Why Fela Didn’t Dance By David Oluwasegun Ogundipe
‘Forty one sitting, ninety-nine standing… Suffering and smiling’
‘Suffer suffer for world, Amen, enjoy for heaven…’
‘Then some minutes later, Army don go away, police don disappear, dem leave sorrow, tears and blood- dem regular trademark…’
‘Padi, padi, wayo, wayo, arrange ni, put am together, tell me the answer… Army arrangement’
‘We fear to fight for freedom, we fear to fight for liberty, we fear to fight for justice, we fear to fight for happiness … We always have reason to fear, we no wan die, we no wan wound, mama dey for house, papa dey for house, I get one child… So, policeman go slap your face you no go talk. Army man go whip your yansh you go dey look like donkey…’
The above phrases and sentences are very few of the excerpts from the late Fela Anikulapo’s songs. There are more than enough things that call for a deep observation and analysis about the musical sage and lyrical activist, Fela. On his penchant for going topless on stage, while many arguments surfaced, none of them convincingly answered why. Upon a keen study of Fela’s songs and his video documentary, I think that the habit of going on stage topless symbolises life in its emptiness and vanity. Fela must have been passing a message that we came with nothing and shall return with nothing. He must have meant to show that ‘big cloth does not equal big man.’ Fela standing before the audience topless must have been a symbol of his having nothing to hide from the ordinary men. While Fela condemned oppression at all levels with his music, with his life style, he preached simplicity and sought to remind all that we shall leave and leave all behind. However, here, I briefly intend to address his dance- why he did not dance. Like most musicians, Fela’s voice was classy. No, not because it possessed the captivating tone of the Nightingale, but because his voice sought to arrest. Fela’s voice should be tagged the corp of man’s conscience- it arrests the lows and the highs, affluents and societal dregs, leaders and followers, keepers of faith and religion, predators and preys, culprits and victims, the oppressors and the oppressed, the judge and the judged. Fela was different from most activists around the world- he went beyond criticising the irresponsible governments and their harsh policies, he charged the oppressed to act and stop the destructive submission to bad leaders. One cannot but spare a moment to pick the next line that would come from Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, he did not just sang and spoke, he acted. Fela did not stop at that. Fela paid the price for acting on several occasions. But for once, Fela would make me appraise the English word ‘stubborn’ from a positive perspective. Fela was stubborn and bent on righting wrongs. He was unrepentant. Hear him ipsima verba, just after his release on one of his numerous arrests:
‘But one thing I want to assure them (the government), if they think I’m going to change in my attitude, in my way of life or expression or in my goal towards politics, they are making me stronger. And I am much more stronger now. In fact, I’m so surprised I’ll be this strong soon because of the beating I got…’ Then, down to his bare buttocks, he proceeded to show the interviewer the marks left on his body as a result of the beating he got from the police.
Fela went more than making mere allusions or talking proverbially like most of the activists we have in recent time. He mentioned names, stated dates, events and on many occasions swore that gods like Ogun, Sango and others punish him if what he said was a lie. Fela was that incredible and daring! Upon a closer examination, one may not be wrong to feel that activism is genetic in the Kuti’s family. Fela’s mother was one activist the nation would not forget, even during the struggle for independence. Beko Kuti, Fela’s elder brother was a diehard activist too. The same applies to the literature giant, Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka- Baba Soyinka and Fela Anikulapo are cousins. While youths of my age may see Baba Soyinka’s activism as something recent, that is not so. It would take a dire need for historical diet to go fishing for how and why the story of ‘the mysterious gunman’ who sneaked into the studio of radio Nigeria in Ibadan and at gunpoint ordered the staffers to void Premier Ladoke Akintola’s broadcast became integral in Baba’s journey as an activist. Beyond that, Kongi has been the scourge of irresponsible government from time immemorial.
Despite the bitter truth expressed by Fela in every musical missile launched at the government or masses, Fela had the common habit of most musicians- he always danced. But wait, may we examine Fela’s dance in line with his lyrics, his listeners and his personality?
Fela’s lyrics called for a deep reflection. His songs exposed the greed and selfish nature of those people trusted with their mandates. Unlike wizkid, Fela was not kidding with his lyrics. He was also not asking if any lady would be his lover like Banky W did. Fela didn’t care whether he was that special man like P-Square did care. Fela was frank, real and not compromising. Then, why would such a brilliant saxophonist and intelligent musician deem it fit to dance while expressing the saddening state of the nation? Can we compare Fela to a man who went to pay a condolence visit at the funeral of a youth, only to get there and start making jokes? No, Fela was too sensitive to be that insensitive.
Fela danced, but he did not dance- his dance was sarcastic. It is the stage demonstration of the life of an average Nigerian- in pain, Nigerians smile. A dance is meant to show the relationship between the music or beat and the zeal of the dancer to happily move his body. Fela danced, but he did not dance- Fela’s dance was a mere dance of humour- one that was meant to indicate that there is still a tiny ripple of hope in the midst of uncertainty. Fela knew the masses were keen followers of his song, he would not insult their situation by dancing to spite, Fela danced to charge them, but to make a mockery of the oppressors. Fela had a great personality- a man reputed for not quitting. He was obstinate and strange- he successfully went to Dodan barracks in Lagos to drop a coffin in protest of his mother’s death which had a link with the tyrannical rule of the military.
Fela is a sage. He was one of the few incredible creatures that made those from other continent ‘giraffe’ towards the African continent. Perhaps, they had a conviction- that like before and after Fela, something good can come out from our Nazareth. But do not forget- Fela did not dance- his message didn’t allow for that.
David Oluwasegun Ogundipe is a young Nigerian. He is a political satirist, a social critic, a poet and a lawyer by profession.