‘My Friend Fela’ Offers Intimate View of the Afrobeat Legend


Vanessa Obioha

Fela Anikulapo Kuti needs no introduction. He is a musical icon whose first name resonates well with activists, music and art lovers around the world.

So far, the history of Fela has been rendered in different forms (films and books) by itinerant storytellers. The existing vast body of works centering on his lifetime however did not deter Brazilian filmmaker, Joel Zito Araújo from embarking on a quest to elaborate certain aspects that are not often portrayed in mainstream media in his documentary film ‘My Friend Fela’.

The film opened for the first time in Nigeria at this year’s Light Camera Africa Film Festival, a three-day film festival that highlights Africans and African stories in independent films. It was strategically placed as the closing documentary piece of the festival’s run.

For director Araújo, the film aims to counter the mainstream portrayal of the Afrobeat legend as an eccentric African pop idol of the ghetto, he wanted to unveil the human behind the thin veil that separates him from the rest of the world when all the cameras are turned off. As expected of a typical Fela documentary, this one opens with one of his tracks, ‘Why Black Man Dey Suffer’ where he addresses the socioeconomic woes of the Nigerian people.

The soundtrack is accompanied with flush, bold lyrics over bright yellow background. The track’s up-tempo texture hits the audience with a sharp sombre taste that reminds them how far they have come along as an independent nation.

Albeit kicking off with a focus on Fela, the film turns its pages to explain the work of activism spearheaded by other prominent black people. It explores campaign for racial equality by the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Kwame Nkrumah, Maya Angelou etc. This showcase effectively profiles Fela in a light that reflects his work of activism through his music, eventually.

‘My friend Fela’ evokes a visceral feeling being that it not only reintroduces Fela to the audience, but also helps them see through the eyes of those most close to him by harnessing their versions of events. It is a plot knitted through their individual experiences with Fela.

Enter Carlos Moore, a writer whose written works focus on issues on racism and pan-Africanism. He met with Fela in 1974, and quickly, the pair found a common ground in the oppressive government in their individual countries. Moore also published an authorized biography of Fela, ‘Fela: This Bitch of a Life’. Knowing how close they were, Araújo worked with Moore to glean narratives.

Another thing the film reveals is his evolution in music. It is easy to assume that Fela started out as an activist; the film counters this putative fact. His initial musical style was one that shied away from activism. It was until he met Iszadore Sandra, another musician, that his music took form as what we have come to know today. “He said he sang about his suits” Iszadore smirked, recounting her first meeting with him. Apparently, she said Fela was disappointed in the black man, that he wasn’t proud of his people.

Their friendship blossomed at a time when the Black Panther Party was in its nascent years, and the fight for racial equality between blacks and whites was a hot debate in US politics. Iszadore later influenced Fela, and this influence imparted activism into his music. Also, the film demonstrated how many aspects to Fela started changing. Known for taking a cocktail of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and pineapple juice, Fela embraces a new lifestyle of smoking to the shock of most of his friends.

Despite being polygamous, Iszadore reveals that she fell in love with him and left to be with him in Nigeria. New to polygamy, she admitted she hoped that she would be treated in a manner she wanted that entails private conjugal meetings, but that was farfetched in Kalakuta. She left after staying for 10 years.

The documentary also brings into account the international success Fela enjoyed with his ‘Zombie’ album in 1976; the first Kalakuta attack by ‘unknown’ soldier that culminated in his mother, Funmilayo Kuti being thrown out from a window; and the second Kalakuta attacks in 1981. Within this timeframe, Fela evolved from being a musical genius adored for his dexterity on the piano to one who delved deep into spiritualism.

Although, he preached social freedom and equal rights to mammoth crowds who attended his concerts, unexpectedly, the documentary presents him in a different light. His new found faith morphed him into an individual with a thirst for control. Although he didn’t lay hands on anyone, he wielded his power through others; this contradicted everything he stood for. Others argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from events that led to his mother’s, saying that he always blamed himself for her death. Seeking solace, Fela embraced Ghanaian magician, Kwaku Addaie, aka Professor Hindu.

Emboldened by his new found faith in Professor Hindu, he became awestruck by the many wonders he performed. Professor Hindu made claims of bringing the dead back to life, but the documentary didn’t focus on whether or not he did.

‘My Friend Fela’ manages to reveal these details in manners that unmask the ‘human’ behind the charismatic persona that is Fela. Through his friends’ account, we see how he hurts and seeks succor in his music, spiritualism, and control in his sovereign state of Kalakuta. However, this by no way reduced his legendary status; instead, the plot was engineered in such a method to achieve balance. It does so by brilliantly weaving Fela’s story with other black heroes, thus placing him on a deserved pedestal. Though, no longer here, this insightful piece yet proves again that Fela still lives on through the legacy he built in spite of any shortcomings he had. Like he once said, “I am Anikulapo, I have death in my pouch.”