Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Titles and Honorfics: Mr. Follow Follow

Fela & Afrika 70: Mr. Follow Follow

Last year, I mused about the general lack of protest music, in the vein of CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” despite the myriad reasons to be protesting. But one thing is for certain, these days, making protest music is, for the most part, not dangerous. (Although with a president who advocates violence against journalists and other opponents, vigilance is necessary.) Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” which protested issues including gun violence, racism and discrimination, won all sorts of awards, including the Grammys for Record and Song of the Year (yes, they are different), as well as Best Music Video. Gary Clark, Jr.’s new song, the searing “This Land,” protests racism and the president, and he got to perform the song on Saturday Night Live.

Things were very different, though, for Fela Kuti in his native Nigeria in the 1970s. Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer, known by the honorific “Black President,” was also a political activist, and he paid significantly for this activism. In 1970, after returning to Nigeria after stints in Ghana and the United States, Fela created the “Kalakuta Republic,” a commune where he lived, recorded and provided refuge for many who opposed the oppressive military junta that ruled the country with an iron fist. He and his band, Afrika 70, released albums that protested the government, which the people loved, but, not surprisingly, the junta hated, leading to raids on the compound.

In 1977, Fela released Zombie, initially containing just two, 12 minute plus songs. “Zombie” called for the people to rise up and oppose the military zombies that oppressed them. It swept the nation, and has become one of his most famous songs, not only because of its message, but because of its incredibly infectious beat. The second song was “Mr. Follow Follow,” in which he warns about blindly following, and if following is necessary, to do so with eyes wide open. It is less catchy than “Zombie,” but is sinuous and foreboding.

In response to this album, the Nigerian government attacked the Kalakuta Republic. Fela was beaten, almost to death. His elderly mother was thrown from a window, and killed. His wives, and other women, were beaten, raped and mutilated. Men had their testicles beaten with rifle butts. The buildings were burned, and Kuti's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. The medical clinic run by Fela’s brother, Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti (who was severely beaten in the attack), was burned.

Journalists who arrived on the scene to report on the attack were themselves set upon by the troops, as were any inquisitive passers-by. In response, Fela delivered his mother’s coffin to the residence of the junta’s leader, and wrote two songs, both of which could theoretically fit this theme, too: “Coffin For Head Of State” and “Unknown Soldier,” mocking the government’s claim that the compound had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.

Ultimately, Fela tried to run for president, but was refused a spot on the ballot, was jailed on a pretext, continued to release music, continued to be politically active, was jailed on suspicion of murder, and died, in 1993, supposedly from complications relating to AIDS, which is disputed.

Like many Americans I was introduced to the music of Fela when the musical, Fela! was on Broadway. My family and I saw it, and it was amazing.

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