Listening to the Postcolonial Singer in Tejumola Olaniyan’s Arrest the Music: Fela and His Rebel Arts and Politics


The seriousness with which scholars of African popular non-literary cultures have approached the music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti reaches its high point in Tejumola Olaniyan’s Arrest the Music because this is the first book that locates the meaning of Fela’s life, art, and politics within the larger intellectual milieu whose contours the musician himself helped to shape. The book also stands out for its adamant refusal to accept on face value the many received truisms, many of them self proclaimed, about Fela; his patently radical political statements, for example, are shown to lack ideological coherence or philosophical depth. To the question why is Fela important, Olaniyan responds that the body of work captured the essence of the“postcolonial incredible” (2) in ways no other African popular musician did. Fela became the force he was because he read the Nigerian felapostindependence situation very accurately and transmitted his observations in musical and verbal idioms most suitable for comprehending them. In all pitches possible and at every performance forum presented to him, Fela never missed the chance to articulate that which in the African postcolony “cannot be believed; that which is too improbable, astonishing, and extraordinary to be believed” (2). All thinking Africans listened to, sang along, and wondered with Fela about the sheer illogicality of how things could have been so wrong. Indeed, without the sustained musical attention, lyrical and percussive, that Fela paid to the senseless incongruities of life in the African postcolony, he would not have made much sense to many people, especially given his relentless willful violations of middle class, Western educated, social norms.

Fela’s mediation of the “postcolonial incredible,” in musical idioms that always punctuate a call to dance with a call to listen, to act, and to transcend imposes a difficult burden on his audience. The call in “Noise for Vendor Mouth” takes the form of a shout, the mock complaint in “Lady” is set to a heavy “funky rhythm,” the rumination in “Water E No Get Enemy” is wrapped in contemplative horns and vocal, the“sprightly drums and other percussion” in “Shuffering and Shmiling” raise the heart’s pulse and lift the feet as its words prick the brain, the endearing “exuberant horns” of “Eko Ile” evoke sweet images of the home. Belaboring the audience, in my reading of Olaniyan, secures the other platform on which Fela’s importance rests. Fela not only identifies the regime of the incredible in postcolonial Africa; he also rebukes the condition with an obvious relish that cannot but convince his listeners that this is an“interregnum” that will definitely pass. He betrays the hidden“vulnerabilities” of African postcolonial anomie with tongue wagging lyrics and suggests in fist clenching themes how they will be supplanted. In record after record, the constantly grave critique of the songs always insinuates (and sometimes yodels) the return of a savory norm; at the end of the savage percussion of the song “Zombie” rises the calm pitch of a saxophone riff that bespeaks a dawn.

The perspicacity of Fela’s observations and the audacious way he proclaims them are precisely the reasons his Yoruba speaking fans called him abàmì èdá, or the incredible creature. But we need to distinguish that epithet formulated by overawed admirers from the sober contextualization Arrest the Music does. Olaniyan’s reading of Fela aligns the musician’s genius with the tendency Emmanuel Obiechina has identified in African fiction as the poetics of disillusionment which shows the African ruling classes at work doing their self serving inept best to misappropriate the fruits of independence. The recognition and analysis of Fela’s vision of the inevitability of a better tomorrow, provided the practice and theory of trenchant critique continues, also corresponds very well to the type of cultural advocacy which the Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, makes in Two Thousand Seasons. Fela, like Armah, simultaneously declaims Africa’s loss of “the way” and signposts the recovery of the same, refusing “to be mere mirrors to annihilation” (Armah xiii).

Whether he is a struggling “‘apolitical’ avant-pop hipster”who hung on to jazz tenaciously or the brash and self-confident “Afrobeat moralist,” the city is Fela’s forte. There Fela locates, unlike fellow nationalists to whom the essence of African being resides uncontaminated in the village, the most vibrant spot in the symbolic geography of African postcolonial life. The city harbors the most outrageous episodes of gargantuan abnormalities; if order is to begin to prevail, it will start there. In the African metropolis, Fela notes, mass transit buses operate as if the owners have the official permission to make more room for standing passengers than for seated passengers and still charge both groups the same price. In Lagos specifically, motor drivers act as if traffic signs mean the exact opposite of what they instruct: “Turn Right” is normally taken to mean make a left turn. But despite its maddening chaos, Fela always sings of a homey Lagos (literally so in Fela’s endearing Yoruba term, Èkó Ilé) as a difficult place whose irresistible charms cannot be spurned by any right thinking person. Good or bad, the city seems to be home!

