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Steppin' into the Screen | Finding Fela (2014) 10th Anniversary Screening

Finding Fela (2014) follows the making of Fela! the Musical on Broadway, all whilst also plunging into so many elements of his life: Family, Politics, Women, Death and naturally, his music. The goal with these documentaries, biographies and musicals is to unveil the truth but often in the most honorable way - as the authors and directors frequently frame iconic characters with the brightest of lights, they are their heroes. This documentary is having its 10th anniversary, and goes against the grain showing the trials and tribulations of unveiling this multifaceted human - Fela Kuti.

Screening at Melkweg on the 10th of April, Tickets available here.

I know that you know a lot about Fela’s musical pursuits so my focus for this review will be on some of the more surprising elements divulged in Finding Fela (dir. Alex Gibney). One of the first quotes in the film is from the revolutionary himself “I want to present myself as an African. I want you to look at me as something new that you do not have any knowledge about. Because most…99.9% of the information you get about Africa is wrong.” His vivid hatred of the corruption in Government was always apparent in his music, and he spent most of his life trying to dismantle that power "He has no fear to get thrown in jail every time a single came out" - Questlove. This all began with his parents who were influential, highly educated people and were rooted against the colonial system in Nigeria, he was born into a political atmosphere. 

Fela’s mother was a powerful source throughout his life, and this does not go unnoticed throughout the musical and the documentary. When she noticed Fela’s wild lifestyle: The scent of weed and politically wild characters. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti realised it was too much and would come to stay with him. The two of them “had a serious bond” - Omoyeni Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela’s daughter.

Fela’s relationship with women in his life was questionable. Bill T. Jones, Fela! The Musical director discloses he wanted to be careful about Fela’s ideology of women, there was a lack of respect “I don’t know how to do, well I do know how to do what he did but i’m kind of scared to do what he did”. After being married once and not divorcing his first wife he then continued to marry 27 women in one wedding. “I married these 27 girls because I wanted it to be meaningful, I wanted to have a meaningful life. Tradition accepts me to marry 27.” Fela earnestly shares as the women surround his throne-like couch. His bedroom had an unspoken timetable for each wife, something which obviously was not sustainable for all these women who would also need to take care of his children from the first marriage. All hell would break loose in the house as the women would fight for his attention and bedroom time. It was chaotic and barely manageable.

When performing at the Shrine in Kalakuta, his political influence was so potent that people would come from across the globe. John Darnton, a former New York Times Foreign Correspondent sets the scene for us, “Stevie Wonder, James Browns band, Paul McCartney all in awe of his music. Each night had a different focus: ladies night, traditional religious worship with comprehensive performance from the dancers and Yabis night, social discussion and revolutionary ideas that lambast and lampoon the Nigerian government.”. 

On Yabis night, many would join to hear his new lyrics, others would be there to soak up his political stance and empowering speeches about what was happening in the country at that time. Rikki Stein (Fela’s old manager and friend) recalls “He was calling out corruption each week, whistleblowing”, he was unveiling the forever lost truths within the political sphere around him. An act that would terrify his surrounding public and particularly the press. From 1974 to 77 Nigerian press was all over him, we see headlines and clippings litter our screen like:

Fela, black peoples singing champion they could not gag

Legal Tussel over Fela

Fela to appear in court soon

Fela scores another victory

Fela charged

Help secure Fela’s release

We dart back and forth from Fela’s making of history to Bill T. Jones’ making of the Broadway musical throughout the film.The question is constant throughout the split, how do we represent someone so crucial in African politics and music? Due to all the headlines, military retaliation was rising fast and Fela was not going to let up. Fela! the Musical focuses on a particular song - Zombie. Zombie satirized the military, it was referential to African voodoo traditions mixed with the Hollywood examples of marching zombies. In Fela’s performances he would incorporate the goose-step march (made infamous by corrupted dictators and regimes in history) foreshadowing the dire political atmosphere he lived within. Zombie was never played on the radio but was kept popular purely in secrecy amongst the underground.

As the military and Government caught on to what they would define as Fela’s defiance, the Military came into his home, burning down the compound and torturing whomever was in it in the most disturbing ways. Fela and his mum were hospitalized and his wives absolutely brutalized. Not soon after - his mother passed away. When his mother passed away it broke him down immensely but his urge to push against the corruption he was facing happened tenfold. She was the beginnings, the roots of his passion for politics and change. “She was his whole template in a way for political activism and for rebel rousing” - Micheal Veal, author of Fela: Life and Times of an African Icon. The song Coffin For Head of State (1981) - recounts the presentation of his mothers symbolic coffin to General Obasanjo, a man responsible for leading the military into his home and in turn the death of his mother. In protest he decided to place a symbolic coffin to the Capital. After that he was beaten, whipped and attacked by the military once again.

As per usual I do not want to give away all the information from this documentary but what I do want to show is how multifaceted Fela was: he was a revolutionary, he was a philanderer, he was a family man, he was an iconic musician. What this film and musical does, even 10 years later, is try to show you all sides of this rich coin that is Fela Kuti. A framing that is so important when covering the life of someone so insurmountably important in history. 


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