By Yemisi Shyllon
My close study of the life of Fela and Felasophy reveals that Fela did not develop his philosophical leaning from western philosophies which evolved and has been passed on to generations down the line from Socrates , Aristotle, Plato , Cicero and others. Rather, a study of the life of Fela and Felasophy, as a philosophy, appears to have been planted during his travel and time spent in Ghana in 1967. It was during that time in Ghana, that Fela named his musical band “Afro Beat”. It is therefore open to debate, that Felasophy as a philosophy, in Africanism was born in Ghana. Therefore, Felasophy appears to have arisen out of the obvious influence of Nkrumah’s non-aligned Marxist perspective on economics and his pan-Africanist philosophy, which he founded in his 1967 essay titled: “African Socialism Revisited”. In this essay, Nkrumah specially addressed the issues of non-aligned Marxist philosophy in terms of his perspective on African economics that is supposed to accommodate the changes that capitalism could bring upon the African society while still respecting African values.
Nkrumah’s doctrine of African socialism, bought into by Fela, is based on traditional African society and is founded on the principle of egalitarianism. This principle of African egalitarianism is based on the postulation that each man is meant to be an end in himself, not merely a means and to accept the necessity of guaranteeing each man, equal opportunity for his development. It is on this basis that Felasophy, as a philosophy, kept on transmitting into its various transformations but never lost its central identity as a people-oriented egalitarian philosophy during the lifetime of Fela.
One must emphasise, that this African socialism on which Felasophy rests, equally evolved out of Nkrumah’s study as a disciple of Gandhi. Gandhi had long since enunciated the necessity of fighting neo-colonialism in a non-violent basis. If we recollect, all through the life of Fela, notwithstanding the various injustices wrought on him, he never for one day fought back in violence. Every follower of the music of Fela here would recollect his music, “Africa Must Unite”. That song is the product of Nkrumah’s fetishisation of pre-colonial Africa which he preached in 1963 that “Africa Must Unite”. Nkrumah also called for the immediate formation of a pan-African government. This call may have later led to the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity.
Another common ground between Nkrumah’s pan-African philosophy and Fela’s Felasophy, is the fact that both philosophies were inspired by black intellectuals like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and George Padmore. These African philosophers influenced Nkrumah and they eventually also influenced Fela in his pan-Africanist Felasophy. Of particular importance to the emergence of Felasophy, is Fela’s contact with the Black Power movement in 1969 when he took his band to the United States of America. After that trip, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti became more partisan by virtue of his contact with Sandra Smith, who was later referred to as Izsadore in the partisan Black Panther Party. During his trip, the Immigration and Naturalisation service in the USA were tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his band were in the United States of America without work permit. We can recollect that Fela performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released in the 1969 Los Angeles Sessions.
One must again mention the effect of Garvey’s contact with Fela in the emergence of Felasophy by looking at the statement made by Garvey when he stated that, and I quote “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.” You will all agree with me here, that the totality of Fela’s life revolved around this philosophy. Felasophy, therefore, represents Liberty for all, freedom for all and egalitarian life for all by all. This is what encapsulates Fela’s life which forms the major ingredients of Felasophy.
On the return of Fela with his band to Nigeria in 1970 and the renaming of his band as “Africa 70”, his lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio and a home for many, connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. He set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, named the Afro-Spot and then the Afrika Shrine, where he performed regularly. Fela also changed his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”), stating that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name.
Thereafter, the totality of the lifestyle of Fela became a reflection of the strong dedication to his pan Africanist philosophy of Felasophy. In fact, he therefore made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could better be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local languages spoken, were very diverse and numerous. All this while, Fela maintained a close contact with fellow pan-Africanists such as Thomas Sankara, whose personal charisma had an array of original African philosophical initiatives that contributed to Sankara’s popularity in Africanist posture that brought some international media attention to Burkina Faso. Fela at every opportunity publicly acknowledged his love for Thomas Sankara’s philosophy and the various pan Africanist and populist Burkinabe revolution practised by Thomas Sankara.
Some of the things Thomas Sankara did that attracted him to Fela and which coincided with the philosophy of Felasophy are, for instance, Sankara’s conversion of an army’s provisioning store into a state-owned supermarket open to everyone which ended up being the first supermarket in Burkina Faso. Sankara also forced civil servants to pay one month’s salary to public projects. He refused to use the air-conditioning in his office on the grounds that such luxury was not available to everyone but a handful of Burkinabes. He lowered his salary and limited his possessions to one car, four bikes, three guitars, a fridge and a broken freezer. He required public servants to wear a traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.
Let us come back home: I guess, that we all remember Fela carrying some fire wood on top of his highly-prized Mercedes Benz car in the 70s and riding it around Lagos in defiance of the social hegemony of the rich in Nigeria.
