Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fela Kuti and traditional African religion

Of the 2 billion Christians currently inhabiting planet earth, one quarter of them live in Africa. That was not the case just a century ago, when less than 5% of the African population was Christian, a statistic that had changed little for over a thousand years. At the end of the 19th century, about half of Africa's population still followed the old spiritual traditions of their ancestors, while most of the rest were descended from those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in the 4th century only to be forcibly converted to Islam in the 8th century.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries brought European colonialism to Africa. Christian missionaries played a vital role in the subjugation of the Dark Continent, and the result was the greatest expansion of Christianity since the genocidal conquest of the Americas.

Fela Kuti was born into a well-off middle class Nigerian Christian family in 1938. According to his 1997 obituary in the Independent newspaper of London "Kuti's father and grandfather were both eminent Christian churchmen and liturgical composers, and his mother was a pioneering African feminist, the first female holder of a Nigerian driving licence." His family sent him to the UK to study, and he received a "classical" musical education at Trinity College in London.

While in London, Kuti and some college friends formed a band (he also became friends with Ginger Baker). After graduation, Fela and his band went to the United States to seek fame and fortune. They found neither. But the band managed to stay together and they finally found steady work in Los Angeles, where Kuti met and fell in love with Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panther Party.

The British had done their best to instill a deep sense of self-loathing in their colonial subjects in places like Nigeria and India. The goal of the Brits was to turn their colonial subjects against themselves, to convince them that their own cultures were worthless, and that their only hope lay in becoming good Christians with proper, western-style educations. Kuti's family had apparently been text-book examples of the results.

Of course the white Christians of the West were superior to the idolatrous savages of Africa. What more proof could one want of this than the undeniable power and wealth of the British and the other nations of the West? But in the late 60's people were questioning many things that had previously been accepted unthinkingly.

In America, Kuti met Black people, like Sandra Smith, who were proud to be Black, rather than ashamed of their supposed inferiority. This not only influenced Kuti's political views, it energized his music in a way that still resonates powerfully nearly half a century later.

"It was incredible how my head was turned," Kuti told the New York Times in 1987. "Everything fell into place. For the first time, I saw the essence of blackism. It's crazy; in the States people think the black power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over here looking for awareness, they don't realize they're the ones who've got it over there. We were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th street."

"I wasn't aware I was sending him," says a proudly reflective Sandra (Smith) Isadore. "I was being myself and so happy that I had met an urban African. I was trying to get to my roots in 1969. In my own mind, they (Africans) didn't have a struggle. It came to me as a surprise when I was in Nigeria [in 76] and Fela gave me this credit, cause I had not given the credit to myself."

[The quotes from Fela Kuti and Sandra Smith in the above two paragraphs are from Carter van Pelt's 1997 Africaman Original.]

At the same time, Kuti also experienced a genuine spiritual awakening that resulted in his rejecting the Christianity of his parents, and their parents, which had been adopted by them as part and parcel of their colonial subjugation.

On the subject of religion, here is one of Fela's son's, Femi Kuti, in a 2005 interview in Ntama, the "Journal of African Music and Popular Culture":
Idiots - my great grand father died looking for Jesus. My grandfather died. Jesus didn’t come. Well, my father said he was wise and that he is not going to wait until Jesus will come. And he too is dead. If I look at both of them I take my father being the wisest.
The following is from an interview with Seun Kuti, another of Fela's sons, done by Banning Eyre, Sean Barlow, and Matt Payne of afropop.org. The interview was done in December 2009, while Seun was in New York City to see the the Broadway play FELA!, based on his father's life and music:
S.B.: One more thing I am interested in… In the play, when Fela was going to seek guidance about big decisions, he talked to the Orishas, the Yoruba deities. I am curious about how that resonates with Nigerians in general. Are they both Christian or Muslim and traditional? There is a line Fela has in the play…” What did the British bring to Nigeria? Gonorrhea and Jesus Christ.” When I heard that, I said, “Well, there goes the Baptist audience for this show.” [Laughs]. You were just talking about how there are churches instead of farms in rural Nigeria today. So what is the dynamic between Christianity and traditional African religion in Nigeria now?

