Felabration: Failing to put Fela's house in order

THE PUNCH Newspaper

Were he alive, late Afro beat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, would have clocked 72 today. The unrepentant apostate and musical warrior lost the battle of life to AIDS on August 2, 1997. He was 58.

For the past four years, Fela’s family members, associates and apostles, have been holding his memories and legacies aloft through the annual, week-long Felabration. This year’s Felabration began Monday, October 11, with a seminar at the New Afrika Shrine, Lagos, with speakers drawn from the academia, law and civil society.

Fela was typically extolled for using his music as a potent weapon to fight injustice, military tyranny and oppression while also advocating for a better Nigeria, nay Africa, all of which are gradually becoming a cliché. Subsequent days were dedicated to symposia, musical performances and quiz on the iconoclast. But that is not even the story.

Today is the grand finale of Felabration and a stellar line up of Nigerian and foreign artistes would converge on the Shrine to celebrate Fela’s birthday with heart-thumping music, bringing this year’s festival to a climactic denouement. However, as Felabration 2010 ends, the organisers once again overlooked something significant and which should ordinarily be an integral part of the festival: Fela’s House.

In saner climes, the homes of legendary artistes are enduring, veritable tourist sites earning sizeable revenues for the family, council and state and federal governments. Though American rock and roll star, Elvis Presley, died in 1977, his home in Memphis, Tennessee, USA, aptly named Graceland, has been a major income earner and significant contributor to the State’s 10 percent tourism revenue since it was opened to the public in 1982. In 2009 alone, Graceland played host to an approximate 600, 000 people, generating $36.124m, which was a 1.6 per cent drop to the $36.713m it earned in 2008.

Presley died at the age of 42 in the prime of his career, yet, his estate continues to generate millions of dollars. Similarly, Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in South Warwickshire, England, survives majorly on tourism because it is the birthplace of playwright and poet, Williams Shakespeare. Over 400 years after his death, the town still earns millions of pounds from tourism while meaningfully engaging its youth workforce, thanks to the impact Shakespeare made on global literature. Fela made almost as much impact in music but he was, perhaps, unfortunate to be a Nigerian, a country that seems to have scant regard for her talents, alive or dead.

Fela’s house is located in Gbemisola Street, a less boisterous part of Ikeja, hitherto with poplar-lined roads. As a kid growing up in the neighbourhood, Fela’s all-white, two-storey house had a ringing aura and halo of reverence around it back then. It was not the most magnificent around but the fact that Fela, warts and all, lived there made it the most popular then. Generous and avuncular, he operated an open-door policy which helped to ensure that the house buoyed and bubbled round the clock with a constant stream of guests.

Over the years, a lot has changed about Gbemisola Street. Its roads have become narrower; the trees mowed down to give way to new buildings while old ones have been renovated to meet contemporary standards. Fela’s house still remains. It is what remains of the house that now gives cause for concern. Standing in its derelict splendour, Fela’s house and final resting place has lost colour; the painting is chipped and the walls are cracked. It no longer occasions a second glance and if it did, it is that of pity and regret.

One of Africa’s most exportable music brands, Fela has been overlooked by successive Nigerian governments in the honours’ list while some people with less than commendable repertory are national honourees. The best Fela got from his dear country was mindless incarceration and harassment and a fatal raid on his Kalakuta home in 1977 resulting in his mother, the late woman activist, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti being thrown from a storey house to the ground floor by ‘Unknown Soldiers”. Her leg was broken. And she never recovered from the shock of that ordeal.

But what Nigeria fails to do for her son, Americans are tripping over themselves to do. Like a prophet without honour in his home, Fela was literally brought back to life in faraway America in a Broadway play, Fela! with production backing by American music stars, Jay Z and Will Smith and his wife, Jada. A roaring success since its debut, Fela! earned 11 Tony nominations last May. There are talks about a major Hollywood movie on him in due course.

The truth however is that no matter how America tries to promote Fela in death, they can never equate him with their own Michael Jackson or James Brown or Presley. Fela is Nigerian. That is why it is a pity that a festival of the magnitude of Felabration was held without one of the days being devoted to taking a guided tour of Fela’s house, the inner sanctuary where he communed with his muse, essentially because the family failed in its duty to do the expedient, to put the house in order.

Femi and Seun are widely travelled musicians and they see how things are done abroad, how stars are immortalised, with immense benefits accruing to the family and state. Yet, they fail to replicate same here, preferring to blame the government and the corporate sector for not supporting their father enough. Have they put their house in order?

Was it not just last year that Seun started appearing at Felabration which was more like a Yeni and Femi affair? How about the other Fela kids? They are obviously not interested in what becomes of their father’s legacy. Or, perhaps, they are too busy to bother.

The Fela family needs to present a formidable front before expecting any backing from the corporate sector or a slumbering government. Only this way would Felabration attract the kind of attention and patronage it deserves.


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