V Opinion: Fela! Never Misses an Afrobeat

Movies & TV

John Kennedy / November 25, 2009

Everyone has been talking about it. The praises have been raining. Q-Tip, Questlove, The New York Times–gushes over gushes about Broadway musical Fela! hit way before Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith hopped onboard as producers.

Choreographed and directed by Bill T. Jones, Fela! is the stage adaptation of the provocative and strange life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an afrobeat star, an activist, an attractive black man who had a lot of women, a Nigerian who called himself the president, a man who lived hard and never died.

Fela’s spirit parted ways in 1997 due to AIDS. Yet because of his work’s transcendence, it’s no wonder his story is now a musical. Set at the Shrine, in Lagos Nigeria, it’s Kuti’s last concert at the venue. The man himself is played by ridiculously convincing Sierra Leonian actor Sahr Ngaujah, who hypnotizes the audience with his bohemian rhapsody, talking to the crowd like buddies, maybe citizens of the climaxes in his head.

He talks about his life. He talks about the government, his mama, the police, his women, smoking herb, getting arrested, James Brown, and black power (of course). His monologues become music without beats, simply his heart beating to memories.

In-between his ramblings, his crew break out in outrageously festive dance and the almost too-good-to-be-true band boldly back it up. The dancers get drunk in the rhythms of afrobeat–a jam of jazz, psychedelic rock and funk. They sizzle their behinds, and pop it. They even salsa. Yes, we’ve heard that the audience gets so high they dance in the aisles during the performances. That is true. The dancers boogie through the crowd as well. The party breaks out, specifically, to “Mr. Syms,” “Originality / Yellow Fever,” “Na Poi,” and the crowd favorite, “Kere Kay.”

With the amazing skittles of lights, wall paintings and overall stage effects, each new song turns the entire dark room into a club of rainbows, claps and gyrations.

But Fela! isn’t all about hitting people with head-bops and beats. Everything enters dark terrain when Kuti began to take the audience through the 1977 raid on his Kalakuta compound, which resulted in certain women having their pubic hair ripped out, their butt carved with a razor by Nigerian soldiers, and Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo, being thrown out of window resulting in her coma and eventual death.

“Two-hundred times I’ve been hauled to court,” Ngaujah, as Kuti, says. “Two-hundred times I come fighting back.”

By 1979, Kuti decided to pick up the pieces and run for president. The government wasn’t having it. To his people, though, Kuti already was the president.

The greatest triumph of Fela! isn’t the music, dancing or lights. It’s its amazing ability to convince the world, twelve years later, that Kuti, like so many of his musical giant contemporaries, was one man who lived hard and never truly died. -Linda Hobbs

Photo Credit: Getty Images