S.K.: Well, you know, the churches are so powerful in Nigeria. These men all have private jets. They live like monarchs. They are all kings as well, in the name of God. They have kicked out the Catholics. Not kicked them out. The Catholics are still there. But these Pentecostal pastors, they have stolen all of their customers. I don’t call them a congregation. They are all “customers,” because they are paying money to these men. God. You know, God can do everything: heal the sick and move mountains. But he just can’t make money. Incredible. This guy gets by. But the main thing about Africa is that most people are in poverty. When you are poor, you are easily influenced. Everybody that is poor only wants to come up. And most of these pastors are also painting pictures of, “Okay, I was poor before the Lord came into my life. I live my life righteously and look at me today.” The part of it that he is leaving out of the story is, “Look at me today. I am just here telling you all of this while you are putting your money in my pocket. And I am getting rich.” So, Africans are religious. Most people actually don’t relate to Fela in Africa because he is not a Christian or a Muslim. And he is telling them that this is wrong.

B.E.: That’s pretty radical.

S.K.: Yeah. And these men are easily able to turn that and use it as a way to say, “If he is a good man, how come he does not believe in God? In our white God?” So that is how most people pushed off his message in Africa. But at the same time, even more people realized that he is the genuine thing, and respect us for that.

B.E.: We have been doing some research on the Nollywood film industry recently. And I realized that a lot of those films are made by the Pentecostal churches and funded by them. They seem to put African traditional music and religion in a very bad light.

S.K.: In a bad light? Yeah, of course.

B.E.: That was kind of shocking to me, actually.

S.K.: You were able to investigate that, man? That is cool because I have been trying to tell people for years that. “Why do you think all of the movies in Nigeria are about churches?” Every time somebody will be suffering because somebody is doing juju, the bad African gods. Then Jesus Christ comes at the end and sets them free. It is crazy. Absolute bull***t. Ninety-eight percent of all the movies have that story line. Trust me.
Upon his return to Nigeria in 1970, Kuti established his own nightclub/commune in Lagos which he first called the Kalakuta Republic and later called The Shrine. In Kuti's mind this club was nothing short of the Headquarters of the Revolution. One observer described the club like this:
It was incredible. It was packed with people. It reminded me of the communal rock vibe in the sixties. It was more than just a musical show. It was genuinely an alternative scene. You had this open air club with a couple of levels to it. Hemp smoke was thick in the air -- flags from all the African nations ringing the courtyard. You had the stage with Africa 70, which was just a pretty awesome spectacle. It would just go on for hours, generally until dawn. There were raised platforms with young women gyrating, almost like go-go platforms. There was a real sense of rapport between Fela and the people in the audience. "Before the performance there would be a ceremony, a libation to the ancestors and sort of a consecration. That's why he called it The Shrine. He would come out with a cigarette or a spliff in his hand and stroll around and talk for twenty or thirty minutes about whatever was going on at that time -- the latest police attack or something the government was doing, anything that was on his mind. Then a small boy would run up with his saxophone, and he would play a solo and then someone else would solo. Then Fela would go over to the keyboards and play there for a while. Then he would take the mike and go into the main melody of the song with a lot of call and response. A typical song would be like forty-five minutes or an hour.
[Randall Grass describing The Shrine, quoted in Carter Van Pelt's Africaman Original]
The Nigerian government took Fela Kuti's revoluationary aspirations very seriously, and The Shrine was subjected to ever more violent police "raids". In 1977, just a year after Randall Grass' visit, described above, Kuti's mother was killed during one raid: she was thrown out of a second floor window by soldiers, and died soon thereafter from her injuries.

Kuti was devastated by the murder of his mother. But if anything it reinforced both his hatred of the government and his embrace of traditional spirituality.

