Fela’s Marriage to Twenty-Seven Women was a Noble Act – Oscar-winner Alex Gibney

Irish Premiere of Finding Fela, the new documentary, which is really about trying to uncover who this guy [Fela Anikulapo Kuti] was and why he’s so important.Irish Premiere of Finding Fela, the new documentary the Afrobeats king.

The Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney has described Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s marriage to twenty-seven women at once as a noble act, done to ennoble, legitimize and make respectable the women around him, who were being denigrated as whores and never-do-wells.

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According to Gibney, “He was wildly criticised for all these beautiful women who were just hanging out at the Kalakuta Republic, they were being denigrated as whores and never-do-wells. He (Fela) then said: ‘You said all these women are not respectable? Fine, I’ll make them respectable; I’ll marry all of them’.”

The American documentary film director and producer goes further to say that apart from the marriage showing Fela’s noble side, the act itself was also a political protest. “I think he was playing the role of a rock star, just getting laid every night with as many women as possible, but at the same time, there was an element in what he was doing which had a kind of political protest about him.”

The producer of The Armstrong Lie, a 2013 documentary film about the cyclist Lance Armstrong, was speaking on The Tom Dunne Show, an Irish radio programme, to promote the Irish Premiere of Finding Fela, the new documentary, “which is really about trying to uncover who this guy [Fela Anikulapo Kuti] was and why he’s so important.” It was shown in the Sugar Club Dublin on Saturday, 6 September 2014. Below is the full interview by Tom Dunne.

In reading about this man, he’s led an unbelievable life. People said of him that most of the world doesn’t really know who he was, and even those who knew him quite well would ask the question, was he a saint or crazy man? He was from Nigeria, but he was from quite a privileged background, wasn’t he?
He was from quite a very prominent family in Nigeria. His mother was a very active political figure. His father was a very important educator. His music came to be about the oppressed and would attack figures in power. But he was from quite a powerful family himself.

Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney
Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney

When he went to London to study, he was really going there to become a doctor?
Well, that’s what he told his parents. But it was quite clear, his brother said, there was no way he was going to be a doctor. Just forget about him. So he started to study music. And even in his musical studies we saw his report card where he failed a number of courses. But what he did get from that trip to London was hanged out in lots of London clubs. And he really started to absorb jazz in a very big and important way. So when he returned to Lagos from London he was on fire musically.

When he went back to Lagos, this was when he soaked up African influences as well. This is really the origin of the Afrobeats, he invented that sound?
That’s right. Around that time, Afrobeats was a mix of some African indigenous influences, some African power rhythms, ultimately James Brown played an important role in this, but also there was a music in Africa called Highlife, which was very influential. But Fela was tilting more towards jazz-oriented direction. So you have all these cross-currents. In a way, what is important for me about the man and how his music is made: his music is made at the intersection of different music, when they all come together and the original artiste takes a little bit from each and form something new, and that was what Fela Kuti was doing.

The next thing that came to this, was his trip to LA (Los Angeles). It was where he started to become kind of more politicised?
It’s true. He was there for the music. He was going to America to show people his music. He was much more African in nature at that point. But he met one very important person, a woman who became his lover. She was introducing him to the Black Panther. She was getting him to read Malcom X. He became politicised, but he also began to hear the kind of driving beats in music and having to meet a guy that at the club he was playing, who introduced him to another idea which was Kiss. Fela said to him, what do you mean by kiss, to kiss somebody? He said to him no, no: Keep It Simple Stupid. It means you simplify your music and then you can create something very powerful because people will respond to it and Fela really learnt that lesson. So he goes back to Lagos politicised, determined to make his music about something but much more with a more popular bent.

