One of today’s common tropes among many young Christians is that religion and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s a touchy subject in a Nigerian society that is highly religious. There’s the obvious argument that those that appear very religious (aka go to church) can be spiritually and inherently morally bankrupt. I’d agree that being religious doesn’t expressly guarantee a person’s spirituality, but I see a connection between both tenets. I’m not a deeply spiritual person myself (I’m trying), but my religion has been a guiding light on my spiritual journey.
Religion was the reason I missed the three dates of Fela: The Musical earlier this year, held at Eko Hotel & Suites. Those dates coincided with this year’s Easter tridum dates – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. As a Catholic, those three days along with Easter Sunday are the most important in the yearly Church calendar, with lengthy, obligatory church functions accompanying them. There was no way I was going to make it to those shows on those dates, I was disappointed but not filled with regret. Of course I wanted to see the award winning Broadway cast bring my ultimate music hero to life, but I was faced with a choice that was really no choice for me in the first place. A choice I’d make consistently if the same scenario presented itself repeatedly.
Fela probably wouldn’t be happy with my choice, considering that he was averse to Christianity (‘Shuffering & Smilling‘), and it’s not something I hold against him or anyone that shares the same stance. Fela was born into a Christian family, but as time went on and in his sociopolitical quest for a better Nigeria and Africa, he had come to have a strong aversion to things or system not rooted in the African culture. Fela was unapologetically against the ‘white man’s system’, a system he repeatedly termed as ‘alien’.
In a way he was right, the system was failing majority of its people. In a way he was wrong also, the personnel running the system were ultimately the problem, as he boldly addressed them in his songs. A change of system might have worked but the wrong people wielding power in a supposedly ideal system was also going to fail.
Fela was a staunch supporter of a ‘pan-African’ system, to be created by the African people, based on their early culture and roots. In his advocacy for the supposedly more suitable system, Fela openly practiced his own iteration of this system. One part of Fela’s system got attacked repeatedly and probably rightly so; his hedonistic behavior. Although he probably didn’t come close statistically, drawing parallels with Solomon in terms of relations with women isn’t far fetched. Just like the Israelite king, Fela was the king of African music and his bevy of queens were part of the prized possessions in his kingdom.
Fela was the poster man for the ‘men are naturally polygamous’ yarns, constantly reiterating that a man could marry as many women as he wanted and could afford. While African women on the other hand were not meant to be jealous of their fellow wives. That’s the height of sexism. One of Fela’s most popular songs, ‘Lady’ has sexist undertones in its lyrics. A lesser known composition, ‘Excuse-O‘ is an even better example, a socially conscious song which addresses how violence can be avoidable. In one of the depicted scenarios, Fela repeatedly refers to his lady as ‘my thing’. A friend of mine argued that in the context of the song, it might have been an endearing term, I don’t see it. And even if you agree with this friend of mine, marrying 26 women at the same time doesn’t portray the image of someone who respects women enough to see them as equals.
The travesty blows up further when you consider how much Fela loved and adored his mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Fela’s mother was an activist that constantly defied African societal expectations of her gender and Fela gushed about her achievements in the 1983 authorized biography Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, written by Carlos Moore. Subsequent, actions after his mother’s death and renouncing marriage as an institution following his longest stint in prison also proved one thing: Fela was as conflicted inside as he seemed convincing on the outside. In other words, he wasn’t perfect.
The negatives don’t take away from Fela’s musical genius and his intention to liberate the Nigerian masses through his music and other humanitarian ventures. As far as I’m concerned and with the mildly extensive research I have done on Fela, I truly believe he thought was doing the right things. It doesn’t make the wrong(s) right, it only means I’ve approached and accepted this flaws and found a way to temper it.
History, and time by association, embellishes legends, dressing them up as deities who had no faults. This deification is not peculiar to Africans, as evidence abounds elsewhere of men and women who reportedly bestrode their times like a colossus, without putting a foot wrong. You would be forgiven for thinking that Pele never had a bad game, or that Mozart never composed trash.
Romanticizing the ideal parts of a legendary, complex figure like Fela is a societal norm. We tend to tiptoe around the prickly parts of their character even to the point of eschewing it altogether, which in its own way is a disservice to that same complexity of character. Just like Fela, Tupac is another music legend with negative hues in his complex character very few people want to remember or even accept.
Tupac was an enigma, a street philosopher with an emphatic authority in his voice. Pac was the people’s champ right from his emergence, rapping about social ills and barking out militant rhymes. He always had an aggressive edge even when he was being sociopolitical, more Malcolm X than MLK. But being the people’s champ didn’t even bring Pac close to perfect.
Pac had multiple run-ins with the law, one of which landed him a prison sentence. He was convicted of first degree sexual abuse. It pointed to Tupac’s well documented misogynistic tendencies but in a bigger picture, it was also indicative of the many really questionable choices Pac made up to that point.
For all of Tupac’s gruff and display of grit, he wasn’t initially a street guy. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but according to Ethan Hunt in his book, Queens Reign Supreme, “Shakur was such a failure at hustling that he handed his supply back to his distributor“. That was in 1988. But ill serendipity gave him a second chance. Pac began to associate with prominent, vicious New York gangsters, under the excuse of preparing for the 1994 movie, Above The Rim in which he played the role of a drug dealer. This was after he had played the role of a homicidal maniac in the 1992 movie, Juice. Pac wanted the street cred and the fear that came with it badly, it was the case of life imitating art, up to the point of merging with it.