Fela Kuti was Yoruba, and the spirituality that he in part rediscovered and in part invented was both pan-African and at the same time heavily influenced by traditional Yoruba religion. In his biography Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, Michael Veal relates the following
As much as Fela embraced a Pan-African cultural vision, he tended to draw on icons of his own Yoruba culture for inspiration. In songs such as "Just Like That" and "Give Me Shit, I Give You Shit" he chanted the names of of the mythical Yoruba figures like Oranyan, Orompota, and Oranmiyan. In his own twist on Yoruba Orisha worship, he installed a photograph of his mother on the new Shrine's altar, giving her the name Afa Ojo (She Who Commands Rain) and pouring libations to her along with the other Pan-African heroes making up his pantheon. Fela's occasional lack of distinction betweent the local, national, and continental elements reflects the essentialist tendency in his postcolonial effort to forge a Pan-Africanist identity. The elevation of his mother to Osisha status reflects a systematic personalization and hybridization common in postcolonial African religion; he took this liberty although he was not a traditional priest or adherent in any sense of the term.

Another major theme to emerge in Fela's work during the early 1980's was his espousal of traditional forms of knowledge. In his view, one of the major crimes of African leadership was its reluctance to explore this area, remaining instead dependent on imposed Western forms of expression, thought, and technology. Fela did not explore this theme much in his songs, but it was central to the university lectures he gave between 1979 and 1981, in which, in addition to preaching Pan-Africanism, he extolled the values of naturalism, herbalism, and "African science." Essentially, he was advocating a form of science that operated in harmony with nature and drew on indigenous traditions to create a distinctly African technology. In Fela's view, Western culture was too dependent on a technology that degraded the environment and thus was unsustainable. An African variant could offer a more natural alternative. On the university lecture circuit or on stage in yabis sessions, Fela regularly criticized the government's suppression of research into herbal medicine and other aspects of traditional culture.
Fela Kuti was imprisoned for 20 months from 1985 to 1986. His musical output was less during the 1990's and he was obviously in increasingly ill health. He died in 1997, from HIV/AIDS. One million people attended his funeral at the old Shrine compound in Lagos.

Also see: Heart of Darkness:
Part One:
"By This Sign We Prosper"
Part Two: Christian Demographics Fun Facts
Part Three: Doing the Lord's Work In Rwanda
Part Four: Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from Rwanda
Part Five: Preparing the Way for Genocide in Rwanda


Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

Fela was an amazing guy-has there ever been anyone like him before or since?

It's been way too long since I've listened to his music. I am listening to some Kuti as soon as I get home tonight.

Wonder if the show is still running in NY? I will absolutely catch it this summer if it is....

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Yeah - he was most certainly amazing. For one person to have that much energy and talent, and to also have such a strong commitment to both spirituality and political and social change on top of being a great artist and performer. It's hard to grasp.

Heru said...

I found about him through yahoo radio a couple years back. dope Man!

Anonymous said...

Fela Kuti is the MAN.

Unknown said...

Fela's a rear gem, he's an icon that can't be forgotten in Africa's history.. aside being a musician, av read so many things abt him, he brought out d blackinism in d Africans in the diaspora with the impact he has made in the political, social economic etc in d life of Africans.. fela deserves more..you'll forever remain in our heart.. anikulapo kuti

Unknown said...

Fela's an icon, a rear gem..his impact politically as really inspired Africans most especially in Nigeria.. aside being a musician I observe so many things in him which I think a bonafied African should possess most especially negro's in d diaspora..Fela still lives since he's still talked about ND we still listen to his music he'll forever remain in our heart..

John Blake Arnold said...

I think what Fela should be remembered for is that he was a musician and a group leader that managed to put out over 20 albums, keep his band safely together on the road, play internationally and make a big impact on those "white" audiences in Germany and other places where excellent recording techniques would allow his music to outlive the limitations of the human life and allow his message to spread despite his passing. His band gave other incredible musicians such as Tony Allen a chance to gain fame and become bearers of the legacy as well. Tony Allen just performed at a European music festival which included The Butthole Surfers as recently as 2017.
So while his fearlessness in the face of oppression is impressive, to do that AND be able to compose and perform the music he did with a stable large band is even more so.
For me, I want to know about Fela's beliefs BECAUSE he was such a grand musician, just like Miles Davis-- I want to know more of his beliefs because of the music; the music is the essential aspect for me, and I really appreciate this article to better illuminate a man who lived well despite oppression. thanks.