second election all in Nigeria

Na the second election na im worse pass

Who teach us ee dem-o-cr-azy? 

Oyinbo teach-ee us

Oyinbo for Europe-oh

Oyinbo teach us many many things-ee

Many of dem things I don sing about-ee

Me I no gree to copy Oyinbo style

Let us think say, Oyinbo know pass we

When Shagari finish him elections

Wey dem no tell am, say him make mistake-ee

Say this yo, no be democracy

Oyinbo dem no tell army sef

Na for England-ee, army no fit take over

I come think about this demo-cracy

Demo-crazy (Demo-crazy)

Crazy demo (Demo-crazy)

Demonstration of craze (Demo-crazy)

Crazy demonstration (Demo-crazy)

If it no be craze (Demo-crazy)

Why for Africa? (Demo-crazy)

As time dey go (Demo-crazy)

Things just dey bad (Demo-crazy)

They bad more and more (Demo-crazy)

Poor man dey cry (Demo-crazy)

Rich man dey mess (Demo-crazy)

Demo-cracy (Demo-crazy)

Crazy demo (Demo-crazy)

Demonstration of craze (Demo-crazy)

Crazy demonstration (Demo-crazy)

If good-u teacher teach-ee something

And student make mistake

Teacher must talk-ee so

But Oyinbo no talk-ee so

dem support dem, Dey support dem

Dem dey say da teaching get meaning

Different different meaning

Different different kinds of meaning

That is why I say

That is the reason of my song

That is the conclude

The conclud-ee of my song

I say, I sing, I beg everyone to join my song

I say, I sing, I beg everyone to join my song

I say, I sing, I beg everyone to join my song

Teacher, teacher-o na the lecturer be your name

Teacher, teacher-o na the lecture be the same

Make-ee no teach-ee me again oh

As soon teaching finish yes, da thing-ee it gon die it dey-o

As soon teaching finish yes, da thing-ee it gon die it dey-o

As soon teaching finish yes, da thing-ee it gon die

Me and you no dey for the same-u category

Me and you no dey for the same-u category

Me and you no dey for the same-u category

Me and you no dey for the same-u category

 

 

 

Sorrow tears and Blood Lyrics 

Hey yeah

Everybody run, run, run

Everybody scatter, scatter

Some people lost some bread

Someone nearly die

Someone just die

Police dey come, army dey come

Confusion everywhere

Hey yeah

Seven minutes later

All done cool down, brother

Police done go away

Army done disappear

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

(Them regular trademark) them regular trademark

(Them regular trademark)

That is why

Everybody run, run, run

Everybody scatter, scatter

Someone nearly died

Some people lost some bread

Someone just die

Police dey come, army dey come

Confusion everywhere

Hey yeah

Seven minutes later

All done cool down, brother

Police done go away

Army done disappear

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark

La, la, la, la

My people self dey fear too much

We fear for the thing we no see

We fear for the air around us

We fear to fight for freedom

We fear to fight for liberty

We fear to fight for justice

We fear to fight for happiness

We always get reason to fear

We no want die

We no want wound

We no want quench

We no want go

I get one child

Mama dey for house

Papa dey for house

I want build house

I don build house

I no want quench

I want enjoy

I no want go

Ah

So policeman go slap your face

You no go talk

Army man go whip your yansh

You go dey look like donkey

Rhodesia dey do them own

Our leaders dey yab for nothing

South Africa dey do them own

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark

Them regular trademark (them regular trademark)

Them regular trademark

Regular trademark (them regular trademark)

That is why

Everybody run, run, run

Everybody scatter, scatter

Some people lost some bread

Someone nearly die

Police dey come, army dey come

Confusion everywhere

Ah, na so

Time will dey go

Time no wait for nobody

Like that: choo, choo, choo, choo, ah

But police go dey come, army go dey come

With confusion

In style like this

Everybody run, run, run

Everybody scatter, scatter

Some people lost some bread

Someone nearly die

Someone just die

Police dey come, army dey come

Confusion everywhere

Hey yeah

Seven minutes later

All done cool down, brother

Police done go away

Army done disappear

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark (them regular trademark)

Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood

Them regular trademark

That is why

Everybody run, run, run

Everybody scatter, scatter

Some people lost some bread

Someone nearly die