Who Will Fill Fela’s Large Shoes?

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Sixteen years ago, when the music legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died at a Lagos hospital on August 2, 1997, the question on the lips of art commentators was, “Who will fill Fela’s shoes?”  The search for the feet went typically to the immediate music household of Fela. This search became a huge debate as many took sides with either of his sons, Femi and Seun. The news of Seun’s leadership of the Egypt 80 band was not a surprise to many followers of Afrobeat music, who thought Seun had been groomed to lead the band in his father’s demise. This is coupled with the fact that Femi has his band, The Positive Force, to run. Other strong members of the Egypt 80 Band such as Dede Mabiaku and Baba Ani were under the spotlight as well. In all, the answer to the question was sought in the wrong places.
Fela, the Abami Eda, occupies a very enormous position not just in the music sphere but in the popular culture of his people. While writing this, it was difficult to use “was” when Fela really “is”. One can say that the Fela influence is felt even more at death which occurred shortly before a democratic government was established in Nigeria and people were no longer entertaining the fear that mimicking Fela in fashion, music and political orientation could be deemed criminal or subversive by the state. Not that it did during Fela’s time, but Fela is a symbol of revolution with fear.  He was a man persecuted by the state because his philosophy was regarded as anti-government.  Some of his songs with revolutionary themes were not aired on the radio or television. Most of his works were released before the advent of privately-owned broadcast stations and as such, the government, who was paying the piper, naturally called the tune.
It took such selfless spirit to continue to perform his art. Fela had so much popularity in his time yet he was not a face to be seen on commercials. His persona is larger than life and no one dared to think of Fela as his key to selling his products or services. Fela’s “enemies” were growing simultaneously with the growing anger he felt towards the way his people were being ruled. When Fela perceived that the government would not listen to him, he took a swipe at the governed in many songs including, “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” where he sang, “We fear for the tin we no see / we fear for the air around us/ we fear to fight for freedom/ we fear to fight for liberty/ we fear to fight for justice…”. The remarkable attribute of all his lyrics was that they are so apt, as though they have just been composed in the light of present situation in the polity. Fela, as some would describe him was like a prophet who had foreseen that his country lay helplessly in the hands of those who had selfish motives. That was Fela’s position.
The media celebrated Fela in his life and at death. He was a man whose opinion counted irrespective of the reaction it begets. His songs became the anthem of student union leaders and till date, his songs live in the heart of students who stand against oppression. At the fuel subsidy removal protest in Nigeria in January 2012, Fela’s songs were chorused by a generation, many of whom were born long after Fela had lived. Fela had such impact that it is indeed very unrealistic to expect that a replica of him is anywhere around.
The thought of filling Fela’s shoes should not be passed off quickly as if one is only seeking to find someone who can fit his role perfectly. Remember when you fit a shoe, especially one that you like, it may not necessarily be a perfect size. But to fit it, you insert a pair of shoe filler or even some other crude items like tissue paper or cotton wool. The point is to wear it to fit. Sometimes, you get a cobbler to trim the shoe to size and then wear it. What lesson do we learn from this shoe exercise? Fela’s shoes are not even being tried let alone fitted to size. Shortly after his death, some artistes, who turned out to be one-hit wonders, arose and swiftly stole his trail to make some popularity. Time tested their ingenuity and authenticity and they failed for the most parts. Others learnt their lessons and left the Fela mimicry game so as not to incur the anger of Fela’s fans many of whom were still licking the wounds of his untimely death.

Although the Afro pop icon D’banj did not establish himself as a Fela replica, it was not long before his performance styles and vocals were associated with Fela. He had to admit that he had been greatly influenced by Fela. Surely, a lot of artistes had been influenced greatly by Fela. But if only they knew what Fela represents, they would have accepted that they are nowhere close. They should also know that for one to influence another, it is reflected in the beliefs and the attitudes of such person.
Yes, many artistes today share Fela’s propensity for coital escapades. However, it would be recalled that Fela married his 27 wives who were members of the band on the grounds that the women were being discriminated against because of their chosen profession. Women in performing art at that time and perhaps till date have been victimised by their spouses and many had been forced to dissolve their marriages to continue their career. Whether Fela’s decision on marriage was noble or not is a different argument.
How many Nigerian artistes in present time have written songs to agitate for national unity, equity and freedom? The queue waiting to wear a different shoe is very long. This other shoe will not only guarantee a daily bread but a lifetime investment. This other shoe is designed to make the artistes dance and gather flying naira notes and foreign currencies. The currencies have a seal-your-lips effect on the artiste, who would rather look the other way than confront the issues affecting his people. The contemporary artistes in Nigeria will not risk or sacrifice their economic returns on the altar of human rights advocacy. For a good number of them, it is better to be “shoeless” than to attempt to wear Fela’s shoe. Today, it is on record that the most expensive and most sought-after posthumous musical works are Fela’s. That is a fine legacy and it may remain a record that will never be beaten.


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