Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fela! – The Play – A review

Directed and Choreographed by Bill T. Jones

The other day, I had a genuinely rewarding experience of viewing the play Fela!  This play portrays the life, music, and dance of one, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.  What made Fela! so moving for me, was the fact that it showed the naked reality we live with today, while making a profoundly beautiful statement.  In order to fully gain an appreciation for this play, I believe we need to look at Fela’s homeland Nigeria.


Today the scientists of the world are agreed that human life began on the continent of Africa.  This means that the ancestors of every human being on this planet came from Africa and had a dark skin color.

The area of West Africa where Nigeria is located has a history of about 9,000 years.  European colonists created most of the borders of the nations of Africa, as well as Latin America, and Asia.  The British gave Nigeria its name, which came from the Niger River.

Today, Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa.  About 90% of the income Nigeria receives comes from the export of oil.  The enormous amount of money Nigeria receives from its oil exports has the potential of making that nation extremely wealthy.  However, this has not been the case.

The United States is the world’s super-power.  All corporate profits are related to the fact that this country has a constant flow of oil.  Without this oil, workers would not be able to go to their jobs, and corporation would not be able to transport their commodities.

One would think that the powerful people of the United States would be grateful to Nigeria for allowing them to amass this enormous wealth.  However, the facts are that while the U.S. government claims it represents liberty, justice, and democracy, in reality, Nigeria is one of many nations throughout the world where the U.S. government has supported ruthless dictatorships.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born into a prominent Nigerian family.  His father was a pastor and his mother was a well-known teacher who advocated women’s rights.  Fela went to London to pursue a professional career, but became sidetracked with the music he saw all around him.  Later he would travel to the United States where his informal music education, as well as his political education continued.

Fela lists his musical influences as Afro-Cuban Jazz, James Brown, Hugh Masekela, Bob Marley, as well as musicians from Accra, Ghana.  Out of these influences Fela and his drummer Tony Allen developed the AfroBeat.

In the U.S., Fela became influenced by the Black Power movement and saw how this movement could be relevant to Nigeria.  Fela also became an opponent of what he called cultural imperialism.  Although Nigeria became independent of Britain in the early 1960’s, the rulers of that nation had many of the same values of the old colonizers. 


Today, in the United States people who attend concerts don’t expect to be arrested or tortured by the police.  People don’t expect that prominent musicians will be arrested hundreds of times on trumped up charges.  However, this was the experience of Fela Kuti in Nigeria. 

In 1977 Fela released a recording that he titled Zombie.  The song likened the Nigerian police to Zombies who mindlessly did what they were told.

The Nigerian government responded to this song by surrounding the compound where Fela lived and performed with 1,000 police officers.  People who attended Fela’s concert, dancers, musicians, as well as Fela were arrested and tortured.  Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, was thrown from a second story window to her death.  Fela’s life was only spared by the intervention of a commanding officer.  In all, the Nigerian authorities arrested Fela about 200 times.

In the play Fela!, we see how Fela Kuti responded to this repression.  He took the coffin to the capitol and declared his mother “President” of Nigeria.  He also commemorated his mother’s assassination with the song Coffin for Head of State.  In the play we also see the cast laying coffins of others who had been brutalized or executed that included: Rodney King, Troy Davis, and Malcolm X.             

Fela was never intimidated and continued to inspire the world with his songs: I.T.T. (International Thief, Thief), Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, Beasts of No Nation, and Authority Stealing.  In all, he published 70 recordings. 

Many have criticized Fela for the fact that he had about 27 wives and he made it a practice of smoking ganja.  The women portrayed in the play in no way appeared to be repressed.  To the contrary, they appeared to be defiant, proud, as well as beautiful.  While we might criticize the practice of polygamy, certainly the most horrendous practices in this play came from the Nigerian government and the United States government that supported it.

Usually when I think of music and dance I think of having a wonderful time flowing with the music.  This is how the play started.  However, by the end of the play the music and dance took on a new meaning.  The music and dance became an act of defiance against repression.

This to me was the core of who Fela Anikulapo Kuti was.  The music and dance he wrote and performed will continue to live as long as people strive for human dignity.

We can get a bit of a feel for the play at the following link:       

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