What Would Fela Think of Today's Africa?

The Afrobeat legend might have been inspired by Nigeria's recent presidential elections, as well as Africa's outburst of democracy.

Fela Kuti; Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

In late April of this year, the award-winning Broadway musical Fela! was staged in Lagos, Nigeria. I traveled there, at the invitation of the organizers, to watch the show. From the moment Sahr Ngaujah, the actor who portrays Fela Anikulapo Kuti, took to the stage, he channeled the late musician, and I was immediately transported back to the 1970s.

What made the experience all the more poignant was the fact that the performance was set against the backdrop of what was being labeled the freest and fairest elections Nigeria has ever had, with the victory of Mr. Goodluck Jonathan ushering in a much needed belief in the possibility of change -- not only for Nigeria but for the entire West African subregion. As I sat spellbound in the audience, I couldn't help wondering what Fela would think of his country, and of our continent, if he were alive to see it now.

During the 1970s, I was in my teenage and early-adult years. It was a time when my political consciousness and sense of cultural identity were just forming, and as with so many of the people who came of age back then, the music of Fela Kuti played an instrumental role in that process.

Because of the rise of television and FM radio, and the increasing accessibility of air travel, the influence of Western culture was strong in both Ghana and Nigeria. Though we wore bell-bottoms and platform shoes, listened to James Brown and used American slang, Fela and his Afrobeat rooted us firmly in the pride of our African selves. The lyrics "I no be gentleman at all, I be Africa man original," from "Gentleman," were practically an anthem.

Although we felt that we knew who we were, nobody could say for sure anymore what Africa was. The fervor of the postcolonial independence period had died down, and Africa's future, which everyone had assumed would be bright, was now hanging in the balance. Fledgling democracies gave way to dictatorships as country after country experienced military coup after military coup.

Fela's music addressed issues of corruption, military brutality, and social as well as economic justice and gave us an outlet for our outrage and frustrations. He sang about what so many people felt but were not able to express for fear of the consequences.

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His music turned him into an enemy of the state in Nigeria. He was harassed by the government and even jailed. For a period, Fela fled the country and sought refuge in Ghana, until the government here, which was growing increasingly uneasy with the rebellious nature of his music, ordered him to return to Nigeria.

That stretch of time from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, which the entire body of Fela's music documents and critiques, is often referred to as Africa's "lost decades." During those years, the continent experienced absolutely no discernible growth in any arena. Whereas once blacks in the Diaspora were clamoring to come to Africa, there was now a mass exodus, one that crippled the continent by claiming many of its most promising minds.

And then came the HIV/AIDS epidemic that further ravaged its people and, with the fear and stigma that accompanied the illness, cast a shadow on Africa's image and reputation. An unfathomable number of lives were lost to AIDS and AIDS-related complications, including the life of the man we affectionately referred to as the Black President, Fela Kuti.