At any rate, the hope of betterment subsists still. People who suffer and smile on the cramped city buses will one day, if they listen carefully to Fela’s lyrics, realize that their condition can be remedied if they move in certain political directions. When those Lagosians who bleach their black faces heed Fela’s admonition and live comfortably with the skin into which they were born, the crowded bus might be less smelly. When Fela sings about “go slow” or traffic jam, the city lover’s regret shows both in the dragged out words and in the deep voiced inflection. In the excoriation of the shocking stupidities of the overseas trained African postcolonial intellectuals, bureaucrats, and technocrats no trace of malice can be detected. Even when the objects of ridicule are named evil agents of transnational corporations and their collaborating perpetrators of misrule, the scorn is aimed at the witless acts of self hatred and not the individuals. Although Fela might have believed, Olaniyan notes, that he stopped singing amorous songs after his discovery of Afrobeat highmindedness (29), his tenacious optimism indicates that he never ceased singing about love; he only refined the art and channeled all his affection towards Lagos, his symbol of the African motherland.

Fela’s wicked humor and his rhetoric of ironic familiarization sweetens his harsh criticisms and makes his cataloged abominations easier to follow. One of his earlier songs about Lagos says:

Bi mo ba wa moto ni London o/ Even if I drove in London

Ma tun sese wa ko tiwa nile/ I would have to learn to drive anew when I return home Bi o ba wa moto ni New Yorku o/ Even if I drove in New York

Wa tun sese wa ko tiwa nile/ You would have to learn to drive anew when I return home

Tori Turn Raiti lEko o, laju e/ Because Turn Right in Lagos, open your eyes

Turn Leefu lori o . . ./ Turn Left it really is

Tiwa tun yato si tiyin o se e ngbo o/ Ours is different from yours, you hear

Ka to tun sese so tawon obinrin wa/ Lets not even talk about our women

Ledi ni won o. Theyre Ladies

Except for the gratuitous snide remark about “ladylike”Lagos women, the contrarian nature of things in Lagos—like that of the postcolonial nation in general about which he sings in“Opposite People”—evokes bemusement and not tragedy. Lagos is home, the chorus insists, its oddness notwithstanding. Pronouncing “Turn Right,” “Turn Left,” and “New York”with the epenthetic vowels characteristic of Lagos pidgin English makes the words sound as if the peculiarities observed nationalize road sign rules. The articulation also renders believable the singer’s declaration of undying love for Lagos.

Fela’s unsurpassed understanding of which direction the wind of culture is blowing in post-independence Nigeria, Olaniyan shows, accounts for his sustained commercial success. In the dwindling numbers of the high society that defined taste in the concluding years of direct colonialism Fela noted correctly that the historical circumstances that sustained the prominence of Highlife music were fading. The teeming children of the newly empowered elite, in defiance of the genteel tastes of their parents, were raising themselves on African American popular music and not jazz, Fela’s preferred high art style. To tap into the trending developments, Fela rechanneled his energies and invented a genre that blends the tastes competing for superiority, fusing “indigenous Yoruba rhythms and declamatory chants, highlife, jazz, and the funky soul of James Brown” (32). That concoction, which he christened Afrobeat, found an eager audience among diverse taste strata that include the urban working classes, college educated youths, and curious holdovers from the Highlife generation. Olaniyan periodizes the transformations in Fela’s intellect, politics, and art into distinct musical styles and matching ideologies; the Afrobeat moralist that most Fela admirers know developed out of the Highlife journeyman, and the“’apolitical avant-pop hustler’” who favored jazz. In other words, the radical Fela did not drop out of the heavens, nor was he born with iconoclasm in his genes. In order to explain contradictions of Fela’s avowed radical nativist politics and his shallow understanding of critical African cultural history, particularly as it concerns women, Olaniyan also suggests we need not look too far beyond the musician’s circumstances, part of which are created by Fela. The book’s analysis of the well calibrated use of non-musical elements—photography, jacket illustration, costumes, and even marijuana consumption—in the packaging and delivery of the records isolates for the reader’s understanding Fela’s acute awareness of music as a commodity. The artist successfully stages for his public the aura of a selfless ideologue by shoehorning the musical and non-musical into one unrelenting mode of criticizing the norm. By reading within and against the grain of Fela’s rhetorical self and product fashioning, Olaniyan’s study outlines some new methodologies for understanding African popular expressive cultures.

