At a one-off appearance at Lincoln Center last August, Mark Stewart (known as Stew), the star and co-author of the autobiographical musical Passing Strange, confronted what the title of that evening’s performance had billed as "The Broadway Problem." Fortified by a horn section and guest vocalists, Stew and band led a pointed tour through musical theater’s representations of African-Americans and their musical traditions, ranging from new rock-funk settings of DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin’s Gullah-dialect lyrics for Porgy and Bess to damningly faithful renditions of songs from Hair ("Black Boys") and David Yazbek’s 2000 adaptation of The Full Monty ("Big Black Man"), that trade on crude stereotypes about "raw" black male sexuality. (By contrast, the set also included a lively but respectful take on pioneering black vaudevillian Bert Williams’s signature number, "Nobody.") Between songs, Stew mused on the success of the recently closed Passing Strange. The show placed "black people on Broadway," he emphasized, and after waiting a beat he added, in a sardonic falsetto, "for a minute!"
Leaving aside the remark’s ungraciousness—Passing Strange managed a respectable five-month Broadway run, earning Drama Desk and Tony awards along the way—Stew’s bitterness warrants neither full agreement nor an outright apologia. Whatever their creators’ intentions, everything from Porgy and Bess and Cabin in the Sky to Dreamgirls might be dismissed as white appropriations of black speech and song, and shows based in gospel (Your Arms Too Short to Box With God) or jazz (Ain’t Misbehavin’) as safe revivals of once-vital vernacular styles. Musicals about black life that fit neither of these categories have been rare and often short-lived (Purlie, inspired by a book of Ossie Davis’s; Langston Hughes’s Simply Heavenly), and while mixed-race and even colorblind casting are now common, many contemporary shows seem most interested in their black performers as vehicles for superhuman feats of vocal expressiveness. In 2006 Martin Short’s not-quite-one-man Fame Becomes Me parodied the cliché of the soul- or gospel-styled "eleven o’clock number" in a song by Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman: "A Big Black Lady Stops the Show."
In some respects Fela!, a musical biography of the Nigerian bandleader, political dissident and anti-establishment icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti, mines this tradition. Notably, it finds time for "Rain," a thunderous second-act showcase number for the ghost of the hero’s mother, composed by the show’s musical director, Aaron Johnson, and trumpeter Jordan MacLean. But otherwise the show tells Fela’s story through his own music, and although its setting and protagonist are African, not African-American, it lacks for representation of neither. A focus of its first act is the crucial influence on Fela of a 1968-69 sojourn in Los Angeles, where he encountered Black Power politics and its accompanying soundtrack of funk and modal jazz. There are no speaking parts for white characters in the show; the demanding lead role is played at alternate performances by Sahr Ngaujah, a Sierra Leonean, and Kevin Mambo, a Canadian of Zimbabwean descent. The production’s only nonblack faces are found among its musicians, drawn from Antibalas, New York’s foremost exponents of Afrobeat, the musical style Fela invented and named. The multiracial band remains onstage for most of the show, not precisely "acting" but interacting with its protagonist and, functionally, portraying Afrika 70, Fela’s most celebrated ensemble.
Directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Fela!, whose Broadway run began in November at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, appears poised to last longer than a minute. Even Stew might be heartened by the show’s reception, given the relatively limited concessions the show’s creators have made to the large segment of its potential audience more attuned to Stephen Sondheim’s wit or Stephen Schwartz’s shmaltz. Many lyrics are sung in the mix of Yoruba, nonstandard English and Lagos street slang that is as characteristic of Fela’s sound as its hocketed horn lines and interlocking guitar figures. (Some translated lyrics, and those to "Rain," are by Jim Lewis, Jones’s co-writer.) The show begins in medias res, with the band working through a groove-in-progress as the audience finds its seats; the overarching conceit is that we have walked into one of Fela’s regular appearances at The Shrine, the serially relocated Lagos nightclub at which he held court. We soon learn that the concert is Fela’s first in several months and, he pledges, his last in Nigeria. The setting is summer 1978, some time after a major raid by military police on the Kalakuta Republic, the compound where Fela lived communally with his musicians, dancers and entourage, many of whom were beaten or raped in the attack. His mother, in her late 70s, was thrown from a second-story window, suffering injuries that hastened her death.
