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Fela – The Black President

12 January 2011 by Lisa

FELA! is a new musical that is taking the world by storm! Here is our Education Manager, Vikky Evans-Hubbard, from the International Slavery Museum to tell us more about it…


While in London recently I was lucky enough to see the London Production of FELA! at the Royal National Theatre. The musical, produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith, tells the story of Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
 
Born into a middle class Nigerian family in 1938,  a cousin of writer Wole Soyinka, who was later to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, his mother was a well renowned political activist in the anti-colonial movement, and he was exposed to political ideas at an early age.
 
His belief that art should be political meant that inevitably his music carried strong messages. His influences included the Black Power Movement, discovered while in the United States, this led him to change his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”), stating that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name.
 
Fela’s music, ‘Afrobeat’ is a fusion of Yoruba rhythms, Highlife, Jazz, Funk, chanted vocals and call and response. It became hugely popular in Nigeria and across the continent in general. He sang in pidgin English, so that his music could be enjoyed and understood by individuals all over Africa where the local languages spoken are many and diverse.Music terminals with headphones in the slavery museumThe music desk in the Legacy gallery at the International Slavery Museum.

He had a strong belief that Nigerians should hold onto their cultural identify as Africans and not blindly adopt European standards and ways of living and look upon all things African as wrong or inferior. He formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune and recording studio, which was home to many of his followers and those connected to the band and his nightclub the Afrika Shrine. He later declared it independent from the state of Nigeria.
 
In 1977 Fela and his band, ‘Afrika ’70′, released the album Zombie, to describe the zombie like the methods of the Nigerian Military. The album infuriated the government, Kalakuta Republic was viciously attacked and one thousand soldiers were ordered to attack the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. Never defeated, Fela reacted by writing ‘Coffin for the Head of State’ which tells of how he brought the coffin containing his dead mother, to the door of the Nigerian Head of State in Protest. He later put himself forward as a presidential candidate, but his candidature was refused.
 
Now, Liverpool audiences will have the chance to see scenes from this man’s incredible life on stage, as the London production is broadcast via live link, at Fact, on Thursday 13th January at 6.45pm.
 
In the meantime you can hear examples of Fela’s amazing music in the Legacy gallery at the International Slavery Museum.

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