Much of the new generation only has some vague idea of who Fela Kuti is, though they have certainly come across something that was a result of his legacy.
Finding Fela Kuti, a documentary film by Academy award winning director Alex Gibney attempts to introduce the new and remind the old of this dynamic historical icon.
Although the documentary is about Fela, a significant portion is also focused Bill T. Jones who attempts to create the Broadway stage play ‘Fela!’, which in a sense subtly hints at its other purpose.
Fela’s children, Femi , Sean and Yeni along with his manager and friend, Rikki Stein and others provide commentary for this two hour peak into the life and rise of the legend.
We’re acquainted to Fela’s larger than life personality with Sandra Izsadore. Through his concert travels to the USA, he is drawn to the Black Panther movement to which Sandra had ties and through their common love for jazz with an Afro-centric twist, they too are inevitably drawn to each other.
“Fela introduced me to Africa,” Sandra says. “And when we traveled to Nigeria, I was introduced to his wife and children.”
At this point, we are fully aware that how completely unpredictable the man would be. Sandra could not handle this kind of lifestyle, but we witness more of Fela’s unconventional ways when he decides to marry 27 women at the same time.
As his fame rose, so did his frustration with those who were in power. Fela, whose songs could go up to 20-30 minutes, would take to ‘The Shrine’, a bohemian nightclub he set up. There he regularly performed and used the platform to blast corrupt authorities.
Previously respected by authorities as he father was respected school principal, and his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a prominent feminist and the first female Nigerian to drive a car. When Fela began used canabis, the police busted him. Later he was arrested for foreign currency violation charges. After serving two years of a five year sentence, Fela retaliated by writing his first confrontational song against the government, ‘Beasts of no Nation’. The song spoke about the ills in the world, and his country in particular, criticising police brutality. He even sang about how the judge who sentenced him later visited him and apologising, confessing that he only did it due to pressure from the government.
One commentator says, “Fela employed hundreds of young men in the community that he didn’t need to. Many became technicians and electricians.”
Femi, his son says, “Fela would have many people around him. Because he didn’t want to show that he loved some people less, we ended up getting his love last.”
Gibney does not shy away from Fela’s flaws. Before convincing 27 girls to marry him, he disregarded his first wife. He had a sex schedule for his wives and he was not shy about his views on feminism. With a cigarette in hand he says, “Women must know their place in society. As soon as you are in your family’s house, your husband can kick your ass.”
Another commentator says, “80% of the time that his door was locked, it because he was having sex.”
The director also does well to show the Afrobeat pioneer’s vulnerable and almost childlike qualities. When a girl introduced Fela to weed, he was unsure how he could tell his band members. In the end, when he finally decided to tell them, they said, “So you didn’t know we were all smoking weed this time?”
A beloved hero, considered the first rock star on a wide scale in sub-Saharan Africa, more than a million people showed up for Fela’s funeral. A rebel to the grave, he was buried with a rolled up joint in his hand.
Although the film could have benefitted from showing more of how much his revolutionary music frustrated the Nigerian heads of state, Finding Fela! Like the man himself was not boring.
AfricAvenir premiered Finding Fela Kuti at Goethe Centre on this past Saturday.