Sitting in a busted chair amongst his numerous dancers and wives, nestled in his compound in Lagos, which he declared its own separate republic, Fela Anikulapo Kuti pontificates on solving the dire situation in his home country of Nigeria: “Africans must know. Someone must spread the knowledge.” He then pauses for dramatic effect. “And I think I have the knowledge.” He brings a massive joint to his lips. It is 1982 and Fela is running for president of Nigeria, whether the hopelessly corrupt powers that be like it or not.
If your experience with the Afrobeat inventor and political firebrand comes from Fela!, the hit Broadway musical with the tagline “Energy, Passion, Revolution, Power” then this not-so-glamorous, ground-level documentary may be particularly edifying. Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff and Jean-Jacques Flori’s Fela Kuti: Music Is The Weapon is a near-hour long dose of Fela that allows viewers to make of him what they will. When he’s shown driving a van with his name emblazoned on the front of it, there’s a creepy though maybe necessary hucksterism to his political sloganeering and advertising. Indeed, his nightclub is called–with some irony and clever branding–The Shrine. But you also witness the musician terrorized by government, which makes his passion tangible.
Watch a scene of one of Fela Kuti’s electric performances at The Shrine:
Even reducing Fela to “a man of contradictions,” as Fela! is apt to do is a bit too simple. Here’s a genuine revolutionary who is also a rock star, who was educated in England, went to America for 10 months, discovered Black Power and returned to Nigeria, armed with the decision that he would be the raw uncooked voice of the people. The cross-cultural influences that lit his virulent patriotism are cleverly illustrated through familiar footage of Sixties protests, now scored to Fela’s syncopated funk. The film coyly doles out biographical information about Fela like that, mostly relying on the interplay between a fascinating interview full of moments like the one described above, and front-row footage of him performing live.
Fela is most commanding and perhaps, even more oddly presidential, when he’s on the stage. At The Shrine, he becomes a grooving jumpsuit-wearing showman, performing his Afrobeat sound, which is equal parts populist party music and skronking out-there jazz, and incorporates Yoruba music, Nigeria’s highlife, as well as hard funk, psychedelic rock, and soul. Unlike American protest music, which even at its best often feels like back-patting preaching to the converted, Fela’s work puts you in the center of the unrest.
“Everybody run run run, everybody scatter scatter” goes “Sorrow Tears And Blood,” which may not even scan as protest music to some, because it’s so mired in the momentary. There is a sense in Fela’s music that anything might happen. He’s able to turn the turmoil he sings about into a palpable nervous groove, calling out corrupt politicians by name, speaking on the concerns of his country and belting out a scat-poetry vision of the chaos that he hopes will soon end.
Listen to Fela Kuti’s “Sorrow Tears and Blood” performed in Music Is the Weapon:
He’s like a combination of utopian madman Jim Jones and artist-turned-militant Yukio Mishima, while tugging along the superstar charisma of pop music’s political figures. He’s a bit of James Brown in that he seems to be both an instinctual innovator and charismatic and a creepy, overbearing bandleader; Bob Marley because he’s a genuine musical/political voice of the people, and perhaps, a precursor to Tupac Shakur in that he’s an affluent, self-made rebel —Gatsby gone radical — and just a little too comfortable in the quasi-mythic costume in which he’s cloaked himself.
Given the film’s strange objective yet somber tone and Fela’s swaggering intensity, if this were your only experience with the music legend, it may seem like the whole thing’s waddling towards a tragic post-script describing his death at the hand of a bullying government intimidated by a pop musician with a concern for human rights. No, he died of A.I.D.S-related complications in 1997, though his mother did die from injuries sustained in an infamous 1977 raid by the Nigerian military when she was thrown out a window.
Towards the end of Music Is The Weapon, after a horrifying sequence of images showing the aftermath of another raid, Fela stands up to reveal wounds and scars on his back suffered at the hands of police. Then he pulls down his tiny blue briefs exposing a massive, cracked scar across his butt. “They beat the shit out of me,” he says flatly. Then he adds, almost as an afterthought, “I can’t die, they can’t kill me.”
Brandon Soderberg is a critic and writer based in Baltimore, MD. He writes a weekly hip-hop column for Spin.com and has contributed to The Village Voice, Pitchfork, Baltimore City Paper, and the Independent Weekly.