Fela’s first words from the 1982 documentary ‘Music is the Weapon’ are “When you are the king of African music, you are the king, ‘cause music is the king of all professions”. Fela believed that due to his enormous and unwanning musical influence he was the king of Africa and a king is meant to be concerned about his subjects.
During the filming of the documentary, Fela was at the height of his popularity and notoriety. The Afrobeats progenitor and self-proclaimed “Abami Eda” was a vocal critic of the Nigerian government using his music to oppose the socioeconomic order at the time, which he saw as injustice. Despite a handful of jail sentences from trumped up charges, numerous beatings and home invasions (one of such incidents which is captured in stills in the documentary), Fela did not waver in his stand and continued using his music as his Weapon of choice. Part of his principle was that music and activism are indivisible and he had a societal duty to fulfil as evident around the 24minute mark when he states: “See because when the higher forces give you the gift of music, musicianship, it must be well used for the good of humanity”.
Fela’s hedonistic lifestyle and religious beliefs might be alienating (somewhat ironic since we’re Africans), but he had a genuine concern about the state of living of the Nigerian commoner which was evident in his politically and socially charged lyrics. His music didn’t have to be boring or challenging to listen to, infact his rugged groove based delivery has so much stank you can as well party to it and he sang in Pidgin English and Yoruba Language.
“Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think.” – Fela.
Almost two decades after Fela’s death, there are very few Nigerian contemporary artists among the new guard willing to continue his the thinking part of his musical philosophy especially considering the current discouraging socioeconomic climate in the country. Part of the blame can be apportioned to fans, who just want to move their body and numb their minds. In an article for filterfree_, The Declining Beautiful Art, Mifa Adejumo urged fans to “become more critical in respect to the kind of music we hear and validate”. The statement while true is like rolling a large stone up a mountain, considering the current churn and burn listening culture coupled with the attention span of a matchstick people pay to records these days. Once it isn’t tagged “gbedu wey dey burst brain” or “certified club banger”, it is very likely the song would not get the candle treatment.
In FELA’s time, we had youths who were ready to fight for their future. In Tuface’s days, we have youths who prefer #BBNaija to their future
— Arafrika Sankara (@arafrika) 5 February 2017
The responsibility obviously doesn’t totally lie with the fans, artists should realise that they have a responsibility to the society and also the art form. Artists die, but true art especially ones that capture the essence and spirit of a timeline never decay. Fela wasn’t a prophet, he simply made music about daily issues facing the common man (most which we still face currently) in a relatable, compelling and entertaining manner which makes his art and legacy undeniable. Majority of the crop of Nigerian artists only pick the easy and fun part of Fela’s legacy which from my point of view is a massive disrespect to Fela’s legacy. Fela stood for something bigger than himself using the music as his sacred tool, but many of today’s artists don’t look past their mouths as far as they are making enough money to live a lavish and ostentatious lifestyle. As a huge a deal as Felabration is, both fans and artists revel in the entertainment side while actively ignoring the philosophy behind the man’s music.
There have been far too few songs in recent years where mainstream artists either singlehandedly or collaboratively tackle a social issue that have been etched into the Nigerian mainstream conscious. Emphasis on using the word “mainstream” because of the amount of impact artists in this bracket have. There’s only so much upcoming or underground artists can achieve given the fact that many Nigerians tend to eschew songs that hold any actual conversation. But maybe, just maybe hearing their favourite artists sing or rap about these issues might bring about a change in the way we receive music and have a larger influence on the Nigerian way of life which obviously needs an improvement.
Fela might not have achieved his dream of becoming Nigeria’s president, but he stated and believed that “Music is the weapon for the future” – a brighter future. The future is here and things have not gotten better, it is high time artists wield music as a weapon of social emancipation with social and politically charged songs/projects. Put some respeck on Fela’s name and legacy.
Words by Peter Dennis Adedotun. You can tweet him your favourite gbedu wey dey burst brain @ayo_dennis.