The loose show-within-a-show structure allows for extensive flashbacks and a second-act descent into the spirit world so that the protagonist may seek permission from his mother, now an orisha, or ancestor spirit, to pursue a safe and lucrative "world music" career abroad. It also means that no dramatic excuse is required for the ensemble to break into a number, or for Fela to break the fourth wall. (Hedwig and the Angry Inch used much the same format.) On record and especially live, Fela salted his music with yabis—extended spoken rants—about his country and continent’s socio-political ills, illustrated by anecdotes of daily life in Lagos. Fela! follows suit: one of his first addresses to the audience is, "Africans, listen to me as Africans; non-Africans, listen with an open mind." This invocation leads into "Everything Scatter," from 1975, which grounds broad charges ("This country no work") in a bus conductor’s threat to drive his squabbling passengers straight to the police station. (Buses, roads and Lagos’s ubiquitous traffic jams—"go-slows"—were Fela’s favored metonyms for Nigeria’s infrastructural woes.)
It’s a terrific song, and a representative one. Other key numbers—the antimilitaristic "Zombie," the anticorporate "I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)"—are equally well-chosen examples of Fela’s standing themes, and of the sounds that gave them life. That said, Fela! is an awkward attempt to negotiate Broadway convention by balancing propaganda with extravaganza. Extended passages of yansh-shaking by dancers of both sexes (yansh can mean both "bass" and "booty") inevitably raise the specter of the exoticized black body that has haunted the New York stage since Orson Welles’s WPA-era "voodoo Macbeth"—though it should be said that Fela’s actual performances, and the cultural politics underpinning them, could be no less discomfiting. More significant, the show foregrounds the liberatory and populist sides of Fela’s politics while downplaying the tendentious and reactionary aspects of his idiosyncratic brand of pan-Africanism, to say nothing of the dogmatic streak that was as integral to his character and ideas as his genuine concern for his country and its people. That "Africans, listen to me…" introduction, for instance, is drawn from the somewhat later song "Shuffering and Shmiling," which exhorts all Africans to reject both Christianity and Islam in favor of traditional religion. There is little point in simply knocking Jones and his collaborators for their selective approach to Fela’s life and career; without selection and emphasis, biography, musical or otherwise, would not be possible. But recognizing this shouldn’t make us any less uneasy about some of the choices they have made.
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938, in Nigeria’s predominantly Yoruban southwestern region; his hometown of Abeokuta, sixty miles from Lagos, was founded by Egba settlers in 1830. The English half of his surname was that adopted by his paternal grandfather, the Rev. Canon Josiah Ransome-Kuti, whose Christian hymns in the indigenous language were some of the first music by an African to be recorded in England. Fela’s parents, Israel Oludotun and Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas Ransome-Kuti ("Funmilayo"), accepted Anglicanism but chafed at colonial domination in other ways. His father resisted English oversight of the grammar school of which he was principal, while Funmilayo became a champion of African women’s rights. Her political influence peaked in the late 1940s, when demonstrations she organized led to the ouster of Abeokuta’s tax-hungry alake (roughly, a kind of mayor), whose power had swelled with the crown’s backing. Funmilayo’s subsequent attempts to found an opposition party foundered, but she commanded respect from international feminists and socialists, and her activism was a model for her son’s.
Like his two brothers, Fela was sent to London to study medicine, though he probably intended to change his allegiance to music all along. He studied trumpet and composition at Trinity College; his encounters with saxophonist Joe Harriott and other fixtures of the city’s Afro-Caribbean jazz scene were strictly extracurricular. With childhood friend J.K. Braimah, then in London to study law, he formed Koola Lobitos—Spanish for "little wolves" preceded by "cool"-sounding nonsense. Fela returned to Lagos in 1963, on fire to play progressive jazz, but he quickly reoriented toward "highlife," the amalgam of colonial dance-band arrangements and Afro-Cuban and indigenous rhythms that was the dance music of choice for urbane West Africans. (Confusingly, highlife is also the name of a somewhat distinct guitar-based style, one of many under the wider "Afropop" umbrella.) Koola Lobitos’s mid-1960s recordings, recently reissued by Knitting Factory Records, offer early evidence of Fela’s sophistication as a horn arranger but few hints of his future musical and political radicalism. During an era that included the early years of postcolonial government and the stirrings of Nigeria’s costly war of suppression against secessionist Biafra, Fela was content to sing, "It’s highlife time…jump for joy at the swinging club."
