Pardon the Introduction – Fela’s Lead Talks Kuti’s Legacy, Importance of the Musical
Adesola Osakalumi was born to be a star. The Bronx native developed an appreciation for theater by dancing at his family owned African dance company (Africa I Dance Theater) and when he hung out with friends, he immersed himself in b-boy culture. Eventually, he joined a group called the Rhythm Technicians, with whom he toured the country.
“We did an Off Broadway show called Jam on the Groove, which was the first theatrical presentation on a theater stage of hip-hop dance with using dance to tell stories as a vehicle for story telling, and we toured the world off and on” says Osakalumi about the groundbreaking show which was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Choreography.
From there, Osakalumi was officially bitten by the entertainment bug and knew that he had to make a living from his passion for performing. He went on to choreograph several commercials, appeared in movies like Sex and the City 2, Idlewild, landed a role in the Broadway play Equus, alongside Daniel Radcliffe, and finally, he landed the role he was destined for as the alternate lead in Fela! The Musical, which is currently touring the U.S. until June.
Here, we caught up with Osakalumi to chat about Fela’s legacy, and why the musical puts Fela’s message into perspective.
How’d you end up in Fela!?
I had a lot of background information about Fela Kuti. My dad’s record label, which was Makossa records, was actually the first label that distributed Fela’s music in America, in the west, so there was a connection with me because my uncle and father knew him. They had extensive business dealings with him. When I had heard about Fela! being off Broadway, it was when I was doing Equus and I made it my vow that once they closed and they had auditions again for Fela!, I was gonna audition and get in the show. And it turned out that way, so it was still a good interesting, winding journey.
You brought up an interesting point about your uncle and your dad knowing Fela and distributing African music, are you of Nigerian heritage?
My family is West Indian. My mother is Jamaican and my dad is from St. Thomas but my family has been very—what I call traditionalists and cultural people. This is why their company was, at the time, importing and distributing African music before it was cool and trendy, or a so called World Music phenomenon. They imported African music, they put on concerts by African artists, they sold books by African authors, they imported African material and fabrics—it was very cultural, so I grew up in a culturally aware and artistic environment, and I’m just carrying the torch and continuing the work that they started.
What’s your earliest childhood memory of becoming aware of who Fela was and how did his music make you feel?
My earliest memory was hearing his record around the house and going to the store and hearing his music played. His music made me feel energized, it makes me feel dynamic—I mean, at a younger age you’re listening to the lyrics but they may not have the same resonance as they do now. It was his compositions—they were funky, they were percussive, they were rhythmic—Fela’s music is incredible and I think that’s one of the things that get people when they come to the show. Whether they know Fela’s background or not, they hear the base, they hear the drums, they hear the horns and they hear how he masterfully composed all those elements and people love it, that’s what makes the show pop.
Considering that the show helps viewers to put Fela’s music into perspective, what’s your favorite number?
I would have to say “Zombie” because his message in the song is incredible and it’s very pointed. He’s talking about the soldiers who are being lead and controlled like zombies and the song goes, [in Fela voice] “Zombie no gon’ go unless you tell ‘em to go,” like, the zombie’s not gonna go until you tell him to go and he’s not gonna stop unless you tell him to stop. So, that component of it is dynamic and that track is banging. The dancers are just—they’re flipping, they’re doing routines in four inch heels—it’s just a hot number so I’d have to say “Zombie” with the finale, “Coffin for Head of State,” as a very close second, because “Coffin” is the last image the audience gets. It’s raw, it’s bare, it’s emotional and Fela says in the show, “Who’s coffin are you willing to carry?” And when you think about that it says a lot.
Speaking of epic, you performed in Nigeria at The Shrine, which was Fela’s old haunt.
It was just mind blowing. The response we got from the audience was really a once in a lifetime experience, as cliché as that may sound. There’s a song in the show, “Trouble,” and Fela and his mother sing it together and she says, “When trouble sleeps yanga go wake,” and before Fela could respond the whole auditorium—because they know all of his music—started singing along. It was incredible. Lagos, I think for a lot of us from the Broadway cast, was the ultimate stamp of approval, and to have the support of Fela’s family—Yeni, his daughter, Femi and Seun, his sons—it really doesn’t get better than that.
What do you hope people take away from the show?
I think people should take away one man’s incredible courage, one man’s incredible desire to do what he felt was right to sacrifice not just for himself and his family but for the world. I think the show is about courage, it’s about hope, it’s about living your truth in your life, it’s about doing what’s right, which is easier said than done. One of the biggest messages was that people, African people in particular, should respect their traditions and not feel less than when compared to any other culture or countries. He talked about politicians and their inadequacies and their thievery and that song, “ITT,” “International Thief Thief,” where he’s talking about how these companies come into Nigeria—and in a larger context wherever they are in the world—and steal, and the companies get rich and the poor people suffer. His message is still timely today with the whole Occupy Wall Street. We were just in San Francisco and they had Occupy Oakland, they had occupy Atlanta, they have occupy Nigeria going on as we speak, so I think what people will take away from the show, aside from the pageantry and the passion and the incredible music, is that this man stood for his beliefs and he was willing to make a change.
Main Photo Credit -Brad Caleaterra.