Anikulapo. No doubt, Nigerians really did believe that Fela Kuti held death in his pouch because when he died on August 2, 1997, the entire country was consumed with grief. Everyone was pained.
In between sobbing and wailing and the regretful gnashing of teeth, Nigerians took turns to extol his virtues and emphasize how he’d be sorely missed by a people plagued by misrule and by a music industry desperately in search of direction.
It was difficult not to like Fela. The youths, usually deviant and rebellious, loved him, his music, and what he stood for. The adults were divided into two classes: those who loved his music but couldn’t stand his lifestyle, and those who loved him and his music.
Fela’s Afrobeat was loved by all. The rich instrumentation, the polyrhythmic percussion, the call-and-response pattern, the horns, and trumpet solos, the groove of the guitar series, Tony Allen’s drums, and the prophecy of Fela’s lyrics. It’s wrong to say it was difficult not to like Fela’s music. Because, really, it wasn’t difficult. It was impossible!
The multitude of Fela-followers who gathered for his burial, the multitudes who followed his coffin from the Tafawa Balewa Square, on Lagos Island, to his home in Ikeja, was a testimony to the kind of love everyone had for Fela and his music.
As we all know, Fela was not a local champion. His death attracted global media attention and the thousands of musicians he inspired are today, scattered all over the world, spreading the gospel of Afrobeat and keeping memories of Fela alive.
Don’t be surprised if you walk into a bar in Moscow, and the resident band is rendering their own version of ‘Water’. Or you’re at a carnival in New York, and the best music is from Antibalas, an American Afrobeat band, comprised mostly of white guys, but modeled after Fela’s Africa 70 band. These days, you’ll find that his music has permeated global pop culture and now influences a new crop of music artistes.
Like Bob Marley, James Brown, and Elvis Presley, anyone who knows the colours of good music will gladly pay Fela obeisance and accord him the kind of homage true geniuses deserve. And just like Marley, he earned a few more feathers on his cap for his fierce activism and pro-people lyrics.
He may not have won a Nobel Prize or a Grammy, but we will all remember Fela as the influential icon who pioneered the Afrobeat genre and used his music to boldly air his views on societal issues despite the totalitarian government ruling Nigeria in those days.
May his soul continue to rest in peace, and may his legacy, spirit, and his art live forever.