Free at Last!
Fela Anikulapo Kuti: He Who Carries Death in his Pouch. Black President. Band leader and revolutionary from Lagos, Nigeria. He’s lost count of the times he’s been imprisoned. His most recent bust put him behind bars for 18 months. The charges were blatantly false; eventually the judge who had sentenced him came to beg his forgiveness, after which the magistrate was kicked off the bench and Fela released unconditionally, all the charges dropped.
This interview took place June 19, 1986 in Los Angeles, a city Fela had not visited in 17 years, but one that, nevertheless, looms large in his legend. For it was here that Fela first met Sandra Isadore in 1969. Sandra was astonished at how little he knew of his own African culture; at the time Fela didn’t believe there was any. She set about educating and radicalizing this child of a privileged family, and he returned to Nigeria as a firebrand, inventing a new form of music called Afrobeat, a red-hot mix of funk and West African riddims. His troubles started almost immediately. His lyrics named names and demanded reforms in the post-civil war years of the Seventies. Once he had a seven-hour gun battle between his band and the police. Fela won. Soon after, a thousand soldiers burned his headquarters, the Kalakuta (or Rascal) Republic, to the ground, and forced him into a nine-month Ghanaian exile. [clarification: The “gun battle” was with area boys around Fela’s neighbourhood who reportedly entered Kalakuta for shelter and drew the fire of the police. There was no gun battle between Fela and the police]
Another time he was busted for possession of hashish. When police couldn’t find any they held him in custody till he had to defecate. Three days later he finally did, and when his stools were analyzed, no traces of any drugs were found. Released, Fela rushed to the studio and immediately cut a hit based on the incident called “Expensive Shit”.
He married 27 women at once, in a stadium, and eventually was forced to live with them all in one room. [clarification: he lived in one or two rooms after Kalakuta was burned] His mother, a kind of Nigerian Betsy Ross, was thrown by the Army out of a second story window. Fela delivered her casket to the Barracks, and demanded that the army bury her. He ran for President as head of the Movement of the People, and continued to release a steady stream of inflammatory, incandescent albums with titles like I.T.T (International Thief their), Government Chicken Boy, and Zombie…
Fela was scheduled to play at the Hollywood Bowl in September, 1984, when he was dragged off the plane in Lagos and accused of currency violations. His confinement was in mostly hideous conditions in overcrowded, unsanitary cells. He slept when everyone else was awake, and stayed awake all night meditating.
You have just come out of an imprisonment of at least 18 months. I’m wondering if that might not have been beneficial to you in some ways?
It was very beneficial to me in some ways. Many ways, not just some ways. The imprisonment was only negative to me when it comes to the type of punishment or incarceration. Yes, that one was punishment. What I gained from the incarceration was memorable. It makes me more patient to achieve my goals. Time doesn’t matter too much now. I can wait for things to happen whilst working toward it. My mind is freer. You know, before I went to prison, you are in constant anticipation for things to happen when you are in a struggle. ‘Cause when you want things to happen you live in anticipation, now it takes that off my mind. And that makes life easier, makes your thoughts flow easier. If anything delays me now I’ll be able to deal with in a much more fair mind. [if I am due somewhere] I want to get there in time if possible, but if it is not in time I can wait. Prison gave me a kind of peace of mind whilst I struggle.
How was the imprisonment different from the other times?
This one, the government was bent to destroy Fela’s concept, destroy his image, and make him sick, ill, old, broke. And then Fela doesn’t exist anymore. That was the whole exercise, it was just to really completely demoralize my whole concept. So whilst in prison, many things were done to fuck my mind like trying to break my band, putting my brother in prison. Using some of my household to fight my family. And destroy my music whilst I’m in prison without my permission.
What do you mean destroy your music?
That production of Bill Laswell, that shouldn’t have happened.
With the Sly and Robbie overdubs on it? [Note: it was actually only Sly Dunbar on drums] You don’t approve of that?
