03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Kanye West Could Never Be Fela Kuti

While Kanye West's admitted disdain for books is well known, I reflected on his recent comments while at the Eugene O'Neill Theater watching Fela!, the Bill T Jones production based on the life of Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti. Last year I was blown away by the off-Broadway performance, and while some of the themes were toned down -- "made for Broadway" -- this is still an experience I'd recommend to anyone, and demand of my friends. Along with Passing Strange, Fela! offers one hope that Broadway still presents politically, socially, and spiritually progressive theater void of the Disneyfied clichés trademark to the industry.

I remember sitting at 37 Arts during the heat of the presidential election over a year ago, with Fela's double fisted cry for becoming the "black president" of Nigeria via his self-created MOP (Movement of the People) party resonated with an American audience thirsty for the same. That line did not get as much excitement this time around, partly because time calms enthusiasm, partly due to the fact that in this more public context, Broadway, many were just being introduced to this man. "Black President" was thematic throughout Fela's career, and while the reigning political parties shut him numerously -- he appeared in court over 200 times in his life--he never stopped labeling himself as king.

A pivotal scene in the performance occurred when Fela lived in America for ten months in the late '60s. This is after medical school in London (the only way he could trick his parents into sending him abroad to study music), while Fela was still under the spell of the "other," in this context meaning foreign cultures being viewed as utopias by the foreign eye. It was African-Americans that really inspired Fela to return to his homeland to rage the political battle, as he felt his peers had been too complacent in dealing with the government in Lagos. One-quarter of Africans live in Nigeria, and the country isn't that large. Fela had assumed the general apathetic outlook; after reading numerous books and talking with Americans, his path was set.

This is represented in a great dance scene, with his Queens marching around Fela, handing him books by Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and his personal hero, Malcolm X (political hero; his musical god was James Brown). While residing in Los Angeles, he read the man's autobiography over and over (as told to Alex Haley), later including him among the Orishas on his altar in his now-mythic club, the Shrine. This brief homage to the written word worked wonderfully: Fela carrying a stack of books, the Queens and male dancers performing a magnificent number while flipping pages, learning, sharing, communing, uniting, with the rhythm of "Originality/Yellow Fever" keeping the audience bouncing along to the beat.

Funnily enough, I did not notice Kanye's new book, Thank You and You're Welcome, in that bunch. Somehow the 52-page collection of "Kanye-isms" just didn't match up to X's illuminating life history. In Kanye's words:

"Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life."

That books cannot autograph anything -- authors do -- should not surprise us coming from a man who could not even write 52 pages himself; his co-writer (read: writer) did. To be fair, I know plenty of people who do not read books. As a writer of them, it's disheartening, but there are forms of both entertainment and education that I do not partake in. My friends do not, however, write books and then make a mockery of people who do so for a living. As any writer worth his or her weight will tell you, writing is an occupation, true, but that is not what drives them. A writer writes because there is no other choice. One could also say the same of a music producer, but when said producer merely recycles the same beat and style over the span of his "career," it gets difficult to distinguish where the art is. In writing, we call that recycling, and in this case that does not denote something worthwhile. It is, unfortunately, something that makes money for the recyclers, thus making it a popular pastime.

Which is why Jones's retelling of Fela's life is so refreshing, the way he and co-writer (read: actual co-writer) Jim Lewis portray how the lyrics of this Afrobeat star pull directly from his life, one filled with turmoil and despair--"real life," we can call it. Lesser man would have collapsed. Fela never wavered, even after his mother, Funmilayo (played by Lillias White), is murdered by the Nigerian government, even after many of his Queens were raped and tortured in his home compound, the Kalakuta Republic.

Given the rigorous nature of the performance, for the Broadway run, Fela is played by two men. For the show I attended, it was Kevin Mambo; previously, I watched Sahr Ngaujah. A recent New Yorker article, "Talk This Way," peers in on the career of dialect coach Tim Monich, who has worked with hundreds of actors over the past two decades, teaching them (or as Munich might say, letting them teach themselves) about regional tongues. Monich points out how important it is for an actor to learn how to speak local dialects for their career. Mambo wears the role of Fela like a fitted suit; Ngaujah wore it like skin. After the show, you leave thinking of Mambo, "he played the role of Fela very well." My thought after seeing Ngaujah was, "that was Fela." To his credit, Mambo is very new to this role, and I could only imagine he may make the transition from suit to skin over time.

Returning home from Broadway, I watched Music is the Weapon, the 1982 documentary shot in the Kalakuta Republic. Jones captured the imagery from the time brilliantly. Being a staged production, his dancers blew away anything you'd see in Lagos thirty years ago. His dancers glistened, each muscularly defined and rhythmically astute, making it a visual feast as much as oral narrative. The two main female singers--White playing Fela's mother, who struck the theater silent with her rendition of "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am" as well as a new song, "Rain," and Sandra (Saycon Sengbloh) countering Fela on "Water No Get Enemy"--were endearing and intimate, and Ismael Kouyate's treatment of traditional African melodies was heartbreaking. As with the original, the Brooklyn-based band Antibalas (well, mostly Antibalas; some musicians were added), who most would argue single-handedly started the resurgence of Fela's music in America, played the music live. Top moments: "Zombie," "Water No Get Enemy," Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am," "Sorrow Tears and Blood," and "Coffin For Head of State."

That said, the only disappointments in the transition off and onto Broadway involved the toning down of certain political issues, and the atmosphere that created these issues. The show was made more palatable for Broadway audiences, which inevitably includes Midwesterners that happened to pick up a brochure in Times Square. Fela married 27 Queens (his dancers and many loves) in one ceremony. The off-Broadway production was true to that; this one counted only nine, and briefly glossed the fact. The invasion of the Republic was toned down, as was the psychedelic scene when Fela communes with the Orishas. As a friend, a man much more knowledgeable of theater than myself (and with a much better memory), commented, the dancing was "less modern" and more "neo-African." Recalling the fact, I whole-heartedly agree, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Just a little less imaginative. Given that the show is still in previews, things could change before the actual opening date.

The biggest problem with such a toning down is that it takes the audience out of the real and into fantasy. The imagination is already largely at play with the production's spectacular lighting effects and theatrical performance. It also removes us in time and space. True, there are moments that ground us in modern day America: the notion of the black president; one of the many coffins decorating the stage written out to "Sean Bell"; AIG being included with WTO and IMF and other organizations accountable for the Nigerian code for fraud, 419. A few months ago, however, the Shrine in Lagos was shut down yet again by the government, thanks to Fela's son, Femi, speaking out against poverty and the lack of assistance in the very space his father made his pulpit until his death of AIDS in 1997. Sometimes hinting at problems is not the same as actually addressing them. Jones did a wonderful job at knocking the audience out off-Broadway. Here, he jabs hard, without the right hook. Again, the fact that he's able to do so on Broadway makes the experience worthwhile for everyone, if nothing more than to expose a new audience to one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century.