Fela is a shadow that hovers above Nigeria like rumblings of distant thunder. He is distant but his spirit lives on. He is the greatest Nigerian artist to have ever lived and his legacy transcends the music and it has earned itself a place in the Nigerian political zeitgeist. International media and international practitioners look to ‘Abami Eda’ as a quintessential symbol of blackness.
His greatness gets extolled by those who only knew about him, years after his death. He fought for/against what he believed in – pan-Africanism, basic human rights and bad governance.
In return, he lost a significant amount of his wealth, he lost his mother, got raided multiple times, lost a chunk of what could have been his wealth, earned a complicated relationship with his son and died of HIV
As another independence day looms for Nigeria, the spirit of Fela is again being chanelled. Polarizing Nigerian politician, Omoyele Sowore aims to stage an independence day protest while others are having an independence day concert.
His bid to get some publicity for the event has again brought back conversations about how modern Nigerian artists are ‘failing Fela.’
Burna Boy vs. Sowore
On September 29, 2020, Sowore took to his Twitter page and wrote, “Hello @burnaboy , everywhere I turn people describe you as a revolutionary musician, the foreign media even celebrate you compare you to Fela Kuti, but I am yet to see you lead anyone to a police station carrying a coffin for head of state! Join #Oct1stProtest #RevolutionNow.”
Burna Boy replied in a since deleted post, “When Fela was alive, the very people he was fighting for were the ones who put him through real hell. People even stayed away from my mother’s family for associating with Fela. They killed his mother and said he deserved it.”
He then tweeted, “Everybody is a Fela fan and supporter now that he is dead. Humans are so Funny, You politicians are ALL the same (especially in Nigeria) and Frankly I don’t trust none of you. @YeleSowore”
Sowore replied, “@burnaboy I am not just one of the persons who you could describe as “Fela’s fan after he died,” I am a member of Fela’s household, ask @RealSeunKuti , as a student’s leader in the 90s I met and hung out with Abami Eda at home and the African shrine! If you want to be Fela be Fela.”
Burna Boy then went on to write, “@YeleSowore Well. I am NOT FELA. I Have said that countless times. But you sir are a politician. Leave me out of your schemes. Thanks.”
Sowore then replied, “No schemes, just telling you that becos there are lots of comparisons & mannerisms, but there is a need for CHARACTER of the Fela that stands for social-political justice because you’ve professed these when it’s artistically convenient! I do hope you will join us! #RevolutionNow.”
A ‘new Fela’
Fela is a symbol of greatness and everybody associates themselves with greatness. For a long time, bad advice, ignorance and possibly due to the power of dreams possibly induced by psychedelia, a few Nigerian artists fancied themselves the ‘new Fela.’ Others didn’t even have to label themselves thus, their fans branded them the new Fela.
At the time, fans and artists basically equated making cheap Afrobeat revamps and dressing in ankara prints or dancing on stage while scantily clad to being Fela. Unknown to them, they were playing reductionist with the legacy of an artist they will never match musically, an artist they will never match by impact and an artist they will never match in legacy.
Even worse, they put a target on their own backs. These days, foreign media gets chomping at the beat when it hears any artist mention Fela. For a Nigerian artist, mentioning Fela on American media circuits gets you endorsement from ignorant people who tokenize these Nigerian artists.
At some point, it was about Wizkid. For a brief time, other people brandished Tekno as the new Fela because he made something as basic as ‘Rara.’ Others have also equated hedonism and philandering tendencies to living like Fela. They fail to understand that Fela’s rebellious lifestyle was a microcosm of his natural avant-garde nature, which fuelled his activism. He just strongly believed in what he believed in.
But all through the madness, the closest pale representation of the wretched man’s Fela in this generation is Burna Boy. While he has never fancied himself to be the ‘new Fela,’ he is greatly inspired by Fela and he doesn’t even have to say it.
While some Nigerians like the legendary Eedris Abdulkareem have criticized Burna Boy for continually sampling Burna Boy’s music while claiming he would have no career without Fela, the man has just gone about living his life. It also doesn’t help Burna Boy that his family shares close ties with Fela./
His grandfather, Benson Idonije used to manage the Afrobeat pioneer. In a 2018 video, Burna Boy and his mother, Bose ‘Mama Burna’ Ogulu threw their fists in the air to greet each other. While some people think the activist lifestyle is an act and they might have a point, pan-Africanism and a strong belief system are part of Burna Boy’s values.
His mother, a professor, is also an intellectual with strong cultural beliefs. Like Fela, her son is avant-garde and naturally rebellious. While this has put him in several bouts of trouble, it has also helped him get on the podium he currently occupies as the poster boy of Afrobeats/Afro-pop.
Burna Boy’s chatter around pan-Africanism feels more organic to him than to any other member of his generation. Those ones simply don’t have the range for pan-African conversations.
Some of the knowledge Burna Boy shares might have been passed to him by his mother, but it doesn’t mean he does not believe or understand most of the things he talks about.
Sowore vs. Burna Boy: Perp vs. Victim
In moments like the infamous Coachella moment, Burna Boy has also used pan-Africanism for selfish motives fuelled by his own ego and vain need to be taken seriously. But other times, those pan-Africanist beliefs and his activist/militant alter ego have also put an unfair target on his back.
