Monday, June 18, 2012

Fela Kuti: A Real Community Activist

Believe it or not, I never started this blog to write exclusively about local politics and government. Mainly, I'm a storyteller. It just happens that my world is the Lehigh Valley political theater, a magnificent stage that reveals mankind at its best ... and worst. But today, I want to tell you another story, from another political stage half a world away. Some of you probably will know the tale.

About 7 years ago, I was really sick. I had contracted mono, the kissing virus, even though nobody had planted one on me. This disease, which never disappears completely, won't kill you. But it will make you wish you were dead. Especially when you are older.

After sleeping what seemed like an eternity, my fever finally broke to the strains of a very strange song being performed in, of all places, Dakar. The Mosquito Song, written by Afrobeat musician Seun Kuti, is about the biggest killers in the world - tiny mosquitoes. They took the lives of approximately 655,000 African children in 2010, after infecting them with malaria.

Moved by the song, I decided to find out what I could about this gifted musician. That's when I discovered his father, Fela Kuti. He's my real story, and puts "citizen activists" here in the Lehigh Valley to shame.

Fela's father was a minister and the first president of a teachers' union in Nigeria. His mother was a feminist in a country where women had few rights. She was the first woman to drive a car in that country.

Fela was sent to England to study medicine, like his brothers. But he dropped that for music. He developed a form of music called "Afrobeat," and he and his very large band began focusing on social issues. He openly smoked marijuana and developed a commune where he and his entire band were based. He adopted the raised fist of the "Black Power" movement here in the states.

Unlike other musicians of the time, his songs were in "Pidgin English" so he could reach more people, and he did. Sometimes, it was the wrong people. A song called Zombie, about the repressive Nigerian Army, resulted in an invasion of his compound. They burned it to the ground. Not only was he severely beaten, but his mother was tossed from a second story window. That killed her.

Amazingly, Kuti did more than rebuild the compound. He placed a coffin on its roof with a banner that said, "This is where justice was murdered."

He also wrote Coffin for a Head of State, and had his mother's body delivered to the General who had ordered the attack.

He also includes a scathing condemnation of the terrible things people do when they think God is on their side, whether Christian or Muslim.

In his lifetime, Kuti is known in the West for having married 27 women in one day. They were called his "Queens" on stage. Although this drew snickers here, son Seun explains that his father married these women because they were being called prostitutes. This gave them rights they would otherwise lack.

If you'd like to see an interesting contrast between Kuti and Michael Jackson, check out this video.

Fela, a musical based on Kuti's life, will open on Broadway next month.

But this is still a story waiting to be told.


Anonymous said...

Don't worry O'Hare. You are still known as a "storyteller". Especially when you write about politics and politicians.

Colt 45 said...


God Bless and God Speed

Anonymous said...

Birthday there Bernie? Have a great one!

The Banker

Bernie O'Hare said...

Yep. Thank you very much.

Yesterday, I was sick with some kind of flu. I just got up after 12 hours in bed. My sheets are soaked, too, but I think I'm better.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bernie. That was interesting. I would have never heard of this guy otherwise.