FELA!, the Broadway musical currently showing at the Hirschfeld Theatre in New York, ignites its audience just as Fela Kuti ignited a nation four decades ago.
Born in Nigeria in 1938, Fela Kuti was raised in a middle-class family, his father a Protestant priest and a school principal, his mother a feminist anti-colonialist activist. Fela, like his brothers, left Nigeria in his teenage years to study medicine in London, but instead studied music at the Trinity College of Music and moved back to Nigeria in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, with his band Koola Lobitos, Kuti perfected Afrobeat, the style of music that would make his worldwide fame.
The Afrobeat genre was a fusion of jazz, funk, highlife, African rhythms, and percussive beats. He allowed politics to infuse his artistry, using music as a medium of prot
esting the policies of then-general Olusegun Obasanjo.
FELA! on Broadway was originally conceived by Stephen Hendel after discovering Kuti’s music in 2000. Impressed by Kuti’s musical talent and sense of social justice, Hendel was determined to create a musical out of the Nigerian icon’s life. In 2004, he invited Bill T. Jones, a veteran Broadway choreographer, to direct the production. Jones then solicited writer Jim Lewis to write additional lyrics for the show. The trio put into motion workshops for dancers, actors, musicians and technicians leading up to the debut of the show. The musical made its off-Broadway debut on September 4, 2008 at the Arts 37 Theatre. It was a huge success and was subsequently taken to Broadway with the support of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith as part of the production team. The Broadway production of FELA! officially opened on November 23, 2009 and has achieved high acclaim since. In 2010, the musical was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and won three: Best Choreography, Best Costume Design for a Musical, and Best Sound design of a musical. Actor Sahr Ngaujah, of Sierra Leonian descent, leads the ensemble on stage.
What is it about the musical that has attributed to its successful run?
According to The New York Times’ latest review of the show, written by Ben Brantley, it is FELA’s infectious “hot (and seriously cool) energy” that inspires people to dance in the streets. The show is set during the 1970s, a tumultuous time in Kuti’s life, as he began to be seen as a threat to the hegemony of the Nigerian regime at the time. Politically, Kuti was influenced by his activist mother and his discovery of the Black Power movement while touring in the United States. His lyrics often challenged the dictatorship of Obasanjo, who he claimed was responsible for his mother’s death after a raid of Kalakuta Republic. This raid was sparked by Kuti’s release of the song “Zombie,” which criticized the Nigerian military.
Fela Kuti’s music coincided with popular protest music of the 1970s, and Kuti was often compared to singer Edwin Starr, best known for his protest hit “War.” Globally, Kuti’s music popularized a shift from melancholic rhythms to more celebratory and upbeat rhythms to inspire change. On the continent of Africa, similar music was made by such South African artists as Benedict Wallet Vilakazi and Hugh Masekela.
Kuti’s personal life was filled with controversy as well. He married 27 women, and later developed a system where he would have only 12 wives at a time. He was imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1984 under the allegedly false accusation of currency smuggling. If Brantley’s characterization of the musical as “jolting and joyous” is accurate, FELA! has definitely captured the essence of Kuti’s. Brantley’s 2009 review of the musical definitely reigns true today, as he describes it as a “kinetic portrait of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a Nigerian revolutionary of song.”