It is also why Omoyele Sowore has taken aim at him.As in most circumstances like this, Sowore and Nigerians are using artists as scapegoats. In this case, Burna Boy is a victim of his own pan-Africanist beliefs and rhetorics while Sowore is a hypocritical clown who is simply using Burna Boy to further his own agenda.
Vector, MI Abaga, Falz and more have spoken against the government, but Sowore went for the ‘biggest face’ in the yard. That in itself is a tactic; you need the biggest face to sell powerful messages, but Sowore’s virtue signaling antics are the problem that expose his attention-seeking.
This writer can see why Nigerians would demand some form of activism from Burna Boy beyond the odd tweet and songs like ‘Monsters You Made’ or ‘Wetin Man Go Do’ or ‘Another Story.’ Burna Boy has repeatedly spoken about how Nigerians have been taking nonsense and how they need to act.
If you talk like that, you better be ready to back it up. However, this writer also sees the unfairness of it all. Like any other Nigerian, Burna Boy could just be talking from a place of pain and that doesn’t invalidate any of those aforementioned rhetorics. We Nigerians really do take nonsense from politicians.
In a lot of ways, making music about the bad governance is already some form of activism. That’s better than what most people do – if Sowore really wanted to get Burna Boy for a protest, he could have reached out privately, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose the performative path of a social media mention because he wanted a reaction.
He also wanted the credit that comes with going against a superstar – that’s clout-chasing and what our British brothers call solid gold shithousery.
Sowore was simply looking for political endorsement because he is a politician and a politician’s protest is a campaign. Had Burna Boy joined him, what Sowore and his team would have done was smear blogs and media platforms with pictures of him with Burna Boy with corny captions like, ‘African Giant joins Sowore on a protest…’
In this twisted world, that’s endorsement. As in any other case, people like Burna Boy are just regular people who have seen their beliefs placed on a pedestal because they dwell in the public eye.
While Nigeria needs to reawaken its protest culture if some great things will ever be achieved, it will be foolhardy to simply trust the words of Sowore, a known camera whore and attention addict who lives in a perpetual state of comical delusions that he has force-fed himself. It is all pitiable.
At this time, it seems all Sowore simply wanted was some cheap publicity for his agenda-driven October 1, 2020 ‘protest.’ Guys, he is literally leaving #RevolutionNow on every tweet that forms his exchange with Burna Boy. That’s basically a simple ploy for cheap trend.
It’s just so sad that Burna Boy took the bait and gave him the attention he wanted. The simple reply should have been, ‘I would love to join a protest, but I don’t want to join yours….’
Sowore doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. He is an actor and a phony. While Burna Boy does need to add some real-life substance to his activist rhetorics aboard popular music, but he also retains the prerogative to do it in any way he desires.
Nigeria and the difficulty of activism
It is difficult to fight for Nigeria or be an activist in these modern days. More so, it is difficult to build your brand around such trouble. Fela was an outlier and we appreciate him for it, but most people don’t have an appetite for such consistent acts of activism and that should be absolutely fine.
While celebrities need some social responsibility, nobody will nurse their scars of war for them when things go pear-shaped. Falz released an entire album about activism, titled Moral Instruction, but he got dragged by Nigerians for the flimsy issue of transactional sex.
Sowore’s stans might point to his incarceration as an act of activism, but he seems to be milking it for his selfish political agenda. Even worse, it is difficult to tell anybody born after 1987 to fight for Nigeria – they didn’t see the oft-celebrated glory days.
This might be unfair, but Fela Anikulapo-Kuti saw the best of Nigeria. He saw how the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) aided the rise of Nigeria’s wealth in the ‘70’s. He saw how it tore into Nigeria’s soul before FESTAC ‘77 and it made him do his own shows every night throughout the event.
He saw the potential that we read about and he saw how bad governance and corruption ruined it. My generation only sees the bad governance, the passion of ‘what could have been’ isn’t as ingrained in us as it is in Generation Xers and Baby Boomers. Survival and a need to keep one’s head and excel is the sole goal and you can’t blame us.
We want to protest, but we are afraid of the consequences of our action. Is Nigerian worth getting locked up over? Is Nigeria worth dying for? Some people might find it easy to make those decisions, but the reality is hard for most of us. Is Nigeria worth losing the things you’ve worked so hard for?
A salient question we should ask ourselves is why people who are criticizing Burna Boy for not protesting are not out there marching with Sowore. If they really cared about activism, they should be out there.
Human beings are simply a product of the circumstances of their upbringing. Millennials are no different, the few of us who truly believe in activism are the exception and not the rule. It is also quite annoying that the older generation employs a worrying bout of juvenoia to criticize the lyrical content of millennials like King Sunny Ade didn’t make music about ‘Sweet Banana.’
They criticize how millennials only want to sing about hedonism with worrying vulgarity. While it might be fair in some respect, it is mostly baseless. The Nigerian mainstream lives below $1-a-day. They just want to listen to feel-good and aspirational music, not a rehashing of their damning realities.
Moreover, artists and making music about hedonism has never been peculiar to any generation. Every generation has conscious, commercial and vulgar acts.
We all need to be responsible.
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