Honestly, there is no big deal about Chinua Achebe’s rejection of the offer of one million dollars by 50 cent for the movie rights to the title of his novel ‘Things Fall Apart.’ It is standard business practice to reject bids and offers. In a cynical, money-driven society like ours-which is remarkably similar to America in this regard- perhaps 50 cent (real name Curtis Jackson) and his crew were not sufficiently business savvy. Maybe they should have considerably upped the price before embarking on smooth and secret negotiations with the grand old man of African literature.
For those who might be wondering what the noise is all about, 50 cent set out to release a movie in 2012 with its title lifted straight off Achebe’s novel. The writer’s legal team sued for copyright violations. 50 cent allegedly offered one million dollars to buy the rights to the title, but Achebe turned down the princely sum. 50 cent had to re-title the film ‘All Things Fall Apart’ to avoid further legal controversies. Interestingly, there is no proof that the whole drama really happened. I am tempted to see it as a publicity stunt for the forthcoming movie of rap’s big bad boy; what better way than to bring the masquerade of masquerades to the market-square? But, for the sake of argument, let us assume it happened. What really is the big deal? Na today book titles, even books themselves, become movies? After all, even the Ogbuefi of African fiction cannot lay original claim to the titles of his first two novels. So why did this apparent fiction spawn a controversy? you may wonder.
Here is the answer. At a time when Nigeria has sunk so low in the eyes of the world, Achebe’s apparently churlish action has given any right-thinking Nigerian, indeed, black African, a cause to swag. It means that not all blacks, in spite of dehumanizing conditions, can be bought for either a plate or even an entire pot of porridge. Achebe has quietly hurled in our faces a fundamental fact of life: a man who cannot stand for anything will fall for anything.
When I was discussing this subject with two colleagues who felt the novelist should have accepted the offer, one of them made the point that Achebe could have given the money to charity in Nigeria. The other guy openly doubted if ‘Things Fall Apart’ had earned its writer as much as what 50 cent was offering him.
Both views do not wash, especially if one really understands what literature stands for in the life of a people. By rejecting that offer, Achebe has done a far noble service to Nigerians and Africans. Since we have gone so far down the road of decay, we need a shot of values in the veins. That Is what Achebe gave us. He has told us that a man can abide in the regions of life, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, with dignity. One should not debase his talent in a project which, though financially rewarding, does not agree with his principles. This is noteworthy because Achebe did not quarrel with the borrowing of the title of his second novel ‘No Longer At Ease’ by the Nigerian/German singer, Nneka, for her breakthrough album. Nneka’s stance against corruption is well known. Back in 1999, ‘The Roots’, a hip-hop group, released an album titled ‘Things Fall Apart’ with the author’s blessings. So why the apparent favouritism? To quote the younger Mnthali’s comment on the subject in afripopmag.com. ‘Fiddy (50 cent) is into making money (and into having sex) and will sell that rough image for anyone’s consumption, whereas Nneka and The Roots with their ‘conscious’ sensibilities appear more congruent to brand Achebe.’
Admitted, ‘Things Fall Apart’ is not original. Achebe coined his novel’s title from lines in W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming.’ But with his unique literary creation the title became a defining part of his estate. I doubt if 50 cent would have gone for the title if it was still buried in Yeats’ poem.
Many people in our turbo-charged world are not citizens of the country of literature. They neither care for the rich repast of fiction; the sweet wine of poetry, nor the banquet of drama. What defines culture is pop entertainment as typified by the gangster rap fully embodied in 50 cent and his like. If they can get to Mount Olympus, it is to desecrate the Muse with their devil-may-care attitude to the finer things of life. The rich African culture represented in Achebe’s magnum opus had been cut apart by the colonizer’s knife; should gangster culture be allowed to finish the job? With his uniquely mild roar Achebe thundered ‘No!’
To be fair, 50 cent committed no crime by seeking to buy the title of ‘Things Fall Apart’ for his film. Its storyline is a pretty decent show in my opinion: the tale of 50 cent’s buddy whose football career was cut short by cancer. But at this point, in both the lives of Achebe and Africans who occupy the novel’s canvas, a legacy must be respected. Our father of African fiction did so befittingly. He told the American popular culture establishment that he believed and acted upon the Hamletarian dictum: ‘To thine ownself be true.’
Achebe might not have broken Swiss banks with earnings from his first novel but anyone who sees his ‘solid personal achievements’ solely in terms of naira and kobo is mistaken. This is a writer who dared look the racist West in the eye and tell them that the world’s story is not told by only one mouth; this is a writer who removed Africa from the realm of Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle; this is a writer who speaks, even now he is confined to a wheelchair, and both presidents and paupers listen; this is a writer who gave us the courage to be ourselves in the world of books; who, alongside other African literary greats, successfully fought for the black man’s literary citizenship. Above all, he taught and is still teaching us how to have and actualize the right convictions. All this might mean nothing to our bucks-bamboozled society, especially the youngsters, but lives, till date, are being shaped by the Achebe persona and books. The Nigerian youth who have been swept off their feet by the tide of hip- hop culture represented by 50 cent can look to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Achebe’s literary daughter, whose success eloquently testify to the goodies on top of Mount Olympus if only we can imbibe the right principles.
I am not demeaning the pop culture of our times. Age wise, I am 50 cent’s peer and his achievements are noteworthy. The swag of street culture which is as sassy as Brazilian samba, to paraphrase Sefi Atta, is cool. To explore and conquer is its trademark. No sane person will advocate that we remain stuck in history’s time warp. But every people deserve an identity in the global culture and Achebe’s efforts in this regard must not be sacrificed to alien cultures. If we do, ‘the falcon will no longer hear the falconer.’ Can you imagine the family of USA’s foremost inauguration poet, Robert Frost, selling the title of his poem at President John Kennedy’s swearing-in to P-Square for a music video?