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

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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. Continue reading