After having spoken of the distinguished innovativeness of this work, the very little room left uncovered by Olaniyan’s comprehensiveness ought to be remarked upon. This reader wants to know, for instance, why the Afrobeat moralist’s imagination never strayed out of the city. Fela “quotes”extensively from the life of those who do not live in cities in his early highlife-jazz incarnations. “Water E No Get Enemy,” for example, consists entirely of an elaboration on a  Yorùbá proverbial saying repeated many times in the song’s refrain, and“Alujonjonkijon” is based on the sung chorus of a folktale. Except in few and scattered saxophone and keyboard reproductions which listeners not familiar with Yorùbá lore will not be able to decode, the quoting acts gradually disappeared in the Afrobeat moralist records. The ostensibly nativist Afrobeat’s poignant lack of interest in the African “interior” is even more pronounced in Fela’s cultivated avoidance of native instrumentation. It may be true, as Olaniyan argues, that Fela replaced the “talking drum” traditions of the Yoruba with the prominent mimetic use of horns in many songs. But the African percussive ensemble is far more varied than mimeticism. As jùjú and fújì musicians have shown many times over, the so-called talking drum does more than respond to the verbal call in Yorùbá drumming ensemble. I want to suggest that Fela’s eschewing the interior of Africa—the laboring peasant figure and native instrumentation being two examples—reflects the shallowness of his understanding of modern African modes of being. Like the scriptocentric many on the African“classical” left, Fela was not at home with artifactual nativism probably because he did not know, and probably did not try to learn, the workings of these “pagan” artifacts which, in the mindset of an alákòwé(the literate) like Fela, belong to the ará òkè (the upland hick) . On a larger continental scale, it ought to be noted, it was not until Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s famous break with English language in 1977 that the possibility began to occur to the African left that artifactual nativism is not necessarily reactionary and that behavioral nativism could be linked to progressive politicking. Ngugi repudiated the church, stopped calling himself James and found wisdom in material Gikuyu verbal aesthetics; musically, Fela never left the church, although he dropped his “Christian” name.

One notable result of Fela’s rejection of the musical practices of the African hinterland could be seen in his successful rebuff, as Olaniyan correctly observes, of the panegyric impulse that dominates modern musical genres derived from Yoruba traditions. But Olaniyan did not account for the fact that the praise singers did not leave Fela alone and freely borrowed musical arrangements and lyrical directions from him. Indeed, the trademark “busy instrumentation”(29) that defines Fela’s most popular dance records filtered down to àpàlà, the normally leisurely genre in Yorùbá language popular music. Olaniyan notes that Haruna Ishola, an àpàlàmaestro, once advised his fans to discountenance the mad motions that Fela’s music induces in dancers. But this is not the only kind of reaction Fela provoked. The rise and popular acceptance of the Afrobeat moralist made it possible for Orlando Owoh to sing a passionate praise for ganja. After Fela, Omowura and Adeolu Akisanya, like Fela’s one time employer and Highlife superstar, Victor Olaiya, sang against skin bleaching. Even Haruna Ishola, the anti-Fela, embraced Fela’s humor in his own criticism of skin bleachers whom he called “sóòyòyòadìyẹ abólọ́rùn” or blistered skin chickens. Just like Fela in “JJD”, Adeolu Akisanya ridiculed the Western educated man who has lost his ways through miseducation.

The praise singing Ayinla Omowura, who drew followers from the same urban lumpen that Fela courted, reinvented àpàlà music by borrowing Fela’s “sprightly drumming”. Omowura also took a trope or two from Fela’s style of irreverent lyrics. No Yoruba language musician will, before the emergence of the Afrobeat moralist, direct invectives at his detractors with the stark vulgarities Ayinla Omowura used against those who started the rumors of his being kidnapped. After asking which “ears have ever heard of the Olumo rock being stolen,”Omowura curses the rumor mongers, saying: “It is your mothers that will all be kidnapped!”In this song, Omowura turns himself into an immoveable ancestral rock and, in a very “un-Yoruba,” but definitely Fela, style directly curses out other people’s mothers! Omowura lived out the Fela script in one more critical way by adopting a matronymy, “Wura’s Child,”for his public last name. Of course, Wura being the musician’s mother’s name, “omo Wura” (Wura’s child) is the colloquial reference those in the Yoruba section of the Nigerian interior would have called Ayinla the singer. However, the normative thing to do is to change into the family’s patronymy in public forum, especially official documents. Ayinla’s refusal to change his full public appellation from the matricentric colloquialism of “Ayinla-who-is-Wura’s-child” is a radical public gesture which Fela himself never accomplished in spite of his avowed love for his mother. We know that Fela refashioned himself by rejecting his“slave” name, Ransome; however, he never repudiated the idea of patronymy to the extent that the unschooled Ayinla Omowura did. The African interior is not that closed up towards progress, after all.