Koola Lobitos’s success was modest. Highlife’s popularity among the young was soon challenged by the imported soul of James Brown and Wilson Pickett, whose repertory and stagecraft became staples of regionally based "copyright," or cover, bands. In 1968 an impatient Fela took the band to New York City on the wager that American notoriety would impress Africans on his return. The band soon fetched up in Los Angeles, where, dogged by money and visa troubles, their stay was extended for months. Though as yet unpoliticized, Fela was booked at an NAACP function, where he met Sandra Smith (later Sandra Iszadore), a computer science student with Black Panther ties. They became lovers, and it was through Smith that Fela received an education in Malcolm X, Angela Davis and, on the musical side, Nina Simone and the post-bop explorations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. (As drummer Tony Allen later recalled, the band also got a lesson in Afrocentric sartorial tastes: "We all wore suits still, and all the African people in LA were into African clothes.") Fela was soon exploring connections between the most formally exciting African-American music of the period, the catchiness and showiness of highlife, and the rhythmic density and extended durations common in precolonial African musics. Though Fela had coined the label "Afrobeat" on an earlier tour of Ghana, and refined the style over the next decade, it was in America that he first made music that merited the name.
The Fela of legend emerged rapidly upon his return to Lagos in 1970. Establishing a nightclub called Afro-Spot (a precursor to The Shrine), the renamed Africa 70 released the first recordings of its revamped sound, including a measurably funkier reworking of Koola Lobitos’s Latin-styled "Wayo." Fela began to cut an outsized figure—performing in sleek jumpsuits embroidered with Yoruba glyphs, cultivating a deserved reputation for sexual promiscuity and flouting Nigeria’s strict marijuana laws with his immense onstage spliffs (the modest prop joint used in the show is dwarfed by those seen in actual performance photos). By mid-decade, he was the country’s most popular musician, as the countercultural energies around his home and club near the Mushin slum district magnetized youth and scandalized authorities. Still, his songs were rarely political in the narrowest sense: though many dealt concretely with class inequality and the perils of Westernization and urbanization in the wake of Nigeria’s "oil dream," their criticism of the powers that be was largely implicit.
A 1974 drug raid led to Fela’s arrest; he was released after swallowing the planted evidence and defecating it while in custody. Emboldened, he told the tale in the rush-released "Expensive Shit" and "Alagbon Close," named for Lagos’s central police station. Within a year, he dropped his "colo" surname for Anikulapo—"he who carries death in his pouch"—and symbolically declared his compound the independent Kalakuta Republic. Except for a brief respite during the relatively benign presidency of Gen. Murtala Mohammed, assassinated in 1976, Fela was constantly in and out of prison, where he was frequently beaten, on a variety of trumped-up charges. When he was free to make his music, it grew sharper and wilder, and his lyrics became more strident, sweeping and incisive, excoriating graft, corruption and abuse of power by the country’s successive military governments, with their corporate and imperialist ties and their unconcern for Nigeria’s urban underclass, for whom the country’s economic growth was little more than a rumor.
Fela’s music, and the broad outline of his career, are not unfamiliar to informed American hip-hop and rock audiences. But even though the repertory of musical theater has expanded to include the Abba, Four Seasons and Green Day songbooks, it is hard to think of a musical style with less apparent affinity with the Broadway show tune than Afrobeat. The obvious problem is one of duration. On record, a typical Africa 70 track runs between eight and seventeen minutes; in concert, any given selection could swell to a half-hour, the better to support dancing, instrumental solos and the leader’s yabis.
Michael Veal, Fela’s least credulous and most musically informed biographer in English, has usefully mapped the format common to his reputation-making 1970s compositions. Most build a rhythm section groove gradually, from two (sometimes three) interlocking guitar parts, congas and other percussion, and eventually bass guitar and Tony Allen’s kit drumming. (From Koola Lobitos until his departure in 1978, Allen was the outstanding exception to the relative anonymity of Fela’s sidemen.) Some meandering, modal improvisation from Fela on trumpet, sax or electric keyboard follows, leading into composed horn ostinatos and more focused soloing from one or more players. What Veal terms the "vocal song" consists of one or two verses and an insistent call-and-response between Fela and his backing singers. Many tracks end with another, briefer solo from Fela, a restatement of the main horn figures and ensemble endings derived from soul-revue arrangements and the big-band side of highlife.
Fela’s musical discipline was the flip side of his libertine lifestyle, and it owed much to the examples of such autocratic bandleaders as Victor Olaiya ("The Evil Genius of Highlife") and James Brown, as well as to his Western training. In contrast to some other rhythm-based musical practices, African, African-American and otherwise, the underpinnings of a given Fela composition are not interchangeable vamps but belong to them as much as their horn lines or lyrics; their elements, especially the guitar parts, allow little compass for improvisation. The arrangements in the show are at pains to preserve these relationships; their main departure lies in trimming solos and introductions, though these are still lengthy enough to support Jones’s choreography and preserve the overall character of the music. Purists may balk, but even a truncated "Coffin for Head of State" is not easily mistaken for "Some Enchanted Evening."