When Sankara was asked why he didn’t want his portrait hung in public places, as was the norm with other African leaders, Sankara replied “There are seven million Thomas Sankaras.” This is reminiscent and in tandem with Fela’s Felasophy.
Sankara was an accomplished guitarist, who wrote his country’s new national anthem himself. It is for this type of populist and egalitarian philosophy of life strongly shared with Thomas Sankara that made Fela to publicly mourn Sankara in his song, solely dedicated to Thomas Sankara when Sankara was assassinated by his close friend.
Felasophy was practised by Fela through his music which became popular in Nigeria and elsewhere but which became very unpopular with ruling Nigerian governments that eventually led to the raiding of his Kalakuta Republic. In 1972, Ginger Baker recorded the song, titled, “Stratavarious” with Fela appearing alongside Bobby Gass. Around this time, Fela had become more involved in Yoruba religion which is an important part of Felasophy. In 1977, Fela released “Zombie” a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers. The album was a smash hit that infuriated the government of the day which culminated in setting off a vicious attack on Fela by a government led by his kinsman with some 1,000 soldiers, attacking Fela’s private commune.
We must recollect that, Fela was an avid reader who imbibed the spirits of different pan-African philosophies and movements as espoused by President Toure of Guinea and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya .The latter led the Mau Mau movement in obtaining independence for his country, Kenya, after his imprisonment of some six years by the British government.
A discussion of Felasophy is not complete without mentioning the pan-Africanist and egalitarian movement of Patrick Lumumba. A latter declassified document released in July 2006 by the United States government revealed that the CIA plotted the assassination of Lumumba on the basis that it believed that Lumumba was a communist by virtue of Lumumba’s populist pan-Africanist philosophy . This revelation all went to influence and fire Fela’s political posture and philosophy of Felasophy.
One other Pan Africanist, whose philosophy must have influenced the emergence of Felasophy, is Leopold Senghor. Senghor was not only a poet but also a widely acknowledged pan-Africanist leader. He created the concept of Negritude an important intellectual movement that sought to assert and to valorise what was believed to be a distinctive African characteristic, value and aesthetics.
Felasophy identifies with ancient Egypt as of the same cultural continuum, reaching from Egypt to classical Greece, through Rome to the European colonial powers of the modern age. Just as Felasophy was misinterpreted by various leaders of Nigerian governments, so was negritude perceived in some quarters as anti-white racism. Indeed as Negritude emphasised the importance of dialogue and exchange among different cultures be they European, African or Arab so also did the Felasophy doctrine encourage such exchange to the extent that Felasophy, became even more popular in France than in Nigeria. This popularity was so, notwithstanding the wraths invoked on Fela as a result of the narrow mind of Nigeria’s leaders. One must mention that the Nigerian government at a time, wrongly jailed Fela on a trumped-up charge of currency smuggling which Amnesty International and others, later denounced as politically motivated and thereafter designated Fela as a prisoner of conscience. Fela’s case was also taken up by other human rights groups in the world. He was not released from jail until 20 months later by General Ibrahim Babangida.
Felasophy is based not only on the issues discussed earlier but also the philosophy that supports traditional religions and lifestyles. Felasophy emphasises that the most important thing for Africans to fight, is European cultural imperialism. Felasophy is based on the candid support of human rights which can be found in many of Fela’s songs which directly attacked dictatorships with special emphasis on the attack of military governments in Nigeria. Felasophy was an instrument of social commentary which criticised fellow Africans for betraying traditional African culture. This is the major reason why in demonstrating the practicality of his pan Africanist philosophy, Fela married many wives and the Kalakuta republic was formed as a polygamy colony. He defended his stand on polygamy with the words: “A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, the man goes out and f***s around. He should rather bring the women into the house, to live with him, and stop running around the streets”. Fela’s views towards women are characterised by some, as misogynist in reaction to Fela’s song, titled, “Woman na Mattress” which is usually sighted as evidence towards Fela’s misogynist tendency. This is an element which greatly demonstrates the complexity of Fela vis-à-vis his philosophy in egalitarianism.
Another difficulty in understanding Felasophy can be found in the resolution of his polygamy philosophy with the way he mocks African women who imbibe the European standards of “lady-hood” while extolling the values of the local market woman in his song “Lady”.
In conclusion, I want to thank the children of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, his friends, fans and family for continuing the tradition of celebrating Fela annually through Felabration .We must join hands with his family to sustain the beauty of Felasophy, but in doing so separate the baby from the bath water because herein lies the original African philosophy, untainted, unalloyed by an original African man – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
• Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon is the founder?CEO of the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF)