Finding Fela!, a new documentary chronicling the life of Fela Kuti, as well as the production of the renowned Broadway play, offers a glaring depiction of Kuti the talented musician and, more importantly, Kuti the revolutionary. Combining behind-the-scenes footage of the Broadway production, concert film, interviews with family members and friends, and interviews with the legend himself, Finding Fela! describes the social, political, and personal circumstances that gave rise to such a controversial figure.
And as the face-off between civilians and militarized police forces continues in Ferguson, MO, his story is one that both police and protesters can learn from.
The documentary highlights the musician who gained global prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, heading the bands Africa 70 and Egypt 80. Known for long songs (20 minutes or more), raunchy dance movies, and his biting lyrics, Kuti drew inspiration from his activist parents, and from leaders at the forefront of black nationalism and pop culture: Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, and James Brown. The book Black Man of the Nile was akin to the Bible for Kuti and his bandmates, who saw music as a tool to educate Africans about their history, removed from European narratives. He was a progressive voice who openly decried dictatorship, corruption, and human rights abuses characteristic of the Nigerian government.
He was also an enemy of Nigerian law enforcement, a main focal point of Finding Fela!. A pertinent example discussed in the movie, Kuti’s song Zombie parallels the scene we see in Ferguson today. In it he describes Nigeria’s military men as “stooges” who mindlessly follow any command they’re given. Portraying them as goosestepping goons, the song effectively compared Nigerian forces to Hitler and Mussolini. Though it was not broadcast nationally, Kuti’s supporters played the songs in their homes across Lagos, giving Kuti’s message legitimacy. After the song came out, we learn in the movie, the military burned down Kuti’s compound and brutally beat his loved ones in 1977. Prior to the raid and the song’s release, Kuti declared that the compound was a different country from Nigeria, symbolic of his revolutionary ideology. For Kuti, the compound’s destruction was a transformative encounter that added fuel to his fire.
But the incident also shed light on an important facet of Kuti’s story: even though he was routinely jailed and beaten by police, his music always stuck to the same narrative. The man was always consistent. In addition to Kuti’s unique ability to make socially conscious songs sexy and danceable, his lyrics always spoke to systemic woes, and called for revolutionary change. In his words, “music [had] to be for revolution,” a principle he lived by until his last breath.
For nine days in a row, Ferguson residents and allies from out of town have taken to the streets in a fit of rage against law enforcement and systemic injustice. But among those on the streets, there is tension between rioters and peaceful protesters, making the situation between police and protesters more precarious, and media coverage convoluted. If Kuti teaches us anything, it’s that successful dissent requires consistency of message; it’s the ingredient needed to galvanize people and keep the conversation about social and political issues productive.
On the other hand, police officers in the midst of the Ferguson standoff can also learn from Kuti’s interactions with law enforcement: people who are completely fed up with injustice cannot be silenced.
“I want to show them, if they think I’m going to change or compromise…they’re making me stronger,” Kuti says on video, after the military raided his home. During the raid, his mother and personal hero, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second story window, and later died from complications from the fall. In spite of his grief, Kuti actually walked her coffin to the military barracks in a show of defiance. It was a move that symbolized his resilience, and captures the same sentiments we’ve seen from Ferguson protesters. In Missouri, throwing tear gas and launching a smear campaign to turn Mike Brown into a villain will only fuel demonstrators’ fire. As we’ve seen over the past several nights, the militarization of police forces to quell dissent is more counterproductive than effective — and something protesters will not take lightly.
Bringing his story full-circle, Kuti’s body of work — which drew heavily from black discourse in America — can be turned back around and applied to contemporary race issues in the U.S. It can inform both the people fighting for racial justice in the U.S., and those perceived as standing in the way of progress.
But Finding Fela! also refuses to shy away from Kuti’s darker side, making his story profoundly human — and entertaining. Fusing facts about his life with a killer soundtrack, stunning visuals from the Broadway production, and Questlove commentary, the documentary captures the complexities of a man whose legacy is timelier than ever.
*All quotes are taken directly from the documentary.