Remembering Fela in 5 Songs
by Wale Owoade
Since Fela’s Remembrance Day, much has been written about the Afrobeat icon and his music. And though he died in Lagos on August 2, 1997, he still is widely recognised as one of the most important political figures of post-colonial Nigeria, for his unapologetic criticism of both the military and civilian governments. This made him a constant target of military dictatorship. Most importantly, the messages in Fela’s discography still relate to the issues we presently face in Nigeria due to a lack of significant development in the political atmosphere and culture. With these five songs, we look back at Fela’s life, music and political rebellion.
Released in 1976 by Coconut Records, Zombie was so successful in stabbing the military regime in the heart that it led to dire consequences. A thousand soldiers attacked his home, destroyed and burnt his properties then threw his mother from the second floor of the building. The song is metaphorically about the average Nigerian soldier, who carries out his superior’s orders without moral quantification. It was a timely message to the Obasanjo military regime, and Fela’s public condemnation of this administration sparked off a series of attacks on his life.
Suffering and Smiling
Released in 1977, Suffering and Smiling addressed the lifestyle in early post-Pentecostal Nigeria. It was a wake-up call to Nigerians living under extreme, poor and oppressive conditions of the military regime while following blindly religion doctrines and leaders who ironically live a more luxurious life than their followers. Historically, Pentecostal fellowship in Nigeria increased significantly during the military regime, the poverty level of the period turning many people to God and the church where they found solace and the promise of a luxurious afterlife. Unfortunately, Fela’s Suffering and Smiling is still relevant in today’s democratic Nigeria.
Authority Stealing is a two-part song released in 1980 through his Kalakuta Records. Here, Fela accuses Nigerian leaders of being worse than armed robbers and says they deserve to be hanged. In Nigeria, petty thieves are lynched to death or sent to jail while the authorities get away with embezzling large sums of money. Corrupt politicians do not only get away but are also celebrated by the people. After the release of this song, Fela was arrested for armed robbery and beaten almost to the point of death. The messages the song carries are so accusatory that no other company apart from Fela’s Kalakuta Records dared to distribute it.
Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense
Also released in 1980, this track is Fela’s honest condemnation of neocolonialism, as well as the burdens of culture and politics in post-colonial Nigeria. Fela resists the political ideas of the West, most especially, democracy and Africa’s overreliance on Western intervention and culture, which he believed, in turn, destroys our tradition and encourages a corrupt political system. The song boldly addresses the failed democratic structure of Shehu Shagari’s administration in Nigeria; a corrupt culture pervasively evident in Nigeria today.
During the early days of Muhammadu Buhari’s military regime, Fela released Army Arrangement to criticise the ‘paddy paddy’ arrangements of Nigeria’s military and civilian governments, saying both shared much in common, especially with regards to corruption and economic mismanagement. The song revealed the connection between the military generals and Nigeria’s political class. Here, Fela boldly opines that nothing good will come out of Nigeria if the country keeps recycling these groups of people. Army Arrangement is even more prophetic now because Nigeria’s current president was the head of the military regime when it came out in 1985.
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