The musical Fela! returns to Los Angeles at the end of this month. It’s fantastic to see that a Broadway musical has been devoted to this dynamic Nigerian musician, let alone that it’s coming back to LA by popular demand.
KCRW has had a long relationship with the Nigerian firebrand known as Fela Anikulapo (“one who carries death in his/her pouch”) Kuti. It started in 1980 when our first African show, Morning Goes Makossa, began airing every Tuesday during the third hour of Morning Becomes Eclectic. We had LP’s from Fela Ransome Kuti & The Afrika 70. There was a slight Nigerian slant to the program for two reasons: a guy named Loughty Lasisi Amao, percussionist for the popular British-based Afro-pop band Osibisa, was living in LA at the time and brought all his Fela records into studio; and there were no African albums to be had otherwise. Later, having two Nigerian hosts on KCRW’s long-running African Beat program also helped spread the afrobeat gospel in Southern California. Even before the internet, KCRW’s influence over other radio stations in America, Europe, and Japan was felt. By popular request each month, we air mailed hundreds of playlists all over the world.
Fela was supposed to perform in 1984 at the Hollywood Bowl, but he was arrested on trumped-up currency charges and put in jail. I recently unearthed a cassette recording of an interview I did with Fela on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1986, where he recalled the experience.
Looking back, it’s a wonder that Fela received so much radio airplay on KCRW, given that his songs were typically 15–30 minutes long. Only a station like KCRW could afford that kind of freedom. Fela was the first show that KCRW ever presented, back in 1986, at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA, a boxing stadium that was built for the 1932 Olympics. I think it has since been converted to a Korean church.
I had the privilege of seeing Fela perform many times. He would let the big band cruise along for awhile with saxes blaring before making his entrance onstage, where an assistant would then light his joint. He would sing, deliver lectures on colonial mentality, zombies and mental slavery, occasionally breaking for hits off spliffs. Once, while performing alongside all 27 of his wives on stage (at The Greek Theatre, I think…but it could have been the Wadsworth Theatre), his wives lowered down to their knees in their short skirts with their bottoms facing the audience, and I noticed—from the second row—that some of them weren’t wearing underwear. Now I’m no peeping Tom, but you certainly don’t forget such moments.
When I interviewed Fela, he complained that his wives weren’t giving him enough freedom (he married all 27 of them at the same time), so I turned the tables on him and asked if he would allow his wives the same freedom he was demanding of them. He uttered, “Whoaaa…” and shook his head. He didn’t like that. Fela wasn’t wearing underwear himself, as was often the case during interviews at his compound. However, he did sport the bodysuit that he wore onstage. He was a small, svelte man—no body fat, just all muscle and sinew. He reminded me of Miles Davis, who had a similar body type but with a different sense of sartorial expression.
I knew about the Lagos army’s ransacking of his compound, which Fela called the “Kalakuta Republic.” It was there that 1,000 army soldiers raped and pillaged, brutally throwing his famous, much-revered mother from a third floor window. She later died from her injuries. Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a famous Nigerian, who championed women’s suffrage among other issues, and was honored in Moscow with the Lenin Peace Prize for her efforts on behalf of women in Nigeria. It was a shocking and horrific incident, but one all too common in Africa.
Years later, I was coming home from LAX in a taxi driven by a Nigerian guy. I could tell from his accent that he was Nigerian. We started talking music, and I asked him about Fela. He turned around to look at me and exclaimed, “I was Fela’s road manager!” I asked him about the storming of the Republic. He pulled the taxi over, drew his sleeves back, and showed me the many bullet scars up and down his arms. I was both horrified and amazed by this heavy dose of reality.
Fela was a privileged upper-middle class kid with a politically active mother and a strict religious father. He spoke pidgin as his lingua franca to better connect with regular folk. Sent to England to study economics at university, he chose music instead and formed his first band, Koola Lobitos.
But the real turning point, one that changed Fela’s life forever, was when he came to LA in 1969 and met a woman named Sondra Izsidore. It was through her that he discovered the local, burgeoning Black Power movement. He never turned back.
James Brown scored a huge hit among people in newly-independent African nations with his 1970s hit song, “Say it Out Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” The song resonated with young Africans, who after hundreds of years of colonial rule, were eager to embrace their new African identity. That same year, Fela took his lessons from Sondra Izsidore and Los Angeles and went back to Lagos. Black history and pride returned to Africa. Africa influencing America and vice-versa. It was cultural counterpoint, a tango, if you will.
Fela ran for President of Nigeria but didn’t win. He chided multinational corporations with songs like “I.T.T.” (the conglomerate IT&T becomes “International Thief & Thief”). He angered those in power. Everybody else loved him. And now his sons Femi and Seun continue to carry the torch and further the legacy that is Fela.
If Fela had lived to see his name on Broadway, he wouldn’t have believed it. He may not even have liked it, but I think he would have because underneath it all, Fela was a showman. And if somebody had told me ten years ago that he’d be on Broadway, I wouldn’t have believed it either.
Here’s a video of Fela performing “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.”