I was only vaguely aware of the Nigerian singer Fela Kuti before I started going to Pop Life a few years ago. The weekly Wednesday party was at Loft 1523 back then. Promoter/DJ Mike Kitchen always played Kuti’s “No Water No Get Enemy.”
The blaring horns and driving beats known as Afrobeat always drew people to the dancefloor. “Water” became a weekly favorite. Last weekend, I had an opportunity to see a musical about the man behind the music.
While in New York, I saw “Fela!” on Broadway. Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith produced the musical. It’s nominated for an astounding 11 Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, Best Choreographer and Best Director.
It deserves every one of them. The musical is funny and poignant, but it’s the message that stuck with me. Seeing the play helped me understand the lyrics to “Water” and other Kuti songs that I’ve downloaded over the years.
Kuti called himself the Black President. He used music to inspire his beloved countrymen to fight British colonialism. He was constantly harassed yet he didn’t back down.
The musical shows us his transformation into a musical revolutionary. It’s set in the nightclub where he performed called the Shrine. The Eugene O’Neill Theater was turned into the club. Large tin panels hung on the walls. Some had paintings protesting the British. There were also paintings of other revolutionaries, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kuti’s mother Funmilayo.
Projectors showed images of the real Shrine, a young Fela, his mother, protestors and other scenes from that time in the late ’70s. The images were splashed on the main stage as well as throughout the theater. All of this punctuated the story which was told through pulsing drums, horns, song and colorful energetic dancers. The audience participated as well, dancing when asked and responding to Kuti’s queries.
The soundtrack for Kuti’s revolution were protest songs against the British and calls to action for the people of Nigeria. Kuti used music as a weapon to inspire people to fight back.
During the ’60s, blacks in America used spirituals to protest injustice here. Today those songs and the fighting spirit that embodied our people are Black History moments rather than calls to action. We simply use music to entertain ourselves rather than inspire. The next time you go to Pop Life, ask Kitchen to play Fela. It’s time we rediscover the music ability to inspire to do more than clap our hands to its joyous sound.