The first “Black President,” for me, was not Obama. As a college student, I encountered Fela Kuti on an amazing album called “Black President.” I was shell shocked by the power of the Afro-Beat music Fela pretty much invented himself. The endless grooves, 30 minute songs (one album side, essentially), two baritone saxophones, two bassists, the large band, the call and response, the non-stop intensity (I would sweat just listening to this music), the pidgin and Yoruba languages he used, riffs and rhythms introduced one by one until full throttle polyrhythmic complexity is achieved…all of this is what grabbed me the first time I heard his music, and the album “Black President” in particular.
Fela Kuti is someone I just may write a book about someday. One word that springs to mind when I think of the events in his life is “chaos.” He ran for political office. He managed to infuriate a major corporation, a Nigerian VP and a General on his album called “ITT,” he married 27 women and then came up with a “system” for “only” having 12 at any one time, he was arrested on bogus charges and upon his release he divorced the 12 wives, saying “Marriage brings jealousy and selfishness.” If you look at the 1970s and 1980s in particular, his business plan could be summarized as follows: Record an album, tour, get arrested, go to jail, attract worldwide attention, write material for next album, then repeat. And by the way, once he recorded a song, he would not then play it in concert. He was uncompromising in so many ways. He was not being controlled by some large record company trying to turn him into an AOR rock star. He felt passionately about the need for Africans to be free of tyranny whether it was a foreign power asserting its power over a former colony, a corporation exploiting its workers, a corrupt African official, and any other elite exerting influence over Africa and its people.
I was fortunate enough to see him in concert at the Club Kilimanjaro in Adams Morgan (DC) towards the end of his productive career (eg, late 1980s or early 1990s). Those 30 minute songs, in concert, were closer to 45 minutes. By the time it was over, I was as sweaty as I’ve ever been. But I felt that Fela had been telling us something very specific, along the lines of “Now take that anger, and agitate! Organize! Tell the story about what is happening. But if you really want to make a difference, that is not nearly enough. To make a difference, you can’t just tear everything down. You need to create something beautiful as well.
There is nothing unusal about musicians embodying their own tumultuous times, ranging from Dylan in the 1960s to Freddy Aguillar during the Philippine People’s Power Revolution, to so many more. Fela was unique, however, in just how vulnerable he made himself, just how flawed he was as a human being, just how greatly he suffered, just how uncompromising he was, and just how brave he was. Maybe that is why I am drawn to him as a possible biographical subject for me. Maybe I want to feel as if people with so many flaws can still change the world. That powerful governments and armies cannot control a singular voice of conscience. And that from so much pain and chaos, beauty can be born, and that beauty can live on forever. These are powerful life lessons — handle with care.