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Part 24 - Ghariokwu Lemi: Fela Kuti And Me

Chris May By

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"As for me, I was so browbeaten and dumbfounded by Fela's display that I couldn't utter a single word. 'Check your mind, your mind is weak. Is it because they burnt my house?' he went on. 'Today we are living in this place, tomorrow we may be living in the gutters, men-n! Abi government don bribe you?' By this time, Fela was livid and poking me on the chest as he registered his annoyance. It was like getting comeuppance for doing something that I didn't know was wrong.

"I had been disgraced before everyone, with the press people in attendance. I just started crying like a child, even though I was 22. I picked up my artwork and walked out with a resolve to prove my mettle in due time. As Gbubemi Orhirhi Ejeba and I left the compound, I started driving home in my Volkswagen Camper with him, and I said, with resolve, that I didn't deserve that treatment from Fela for no good reason at all. It was like the metaphorical scales fell out of my eyes as I said in anger, 'I no dey go Fela house again lai lai!!!' I was shattered and my heart was full of sorrow, so much so that I decided it was time for me to move on with my life. This led to a break that lasted for the next eight years.

"Whenever I do interviews and am asked about my most favorite Fela Kuti song and cover art, even though I have more than a handful of favorites, I always remember my first choice is Sorrow Tears And Blood. And now you know the reason why!

"Beasts Of No Nation was Fela's own pound of flesh, with barbs in tow, aimed at his jailers in an eighteen month, undeserved incarceration emanating from a trumped-up currency trafficking charge. Smarting from his hideous experience in jail, Fela throws his punches like an enraged prize-fighter seeking revenge from a blow struck below the belt. This is socio-political commentary in a no-holds-barred attack, with the strongest language a poet can use as armoury, innuendos included. This was 1988.

"In Fela's typical style of naming songs, 'Beasts Of No Nation' came with an acronym, BONN, which is a subtle reference to the capital city of Germany and the days of Adolf Hitler's Nazism. Yes, it was pure Nazism that was going on in apartheid South Africa at that time. The bestiality of dictatorial rulers was legion, and evident across the world, and this was an opportunity for Fela to deal his blow on the global political stage. From Nigeria's dictatorial military rulers, Muhammed Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon; Zaire's maximum ruler, Mobutu Seseko; Britain's 'milk snatcher' Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher [so-called for cutting free milk for school children]; America's 'rustler' President, Ronald Reagan; to South Africa's draconian, racist Prime Minister, P.W. Botha. Nobody was going to be spared from the wrath of Nigeria's musical enfant terrible.

"The music is as powerful as it gets and beneath his knife-edge cutting sarcasm, Fela's voice shuddered with rage. It would take a serious sleeve to convey that acid tone visually. Contemplating Fela's provocative title and the range of his targets, I knew I had to depict the evils of South African apartheid, and the failures and hypocrisy of the United Nations, as so powerfully set out in his song. I made the oppressors look like rats because that's their mentality. Fela was very brave and strong and audacious to compose and record such a direct attack on both the local and global establishments. Expanding on the lyrics, I portrayed the oppressors with animal horns and fangs. This is no child's play, it is activist art, and it has got to be bold and in your face.

"Vivid details such as the slavering vampires of Thatcher, Botha, Reagan and Mobutu cram the frame with juicy satire. The quote used on the top left of the cover is from a speech by Botha, and among my beasts are Generals Buhari and Idiagbon, the men responsible for Fela's 1984 jail stint. The images on Beasts Of No Nation seethe with primal urges like greed, control, vengeance—and the spirit of popular defiance, embodied in the exuberant demonstrators waving a placard with a line from the song, 'Human Rights Is Our Property.' They shake their fists at the establishment, as represented by two rodents in robes of Church and State. The demonstrators wear Black Power sunglasses, their pink tracksuits pulsate with pastel clarity against the sombre palette of their enemies. Fela's costume is the same exuberant pink, and their gestures are echoed in his triumphant Black Power salute, as he faces them across the frame, while the offending judge cowers at his feet.

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