I want to close these remarks occasioned by Olaniyan’s study of Fela with a word on what is shaping up to be the most enduring impact of Fela on the intellectual understanding of contemporary African condition. The signs are emerging that the generation that grew up on Fela’s music is beginning to take charge of things in Africa as taste makers and delineators of how African affairs should be understood intellectually. For illustration, I will use only Anglophone novel writing in Nigeria. Chris Abani’s 2004 best seller, Graceland, is about the misadventures of a slum dwelling Nigerian young dancer for whom the soul-deadening and utterly blighted material circumstances of his society are relieved only by his love for the music of Elvis Presley who, like Fela, is another incredible. The physical and aesthetic response to music saved that young protagonist whom the cauldron of existence in postcolonial Nigeria would have dissolved completely. The author of Graceland himself claimed to have suffered from the knuckle spikes of Nigerian political life that Fela chronicled so unforgettably in his music. Indeed, Abani pays homage to Fela’s precedent setting artistic response to tyranny in the title of this collection of poems about prison experience, Kalakuta Republic. Abani’s book and Fela’s famed residence are both eponymous with a notorious cell at the old Nigerian police headquarters in Lagos.

Perhaps the best index of the presence of Fela—and an attestation to the correctness of Olaniyan’s evaluation of his work as monumental embodiments of the postcolonial incredible—in the intellectual unconscious of Nigerian life today, is to be found in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel about the agonistes of the will to live freely in spite of the murderous designs of the African postcolonial potentate. With her gripping depiction of the tyranny that governs intimacy in Eugene Achike’s household, Adichie reiterates the extent of the “postcolonial incredible” which Fela chronicles memorably in his songs: the benevolent father is a heartless disciplinarian, the public philanthropist rules his wife and children with a maniacal tyranny, the man honored by his people as Omelora, “the one who does for his people,” detests, and never misses a chance to punish, his father’s free choice of religion, the financier of free speech advocacies and agitations for democratic governance will not countenance his own father’s free choice of religion! Although he operates mainly in the civil society, Eugene Achike resembles very closely the potentates Fela criticizes all the time in his songs.

Fela’s Afrobeat moralist—and optimistic—outlook on the“postcolonial incredible” is amply present in Adichie’s novel. In Purple Hibiscus, the mind boggling antinomies and oddities of life in the Nigerian postcolony are presented as events that shall pass ultimately. After all, the homely tyrant is poisoned by his meek, long suffering wife! The Afrobeat impulse of the novel is most obvious in the literal references to Fela’s music. In Eugene Achike’s house, Fela is unknown, and only the Catholic hymnal reigns. But Achike’s tyrannized children have a cousin, Amaka, who knows Fela inside out. Amaka’s family lives on campus at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the island of reasoned democratic dissent within the novel’s sea of public and private despotism. After a visit during which Amaka infects her cousin with her love for Fela—and other “culturally conscious” “indigenous musicians” like Osadebe and Onyeka Onwenu—Kambili begins to imagine the possibilities of life beyond her father’s severe manhandling of her mind and body. Amaka, the novel’s agent of proper cultural education and political reawakening, is, like Fela, sharp witted and states her opinion fearlessly. Amaka learns from her mother, just as Fela is believed to have imbibed his iconoclasm from his own mother, that “’Defiance is like marijuana—it is not a bad thing when it is used right’”(144). Amaka remains a devout Catholic but refuses to make herself available for the holy sacrament of confirmation because she would not adopt an “English name” for the rite. She asks the very liberal Father Amadi, the family friend they all love deeply: “What the church is saying that only an English name will make your confirmation valid. ‘Chiamaka’ says God is beautiful. ‘Chima’ says God knows best, ‘Chiebuka’ says God is the greatest. Don’t they all glorify God as much as‘Paul,” and ‘Peter” and ‘Simon’” (272)? Listening to such Fela-like sacrilegious statements and observing acts of defiance at close range gradually began to influence Kambili’s view of the world. The emergence of this new person shows when one day Kambili is caught “singing along” Fela with Amaka (247). Her growing freedom to think and act independently is further marked later in the story on her return from a trip to Nsukka when she reports herself to have “laughed loudly above Fela’s stringent singing.” She finally learns, among other things, that “Nsukka [the university] could free something deep inside your belly that would rise up to your throat and come out as a freedom song. As laughter” (299).

When Fela proclaimed that “music is the weapon of the future,” many critics probably dismissed the declaration as an exaggeration. In Olaniyan’s book we have a clear outline of how to begin to understand the relationship of popular music to the practices of enlightening cultural and political critique in postcolonial Africa.

Professor Adeleke Adeeko 

Ohio State University


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