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Fela: Music Is Still the Weapon

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A thousand Nigerian soldiers surrounded the Kalakuta Republic on February 18, 1977 and burned it to the ground.

As republics go, Kalakuta wasn't very large. Only 100 or so people lived there. But the immensely popular musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had created this compound, in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, as a joyful and democratic space in an otherwise corrupt and dictatorial country. The sovereignty of Fela's republic was always under threat. And even though the invaders threw his mother from the second floor on that day in 1977, and even though the soldiers cracked his skull, and even though the government jailed him for trying to defend himself, Fela continued to fight back. He used his Afrobeat music and biting lyrics as his weapon.

"Too much sweets will give you rotten teeth," Fela declares in the new musical that recreates Kalakuta on Broadway. "Too much Nigeria will give you broken heads, burned houses, dead students." Fela had about as much of Nigeria as any one person can handle, yet he remained powerfully attracted to the country that his mother had devoted so much of her life to liberating from colonial rule. He put out more than 70 records, toured the world, and shared the stage with other famous musicians. But he always came back to Nigeria, where he hoped one day to become president.

The Broadway show, which is a powerful cocktail of music and dance and politics, doesn't provide much detail about the rotten state of Nigeria. It is, after all, a musical. And Fela's songs, though sharp and critical, tend toward general, even allegorical, indictments. The song "Zombie," for instance, doesn't mention Nigerian soldiers by name but rather critiques their well-known reputation to follow whatever orders they are given. Fela's protests are multi-barbed, and can be easily applied at home and abroad. At one point in the Broadway show, during the song "International Thief Thief," dancers hold up signs accusing not only villains of the Nigerian drama like Shell, but also more universal targets like Halliburton and the International Monetary Fund.

Given the squalor of Nigeria, it's hard to believe that the country is now the world's eighth-largest exporter of oil. "Nigeria earned more than $400 billion from oil in recent decades," writes Peter Maass in his new book Crude World, "yet nine out of 10 citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday. Its per-capita GDP is one-fifth of South Africa's." This comparison is particularly painful, and explains Fela's comment in the excellent documentary Fela: Music Is the Weapon that even then, during the apartheid era, "the situation here is worse than in South Africa."

There were actually two Kalakuta Republics. Fela got the name for his little Monaco of music from the time he spent in prison, when he discovered that the prisoners nicknamed his jail the "Kalakuta Republic." In Swahili, "kalakuta" means "rascal." As Fela explains, "If rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be 'rascally' with them."

The Nigerian poet Chris Abani also uses music as a weapon: the music of poetry. His collection of poems, entitled Kalakuta Republic -- named for the prison where he too spent so many days -- includes the powerful "Ode to Joy," about a young boy of 14 whom the police torture to death when he refuses to finger an innocent man. The poem concludes:

an act insignificant
in the face of this child's courage
we sang:

Oje wai wai,
Moje oje wai, wai.

Incensed
they went
on a
killing rampage

guns
knives
truncheons

even canisters of tear-gas,
fired close up or
directly into mouths, will
take the back
of
your head off
and many men
died singing,
that night.

Notes caught,
surprised,
suspended
as blows bloodied mouths
clotting into silence.

Chris Abani headlined the Split This Rock poetry festival last week here in Washington, DC. It was a mighty gathering of word-warriors from around the world. The festival began during the drear days of the Bush administration, a group of the most tone-deaf, word-challenged, and brutish politicians as we've ever had to endure in this country. We live in more enlightened times, perhaps, when the "Black President" that Fela sang about has come to occupy the White House. But we continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. We continue to enrich the Pentagon beyond its most extravagant dreams. And we continue to freeze all other government endeavors because of our deficit (of imagination).

For a few days, however, the poets of Split This Rock created their own Kalakuta Republic here in Washington: a refuge for those who believe that art can transform our world. It is, for the moment at least, a republic as small as Fela's was. The United States "continues to turn up individuals making works of art," writes essayist Lewis Lapham in TomDispatch, "but they traffic in a medium of exchange on which the society doesn't place a high priority." Still, the sounds and the words produced in Fela's Kalakuta continue to resonate in our own republic of letters -- on Broadway, in Chris Abani's poetry, and in political music from Springsteen to M.I.A.

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