In bad company, Pac’s penchant for violence grew and it was during this run that the events that would lead to his imprisonment arose. The day before his sentencing, Pac shot himself by accident in an attempt to defend himself against robbers. Pac squeezed the juice out of that infamous incident, using it to elicit sympathy for his case which ultimately led to a dismissal of some charges and a much reduced jail time. The incident also reinforced the bad boy image Tupac had been toting and he also created enemies out of his former allies – including Biggie Smalls whom he had been close friends with up to that point, believing that they set him up to be robbed. Thus singlehandedly stoking the fire of hate in the Easy Coast versus West Coast battle.
While in jail, his most personal body of work was released, Me against The World. An album of angst and vulnerability by an outlaw who could still feel pain in his heart of flesh. The follow-up was All Eyez On Me, Pac’s first album after his release from prison, his commercial peak and last album released while he was alive. It was on this album that Pac changed gears and floored the pedal on the gangsta lane. He was vicious and unforgiving, moving from being just an outlaw to a full thug. The attributes of All Eyez On Me are what make it a classic album but it’s hard not to see the inflection point it represents in Pac’s life.
Tupac died shortly after All Eyez On Me, at the peak of his powers. If the rumors about Pac’s death are true, including an alleged version of events by former LAPD detective, Greg Kading in his book – Murder Rap, then Tupac died due to gang activity. Something he could’ve stayed out of and something many other rappers dabbled in and lived to tell their tales. Pac just wasn’t fortunate enough, dying at the tender age of 25.
One of Pac’s musical offsprings, Kendrick Lamar was in full flight to rap’s pinnacle at that same age, with the release of his classic, autobiographical debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. GKMC is an inward looking story told through the lens of a teenage Kendrick, of his early dabbles into the street life. Even though Kendrick was about a decade removed from these happenings at the time of recording this album, you could feel how haunted he was by these events.
“If I told you I killed a nigga at 16” is a harrowing confession from ‘m.A.A.d City‘ that many people won’t read into, but might be true. Lucky enough, Kendrick had two fathers who pulled him out (‘DUCKWORTH.’). Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur was an FBI fugitive who was later caught and ended up in prison for the better part of Pac’s life, there was no authoritative figure to do the pulling. And even though Pac’s mother tried her best to shield him in his early days, she only postponed those wrongdoings. Combining Pac’s youthful exuberance with the lack of a positive father figure gives you the volatile mixture that blew up into the negative aspects of his life.
Old age puts things into perspective. I believe that if Tupac had gotten a chance to grow older, he would not only have simmered down, he would have become a better man. It definitely would have taken some time, considering that his next album, Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory which was released posthumously was a record hellbent on eviscerating every adversary Tupac believed he had. But the change would have happened.
Prime example is JAY-Z who also didn’t have a constant father figure. JAY recently released his most personal album – a truly matured body of work, 4:44 in his double decade of rapping. JAY spilled out all his imperfections like he had recently been in Kahlan Amnell’s chokehold and every celebratory line on 4:44 is loaded with warm, unbridled joy for it. If Pac had gotten to JAY’s age of 47, a similar scenario wouldn’t be a stretch and there’s a possibility it could have happened at an earlier age.
One thing JAY-Z didn’t apologize for was his work with R. Kelly. I felt he should have apologized not just because the two joint albums they released together were horrible, but simply because he worked with someone like R. Kelly. I have a knot in my stomach every time I remember that R. Kelly will be regarded as a music legend when he passes away.
Saying R. Kelly isn’t a music genius is like saying Ghanaian jollof is better than Nigerian jollof. The ‘but’ is in his morally bankrupt character and the atrocities he’s committed. Ranging from child pornography to rape. Saying R. Kelly is a horrible human being is not even remotely wrong. He’s yet to accept, take responsibility or even pay any price for these horrifying actions.
Being legally acquitted due to well-argued technicalities doesn’t connote innocence in the face of this litany of accusations. I haven’t consciously listened to an R. kelly song for a while now and it won’t change. Many people will make it a case of separating the music from the artist like it’s simple fractional distillation. The music is forever stitched to its creator, supporting the music of a horrible person inherently means supporting that person.
Fela once referred to art as ‘a reflection of what is happening at a particular time’. Since these artists carry the mantle of portraying society using the immortal form of music, shouldn’t their lives also matter? No employer wants to hire a known or even suspected criminal, why do we accept artists with highly questionable characters? Especially when there is no justification for their actions or remorse for their sins. That’s why artists following in the footsteps of R. Kelly (looking at you, XXXTentacion & Kodak Black) will continue to thrive.
The parameters for knowing when or how to relate artists’ wrongdoing with listening pattern varies with different artists and different people. It is arbitrary and subjective, at best. You ultimately get to decide what breaks the deal or not. I don’t have all the answers though, I’m not Kanye West.
[Feature Image From artofseriiky.wordpress.com]
Words by Dennis, aka Dennis West, aka @ayo_dennis.