How do you describe a man who dumps school for music; builds an empire recruiting derelicts; marries twenty seven ladies in a day; shuns medicine for traditional herbs and marijuana; practices and administers his own judicial system in his empire, yet aspires to lead a nation called the Giant of Africa? How do you portray a man who is politically influential yet perceived morally recalcitrant? How do you reconcile a sexual reprobate and a musical genius? How do you classify a man whose burial pulled more crowd than that of the President? What do you call a man who is eccentric yet has his senses rights? Some called him Abami Eda; his parents called him Fela.
I loved Fela with a passion. Not because of who he was, – many hated him for that- but what he represented. He was a genius, a legend, a life myth in his time, a symbol of the strength and uniqueness of African traditional culture, and a hero of the struggle against the neo-colonial status quo. That was Fela; a man who sent lots of messages of liberation through music; a man who did not mind singing to the deaf; a man who gave recognition and positive reception to the black man; a man who recognised the pride in the African root. That was Fela, a man without equal.
Fela brought Afrobeat to a lofty, almost unattainable height and maintained it there; he never had a rival; not even a single competitor; the only record he had to beat was the one he set for himself. Afrobeat became Fela and Fela became Afrobeat.
His life was one of turbulent excitement. He was one man that headed a non-religious sect successfully in Nigeria; he would take in an outcast and bring out an art in him. He was father to the fatherless, gave hope and life to the hopeless, brought out new creation from cast-offs. He gave love, lived by example the way he wanted others to live. He was a source of power, authority and encouragement to all who could not stand up for themselves. He was a symbol of Pan-Africanism and Anti-Colonialism.
He stood against all corrupt regimes even at great loss to himself. Such was the loss, when the Military Government burnt his house in 1977 and killed his mother. Instead of relenting, he re-launched with a new offensive. In spite of his addiction to hemp, which he believed was greatly medicinal, Fela refused to “dance naked in the market place”.
When Nigeria declared for democracy in 1979, Fela floated a political power – Movement of the People (MOP). With increasing popularity among the youths and the fear that his party might win some tickets, MOP was disbanded by the government. This move only provoked Fela the more and his music gained more political fervour. With his incursion into the political arena and human rights activism and his continuous outspoken attack against the Nigerian Government, intense and continued clashes with law enforcement agencies became inevitable. He had his fair share of victimisation and harassment and was actually sentenced to a five-year jail term (served for three years) on a spurious currency smuggling charge when the military returned to power in 1983.
I cannot say for certain what gave Fela such legendary personality at home and abroad. Perhaps it was his novel original brand of music, or his unrelenting voice against oppression. Could it have been his redefinition of success without the trappings of physical materialism or his continued display of selflessness? Certainly, his collision with the government spread his fame beyond what even the government could comprehend, promoting the myth that Fela was unbreakable.
Few were shocked at the announcement that Fela had died in August 2, 1997 after refusing medical treatment for a protracted illness. His brother Olikoye, told the world frankly, yet sadly that Fela died from complications due to AIDS.
Do you still wonder why I loved him so much?
I crave non-conformity to degrading societal norms, but I am not brave enough to damn the society. I admire creativity and originality, but alas, I have not found where my gift lies. I endorse constructive criticism and free self- expression, I want to live my life as I deem fit, but I am too much of a coward. I love to be famous, even for the ordinary things I do, I want to do what I know how to do best and be appreciated for it, I want to be a voice, give to the poor, defend the helpless, champion a cause; I want to leave a landmark for generations to follow and be remembered for a legacy; I want to live forever at least, in the minds of men. I am trying but it seems the more I try, the further my journey appears.
Fela died like all mortals would, having lived his life to the brim. Yet, Fela lives because his legacy lives on.