At all. I did not approve it. You see, I have definite instructions with my manager. That is: I produce my music. So in 1983, December, I went to the studio and I did some four albums, which I finally produced and finished. So what was remaining was to sell the finished product. When I got to prison, and this was early in oppression, when I went to prison the whole thing changed, certainly. So now the need here was now to remix what I had already done and to release it the way the record company wanted it done, without my knowledge. It’s like, you know, can you imagine? I want this record released. I’ve said “release my record, release my record!” They say “yes, we are doing it we are doing it”. Now they come and they say, “OK, we’ve released it & this was released”.
Totally different from your intention?
Completely different. It was not African music what was there, not the way we hear it.
That this does not represent the Fela that you hear in your head?
No, it doesn’t.
One of the things that fascinated me in the Nigerian Newswatch article that appeared right after your release was your talking about the New Age music and music for the Age of Aquarius. To us this seems like something a California hippie might say, and to hear you, the head of the Movement of the People in Lagos, Nigeria talking a desire to make New Age music absolutely fascinated me.
I was very spiritually aware, but subconsciously spiritually aware. But in 1981 I became consciously spiritually aware.
Was that through Professor Hindu?
Yes, through a trance I had to go through. You see, I happen to know that some human beings have to go through a kind of change of life at a particular time of their lives.
When the structure is ready for the transformation?
Exactly. When the experience of the structure is ready, the transformation has to take place whether one likes it or not. I did not know about the transformation. My mother who knew about it had died. So there was nobody to help me through the transformation. But through spiritual communication, Hindu was contacted in Ghana to help me through the trance. When I met him I got the trance. And the purpose of the trance was to show me what life was all about, which I saw very clearly. It was like a film, it was a whole two hour ritual I went through in which I saw a lot of things. It was very spiritual and real.
Did you see that you were going to the imprisoned?
I did not see many aspects because of other forces in my household that were against the trance, which is very difficult to explain now. So I did not see the aspect of the prison, but I saw it at the time I was going to prison that I had to go. And that I would not finish the prison term, and that it was good for me to go. I should have to try to accept it and take the pain. So in that trance I saw the tide will change , that this whole earth was going to change into something different, into what people call today the Age of Aquarius. I saw that in the trance, that the age was going to be the age of goodness where music was going to be the final expression of the human race and musicians were going to be very important in the development of the human society. And that musicians would probably be presidents of different countries. The artists will be the dictators of society. The mind will be freer; less complicated institutions; the revelations to less complicated technology, all these things I saw in the trance.
I saw a breakdown of a lot of things in that trance. But music was going to be the main instrument for this, it was going to be like a weapon. Like music could be used in different aspects: music could be used violently if one wanted to. Music could be used for good if I want to. But violence would be impossible if it wasn’t for good, you see. That science that people could not decipher in the Egyptian pyramids would be revealed in the Age of Aquarius.
Thus the band being renamed Egypt 80?
Yes. It was in that trance that I saw the aspect of the Egyptian civilization to the Yoruba’s. So when I got my trance, I quickly saw the interwovenness… for what I saw and everything. And also the meaning of my life. Because in 1980 I was thinking of the disintegration of my mind, of myself. I wanted to commit suicide.
What kept you from doing it?
I was telling one of my friends that I wanted to commit suicide but I’m afraid of one thing, and that is that even if I commit suicide I will still feel, I will still be. I will not be able to annihilate the pain of what I was thinking; the change I wanted on earth would still be on my mind, it would be a problem. So if I wanted disintegration, it would still be impossible, because you could never kill the soul. So then when I saw that was the case, I gave up. Then in 1981, when I saw this trance, it gave me new energy for the future. I saw now, okay, I could still work on what I believed in. And I had the change to really achieve what I could, because things were definitely going to change. Then I saw the reason for my sufferings, what I had to do. So by the time I was going to prison, I tell you, on the day I was arrested at the airport, these voices were telling me, say, “Fela, don’t worry, this is a trap!” That was the words they used.
For you or for them?
For them (laughs). But coming out of prison and seeing the reaction of my people in Nigeria and what has happened since my prison sentence, it was a trap for many evils that I could recognize to dissipate. First of all, expose itself for people around to see. And then to dissipate for the next stage of my life. So it was like a trap for my enemies.
