A lot has happened since 1986. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s now 2012 and time doesn’t lie: 1986 was indeed 26 years ago. Like many others who were young boys in 1986, one of the most vivid memories I have from that year was the sheer horror of witnessing Optimus Prime die in the animated Transformers: The Movie. (That’s no spoiler, everyone knows what happened. Support groups exist for people who claimed it destroyed their childhood.)
In my juvenile world, that was the epitome of suffering. When you’re young, insignificant things seem to be of the utmost importance. Insignificant things like the death of a giant truck that transforms into a valiant robot with a heart of gold, a valiant robot whose sole purpose is protecting earth and humans from an evil robot known as Megatron. Megatron is the leader of a motley crew of evil robots known as Decepticons, while Optimus Prime led the good faction of robots known as the Autobots. That was the world I lived in around 1986.
Thankfully, 26 years later as a man in his 30s, my world doesn’t revolve around the warfare of transforming robots. Around the same time, there were far more important things happening in Nigeria. In 1986, Nigeria was under military rule with Ibrahim Babangida as the President. Babangida seized power the year before in a military coup that overthrew the then sitting military ruler, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Ironically, Buhari himself came into power in a military coup that overthrew Shehu Shagari, Nigeria’s civilian President, and Babangida was the Chief of Army Staff in the Buhari administration.
Buhari was widely known for human rights violations and silencing his critics. He ruled with an iron fist. He limited the freedom of the press, outlawed strikes and protests by workers, and created a secret police force known as the NSO (National Security Organization). He was able to keep tabs on his critics and vocal opponents through the NSO. He routinely imprisoned critics without charges. One outspoken Buhari critic was Fela Kuti.
The Buhari administration sentenced Fela to 10 years in prison on a drummed up charge of currency smuggling in 1984. Amnesty International denounced the charges as fabricated and politically motivated. There were calls for his immediate release by human rights groups both domestically and internationally. Fela was eventually pardoned and released in April 1986 by Babangida, after serving 20 months in prison.
A mere two months after his release from prison, Fela made his triumphant return to the stage as part of the Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope concert in Giants Stadium, New Jersey. Several months later, Fela and his Egypt 80 band were headlining their own tour, and one leg of the tour saw them performing at the Fox Theater in Detroit, November 1986. The performance of this concert comprises the new release by Knitting Factory and Strut titled Live In Detroit, 1986. This release is important because it’s the first new Fela Kuti material to be issued since his final studio album Underground System in 1992.
What we have here is Fela in classic Fela form. He’s a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit coarser, but he is still the critical firebrand that pulls no punches, and tells it like it is, and this is why we love him. The four tracks featured are Just Like That, Confusion Break Bones, Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense and Beasts of No Nation, with the shortest song in the set being Just Like That, which clocks in at a little less than 30 minutes.
The audio engineer of the concert, Bob Teagan, claimed the '86 Fox Theater show to be Fela's best performance. He said "It was like seeing Bob Marley, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown all rolled into one. Fela captured the revolution of Marley, the love of Marvin Gaye, he sung with a rare and exquisite charcoal voice like Sinatra but he would scream himself out and go hoarse by the end of the three hour marathon show. All the while he danced like Michael Jackson or a ballerina, and captivated the crowd with the showmanship of James Brown.” While I’m not quite sure about the Frank Sinatra comparison, Mr. Teagan clearly means well. I understand what he’s trying to say.
This set showcases the return of one of the most brilliant and bravest voices that ever graced the performance stage. He wanted to make the lives of Nigerians and all Africans better by criticizing the people that made it worse. For this, he was a target by the powers that be. He paid the price dearly with prison sentences, beatings, many raids and the destruction of his compound, and even the death of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who succumbed to the injuries she endured after being thrown out of a window during a raid of Fela’s compound by the Nigerian Army. Following her death, Fela wrote Coffin For Head of State.
Let’s not just look back in hindsight at the critical words in Fela’s music. It’s not 1986 anymore, that is certain. Transforming robots aren’t ruling my life, and Nigeria is not under military dictatorship, but despite this, everything Fela sang about is still relevant today. Where do we go from here? Why is the corruption, inept governing, pillaging of resources by foreign multi-national corporations, and human rights violations still a problem in Nigeria when we aren’t under military juntas anymore? These are all questions that remain unanswered, and we can certainly speculate about why things seem to be regressing, but ultimately it all boils down to what Nigerians are willing to accept.
With the Occupy Nigeria movement, I’m pleased to see a new generation of Nigerians standing up for themselves and their country, and speaking out against horrible leadership. The deferential attitude of the previous generation is why many Nigerian politicians feel they are beyond reproach. Why wouldn’t they feel that way? They’ve been getting away with it for decades. Not surprisingly, two of the loudest voices in the Occupy Nigeria movement are Fela’s sons, Seun and Femi Kuti. Opposition of corruption is what Fela championed, and his offspring are carrying the torch. He would be proud of them, Nigeria certainly is.
Do I really need to recommend that you pick up the first new Fela material released in two decades? That goes without saying. I’m sure most of you already have it. It’s currently available as a double CD, 4 LP gatefold set and iTunes digital. Pick your poison.