Fela with his familyFela with his family after being released from prison

And this was where it all kicked off really, where he became very popular, but also the centre of attention from the government, which was extremely brutal?
It was at an extremely brutal dictatorship, probably borne out of the corruption that was engendered by the discovery of fantastic amount of oil reserve in Nigeria, and that money led to both bit of repression and deep corruption. And Fela started going after them, forthrightly and with no apologies. Even as he was becoming a kind of wild counter cultural rock star. He established what he called his own republic, which did not go down well with the administration there, called Kalakuta. It was a kind of commune where, in and out, wild sex and smoking big joints, they were more like megaphones; they were so big. So he was playing the role of a rock star, but an extremely politicised one, writing songs about the troops as the Zombie, which basically cast the government’s troop as unthinking stupid zombies, and that did not go down well and ultimately the government raided Kalakuta, burnt it to the ground and threw his mother off the second storey. Her injuries from that ultimately resulted in her death. And that led to a turn in Fela’s story.

A turn in which way, becoming more serious to it or more dedicated to it?
You will think that at that point he would have backed off. But, as his drummer Tony Allen said in the film, he became double what he was before. But I think he became a little bit unhinged. He went after the government even harder. He presented his mother’s coffin to the administration and wrote a song about it. He really took them on hard. But I think personally he became hunted by the death of his mother. I think he felt somewhat responsible for it. He seek out African kind of spiritualism to see if he could recapture, connect with her spirit. From this period on, he became more politically angry and active, but also a little bit unhinged.

Was it this time he married twenty-seven women?
It was around that time he married twenty seven women. He was wildly criticised for all these beautiful women who were just hanging out at the Kalakuta Republic. They were being denigrated as whores and never-do-wells. A lot of them were poor. They just wondered into his commune. He said, “Well fine, I’ll make them respectable; I’ll marry all of them.” He was already married anyway, but he had a ceremony where he married all the twenty-seven women at once. And that began with a process that every night was a kind of competition to see who will sleep with Fela.

I’m confused to say whether I should see the noble side of this that he is making them all legitimate in a way, or the other side of it, which was, it was like a beauty competition for Fela?
I think the legacy there is ambiguous; it is both. I have a political science professor who once told me to embrace the contradiction. I think with Fela you have to embrace the contradiction. He was a complicated character. He was misogynistic. I think he was playing the role of a rock star, just getting laid every night with as many women as possible. But at the same time, there was an element in what he was doing which had a kind of political protest about him. You said all these women are not respectable, I will make them respectable. He was both.

In the face of the government he was dealing with, he was either incredibly brave or stupid?
I think he was incredibly brave. I don’t think he was stupid. He was very brave. He was just determined to go after them. He felt that he was a character who had a voice and indeed he had. His songs were very popular, but more than that he used to play music in a place called The Shrine, so called because he had photos in one corner of all his heroes whom he kind of worship. But it was also a place where he held court about political issues of the day. And a lot of young people would show up at the concert and they hear the music, enjoy the music but they also show up for his “Yabis,” which was his kind of talking from the stage about what was going on in Nigeria and how people needed to resist the powerful corruption that was going on around them. So it was a very potent political force. I think he was unbelievably courageous in terms of going after them.

People often refer him to Bob Marley, but Marley was much easier to relate with?
He was easier to relate with in a way because Reggae moves with and fits the pop paradigm. I think that was one reason. Marley also became quite political, but he did so in a mellowed way. But Fela was more intense. His music was more complicated, much longer songs. Fela Kuti’s songs start with about five minutes of introduction and then when you think the song is ending that’s when the vocals begin. So it is a little tougher to get hold of him. He didn’t become a kind of globally popular figure that Marley was, but in Africa he was certainly a very potent force. Musically, he began to be appreciated by a lot of people. Paul McCartney talks in the film about going to the shrine and weeping, tears of joy. He was so overcome by his music. So he had a pretty big impact, but he wasn’t a kind of international superstar that Marley was. He was a magnetic performer, a fantastic character and his music is still unbelievably potent.

  • Interview was transcribed by Peter Anny-Nzekwue

Unseen video: Fela Anikulapo Kuti Worshiping at the Afrikan Shrine, Radio Shrine ( GanGan), and Yabbis 1987

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