Come with me now, ten years ahead. It’s 1996 now, and let us suppose that for the past three years, Fela Anikulapo Kuti has been a democratically elected president of Nigeria. You’ve been in office for three full years. What’s life like in Nigeria now?
Everybody’s free to trade. Everybody’s free to leave the country any time they want to. My country’s border will be free for anybody to come inside and leave. There’ll be less institutionalized customs and immigration. A unique basis for the economy of the government will be found where government participation in citizens’ lives will be less interwoven. People will see government as their own instrument for a better life, not that government has the last say. People would be able to check those words, coined out of religion, immorality, marriages (pause), let me think, what you take is your business. The individual will be the decision of his own progress. We will change so many institutionalized concepts that we find. You will find out in my country after three years, violence would not be rampant in my society.
Anarchy wouldn’t happen as a result of this kind of freedom in a society like Nigeria?
No, anarchy wouldn’t happen.
And do you feel now that you’re in a position to become an actual political leader of Nigeria?
Yes, I’m in a position to lead.
What are you going to do seriously to pursue that now when you go home? Is the Movement of the People a legal party?
It’s not legal. No political party in Nigeria is legal right now. But Africa has a lot of surprises, see. Africans have an outlook on life that is different from a European outlook to life. For instance, if a popular European musician goes into an airplane full of Europeans, they will acknowledge him, but in a different style. They will whisper, “Oh, that is him, that is John Lennon, John Lennon”. But in an African environment if a John Lennon was an African, “Hey! John Lennon! Hey how are you!” Everybody will shout, the whole plane would really go into it. Okay, if I’m popular in Lagos, if I’m riding in my car, people would simply acknowledge by shouting, “Fela! Fela! Fela! Fela! Fela!” All through the road, if they recognize me. Everybody’s waving, Black Power signs all the way. In the European context, they would probably not shout, unless it was a special occasion. But in the African context, it happens every time. It’s a way of life.
So it’s time to capitalize on this?
That is the reason why I think I can be president. That’s why I think that I may even be president without an election, because of our attitude to life in general. That there may be a time when for instance now its 1986, by the end of the year I’ve started to operate the music, and this is getting the people more aware. By 1988 government might say, “Now, we want to have elections, we want to have parties”. People may just say, “Okay, we don’t want to vote, we just want Fela there”. It can happen like that.
If you go home and espouse these views and talk about entering politics again, are they going to let you get away with that again?
I have. I’ve said it in my press conference, where I wore my prison uniform. The press conference I gave, I said it was going to be my last press conference till further notice. I was going to give my final views till further notice and then after that I would be ready to start to play my music.
Do you feel strong now? Are you ready for battle again?
Oh, as a matter of fact, I don’t think anything negative ever happened to me. It looked negative to the materialistic world, but in my spiritual life, which was now exposed to me or to other people, every suffering that I went through was like I was buying powers, I was buying health from higher powers. Every time I went through my sufferings, like they burned my house, beating, everything, every time I was in punishment it was not pleasant. But any time I went through it, I was always happy that I was able to stand it. And I would never regret that I went through it. I was out good, so you know, it’s beautiful. So every experience like this prison I went to, although it was terrible for punishment, after I was in I didn’t think I could really go through 18 months of prison and come out fine. So every stage of my difficulties was like what people call a “blessing”.
You have been referred to by myself and others as the Che Guevara with an orchestra. How do you feel about that kind of an attitude to who you really are, in other words, the true musician and the true revolutionary all in one?
I don’t want to say ”call me this”. If you see me strictly as a musician it’s okay. I don’t want to say that it is wrong to see me that way. I don’t want to say that it is right to see me that way. I want to leave everything to the individual to see me the way they think is right. That’s the best way.
Free at Last - Now That the Nightmare is Over, Fela Has a Dream by Roger Steffens (with thanks to the Naija Music Blog for the text and clarifications).
OPTION, Sep/Oct 1986.