An Unspoken Part of Fela Kuti’s Legacy


Everybody remembers the first time
with Fela. I was a preteen and it
happened with my family. We were

crossing Lagos’s famous Third Mainland
Bridge at night on the way to the airport
in Ikeja from my uncle’s house in Ikoyi
when Fela’s song “Water No Get
Enemy” began to play on the radio.

There is something amazing that
happens when a Fela song begins to
play. First the alert of blasting horns and
your head rises. Then the web of
polyrhythms from pounding drums that
take the body in one direction and then
the other so that even while sitting you
begin to dance. And finally Fela’s voice,
so distinctive that you have no choice
but to pay attention to the words sung in
its sometimes sweetly melodious,
sometimes scratchy, sometimes off-
key, but always moving baritone. No
matter where you are, people stop what
they’re doing for a moment and listen.
Fela is often called Nigeria’s conscience,
but maybe he was both a little less and
a little more than that. When he was
alive he spoke truth to the numerous
powers that were, or might have been—legions of military dictators, businessmen,
even the disgruntled and sometimes despondent public—often to his own peril. He
ended up in prison more than once and his mother was killed during a military raid
on his house. His numerous songs from “Authority Stealing” to “Zombie” are direct
and unsparing in their criticism of government. Some of them are playful in their
detailing of the contradictions in Nigerian life. They are all as unflinchingly authentic
as Fela himself was and perhaps the reason why Nigerians love him so.
His vocabulary has become cultural idiom—my uncles still his lyrics “shuffering”
and “shmiling” to speak about day to day hardships in Nigeria—and the power of
Fela is so strong some 15 years after his death that it was invoking his spirit that
masses of Nigerians took to the streets earlier this year to protest the removal of
petroleum subsidies. For Fela, nothing—nothing—was sacred except the ability to
point out contradictions in the way that we live. And in many ways it’s fitting that
one of the biggest contradictions of his existence was how his silence about the
illness that killed him helped to spark a nationwide discussion about the presence
and role of HIV/AIDS in Nigerian society.
If we all remember our first time with Fela, we all remember exactly where we were
when he was buried. I was 14 and watched the whole funeral procession in which
more than a million Lagosians marched on the small TV in my Uncle’s apartment.
The reception was fuzzy, but you could see him in his bright orange suit, his body
resting in a glass coffin while the masses danced around him to pay their respects.
It was his brother, a former minister of health, who announced that Fela had passed
from Kaposi sarcoma, a form of cancer closely often seen in patients with HIV
infections that have progressed to AIDS. The disbelief was palpable. To this day,
there are people who would deny that Fela Kuti—our Fela, the people’s Fela—was
HIV positive. I remember the whispers “They say it’s AIDS oh!” and the response “So
this thing is real” because Fela made everything real, in death still speaking truth to
the powers, both governmental and public that wanted to deny the existence of the
epidemic in Nigeria. Some people I spoke to called Fela’s death our “Magic”
moment, referring to Irving “Magic” Johnson whose brave decision to be open about
his positive status helped to change the conversation about what it means to have
HIV/AIDS in America.
But the fact that Fela has been dead for 15 years and that Magic is able to provide us
with what might be the most entertaining movie-going experience at his line of
eponymous theaters (everyone should try watching a summer blockbuster at the
Magic Theater in Harlem) also speaks to something – HIV/AIDS is an eminently
livable disease if you have the resources to live with it. Those resources were not
really available in Nigeria when Fela left us. And though people are working hard to
change this, they are still not as widely available as they should be today.
By all accounts Fela was not an easy man to deal with or define, and I find it
interesting that the current popular portrayal of him in the media, on Broadway is
one that smoothes over the roughness and eliminates the contradictions in his life
that he so viciously pointed out in ours. Where would we be if Fela hadn’t
succumbed to HIV/AIDS—who knows? But the greatest contradiction is that his
silence about and death from the disease ultimately gave the rest of us a lot to talk
about and perhaps, a better shot at living.

Uzodinma Iweala is a physician and the author of “Our Kind of People: A Continent’s
Challenge, A Country’s Hope.”

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