Assessing the show’s representation of Afrobeat’s cultural and political context, and the character of its prime mover, is more difficult. Some of the production’s troubling features reflect, intentionally or not, tensions in Fela’s career and self-presentation. Does the show sometimes feel like a one-character affair, with even Sandra Iszadore and Funmilayo presented as memories or ghosts? Yes, but such shadowboxing seems to have been part of Fela’s persona. Charitably, one might say that individual relationships were less important to his self-understanding than his collective one with Nigerian (and by extension, African) society. Is there something jarring about the juxtaposition of a brief but sobering scene of Fela’s torture by a mirror-shaded general and the kinetic, infectious staging of "Zombie" that follows? Yes, but recall that Fela adorned several album covers with photographs of his wounded face and body, an iconography that suggests how deadly serious matters were given public expression in his art.
Certain distortions, however, are the fault of the production alone, which often proceeds as if Fela’s worst quality was that he was occasionally touchy with his band mates and entourage. A case in point is its treatment of Fela’s mass marriage, in February 1978, to twenty-seven dancers and other members of his entourage. It is not clear why this event, too sensational and well-known to be omitted entirely, is set immediately before the Kalakuta raid, rather than slightly after, when it actually occurred; what is clear is that, inasmuch as it conflicts with a simplistic depiction of Fela as a free- but right-thinking progressive on all fronts, Jones and Lewis would rather not have dealt with it at all. Though the sequence registers the wedding’s role as a publicity stunt (flashbulbs pop, Fela grins), the staging is hasty, even apologetic, with Ngaujah or Mambo (I have seen both) at his most ingratiating. We are not told that Fela’s justification of the episode appealed to traditional African practices, though this may have been so much strategic essentialism, or that the marriages were of doubtful legal and religious validity, as many of his contemporaries understood. Jones and Lewis appear to be nervous about the wrong thing, because they assume their audience will be: if Fela’s domestic and sexual arrangements were ethically disturbing, it is not primarily because he was pleased to shock polite Nigeria and serve his ego by calling them "marriages." (Some coverage of the show has abetted this massaging of the material; a New York Times profile of the cast piously describes the research done by its nine female dancers into their real-life models, though as far as the audience can see, their individuation amounts to a gesture here, a haughty look there.)
Fela!‘s most misleading omissions stem from the decision to halt the action in the immediate aftermath of the Kalakuta raid, when as an act of protest Fela laid a coffin symbolizing that of his mother on the steps of the presidential palace. The ensuing years found him beleaguered and radicalized, especially after the near-fatal beatings he endured during a 1981 prison term. Africa 70 dissolved, succeeded by the larger and sometimes ill-rehearsed Egypt 80. Fela’s music of this period is fascinatingly complex but more somber in tone—and far less accessible. While his critical stance remained vigorous, and increasingly global in scope, its underlying pan-Africanism assumed a mystical, "Black Egypt"–influenced cast, according to which, for example, the source of Western technology is a "power pot" stolen from Yorubaland by English explorers. One finds similar imagery in the work of Sun Ra and George Clinton, but Fela’s intermittent forays into electoral politics make his mysticism harder to swallow. Whatever the power of these ideas as metaphors for the expropriation of African wealth and labor, they are not the most practical tools for contending with the region’s twentieth- and twenty-first-century problems.
Fela! struggles to solve its "Broadway problem"—and earn its exclamation point—by ending on a note of forced uplift, as a final supertitle informs us that Fela died in 1997, never abandoning Nigeria. This is true, as far as it goes, though Fela also toured internationally and retreated to Ghana during periods of political and financial strain. That his death was the result of AIDS-related complications goes unmentioned; this might not be significant were it not for his own stubborn denials that an African man could contract this "whiteman’s disease." Given the scale of the AIDS epidemic in the very regions where Fela’s fame and influence were greatest, such disavowals amount to a slide from personal and cultural pride to public irresponsibility. (It fell to Fela’s brother Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, then Nigeria’s leading health official, to confirm the truth after Fela’s death.) One can sympathize with the show’s creators’ wish to respect their protagonist’s achievements as an artist and symbol of resistance—as well as the valid and still-resonant elements of his rebukes to power. But by ignoring many of his failings, they show a less excusable reluctance to allow their audience to distinguish for itself among the man, his music and its message.