“Fela Anikulapo Kuti was James Brown, Huey Newton, Rick James, Bob Marley, Duke Ellington and ODB all rolled up in one black African fist.” Mos Def
Interest in the man and the music as mounted ever since he died. Several biographies. A million more to come. Wildly successful Broadway show. A movie in the works. Newspaper articles uncountable. Blogposts incalculable.
But this is all so paradoxical. The increasingly loud chatter over who Fela is and what his work means will not make Fela any less enigmatic. In fact, the more we pile up commentaries around him and his work, the more he recedes from our view. “The fragmentary light” we continue to throw on his life and work is bound to do no more than distort our vision of him. My guess is that this inexhaustible mystery is what will endlessly draw us to Fela.
Still the question: what is it about Fela that grips our contemporary imagination?–is not banal. The point is not to unveil the secret to a life and how it escaped the political laziness of the Nigerian middle class and became an urban revolutionary. What fascinates most is the extent to which Fela will change the way the world thinks of music and the politics of music. In his death, Fela has become a musical body, whose parts are being chopped up in tiny pieces and carried away to distant corners of the world where they lead a creative life of their own. In North America alone there is what one can legimately call an Afrobeat movement. Antibalas from New York, Mr. Something Something in Canada, and the Chicago Afrobeat Project (CABP). Last week, CABP played a Felabration show in one of the hottest clubs in Chicago called The Shrine, a music venue inspired by the Afro-urban spirit of Fela’s Africa Shrine in Lagos. These are a few of the increasing number of bands around the world moved by Fela, his music, and his message. It blows the mind to think of what these bands are doing with Fela’s Afrobeat, how they are using afrobeat to formulate and articulate a politics that is relevant to their own communities.
Afrobeat is a music form that travels very easily. Fela is the cosmopolite per excellence so it goes without saying that his music feels at home anywhere in the world. Afrobeat is the music of the city. And we know that cities are the future of the world. So I’ll be the first to declare, “Afrobeat no go die!” Still, I know I am not alone when I wonder and get a tad bit anxious that the wandering feet of Afrobeat might transform it into something altogether unrecognizable. But transformation and survival are not mutually exclusive conditions. There are somethings that can only exist in in mutation. There are somethings that detest purity and the safe, immobile world of the museum display box. Afrobeat is one of such things.