Fela Anikulapo-Kuti: The medium is the message, not the man
Defender. Supporter. Upholder. Advocate. Proponent. Apostle. Champion. Spokesperson. Enthusiast. However, the mother of all its awful synonym is Propagandist. I don’t ever want to be associated with this P-word or the initial A-word or any other related words for that matter.
Mahogany Hotel and Suites(Ibadan) 08099887255/ 08083061500
Sadly, such words come to the mind of some people when you write positive things on the life and times of Africa greatest musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Such words came to the mind of Kehinde Michael (not real name), a journalist and friend.
“I am not a Felanatic like my former colleague.” (I’m the former colleague.)
He didn’t stop there.
“Me and Fela are opposites. He smoked Igbo, I don’t. He demonstrated sex openly, I don’t. He couldn’t discipline his children in his lifetime but I am doing that. So, we really don’t have business together,” he said.
“In fairness to him, he complained about societal ills, but which steps did he make to better the society? How did he try to manage even those around him? They were loose. Smoking, fighting and disturbing public peace. Yes, Fela was a great man who did well but the overhype is what I can’t stand. I admire his guts and it stops there.
“They say he was courageous; I tell you this: As a young customs officer, my father met Fela on one of the nights he was detained at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. My dad told me he hailed him but fear and worry were written all over him. The delay at the airport and apparently because of the trouble ahead may be the reasons for the panicky state. But the point here is that all these Fela pushers make it seem as if the man was all in all.
“As far as I am concerned, Gani Fawehinmi was more courageous than Fela. Jokes apart, his music is an inspiration but the way people like Akidenhor paint him is what I can’t stand.”
I forgive Kehinde Michael for murdering my surname. And I will forgive myself if I reverse Newton’s law and say to him: “For every action (this time, words), there is an unequal and opposite overreaction.”
The Yorubas have a saying for this: Ki lagbe, ki le ju?
Gani Fawehinmi was more courageous? But can courage be compared? Is there’s a way of measuring courage? Is it an internal measurement that is calculated externally by others? Can courage exist in the absence of fear?
I don’t have answers to all the questions. But I know I can measure my own courage by the fear I feel and acknowledge as I move forward or backward. My action and inaction would now be what you will “calculate” and appraise.
“He smoked Igbo. He demonstrated sex openly. He couldn’t discipline his children. Fighting and disturbing public peace.” I can let other points slide but I am very sure Kehinde Michael knows next to nothing about the upbringing of Yeni and her siblings. So, making a general statement about Fela’s children does not wash. There are rule books on Parenting. But no size fits all.
But then, many great musicians actually live two lives. On the stage and off the stage. Great, creative, and fulfilling life on stage. And off-stage? “Smoking Igbo. Can’t discipline his children. Fighting and disturbing public peace,” quoting my friend.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not justifying misdemeanor or malfeasance of musicians or celebrities (another word I dislike). Let’s face it. Such issues (Smoked Igbo; Couldn’t discipline his children; Fighting and disturbing public peace.) are in the public domain because the character behind it is news worthy. It’s pertinent to state here that it’s not only musicians that live two lives. We all do. Reputation is character minus what we have been caught doing. We all have skeleton in our closets. What some of us have is even more than what can be found in graveyards.
“This partly explains why there is a preponderance of failed family lives, alcohol, drug addiction, and suicides among stars who are conscripted by the society to become role models. It is a cruel world,” Matthew Hassan Kukah wrote in The Guardian on Sunday, August 17, 1997.
“The world judges such humans by standards it cannot live up to itself. The world sometimes lays down standards of public conduct well outside the ability of ordinary mortals and then it retires into darkness to pass judgement. They judge people by standards that they have not set for themselves.”
The question now is: Is it possible to separate a person’s talent and gifts from his human failings and foibles? This question is pertinent because “the inability of the world to make this distinction has often led to the tragic lives of many a man of talent”, according to Kukah.
The Medium is the Message
“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964.
This phrase is McLuhan’s most misunderstood idea because it does not mean what it literally says. You have to understand the context in which McLuhan wrote it.
McLuhan uses the term ‘message’ to signify content and character. The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped. And the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked.
Here’s an explanation by McLuhan himself:
“When I say the medium is the message, I’m saying that the motor car is not a medium. The medium is the highway, the factories, and the oil companies. That is the medium. In other words, the medium of the car is the effects of the car. When you pull the effects away, the meaning of the car is gone. The car as an engineering object has nothing to do with these effects. The car is a FIGURE in a GROUND of services. It’s when you change the GROUND that you change the car. The car does not operate as the medium, but rather as one of the major effects of the medium. So ‘the medium is the message’ is not a simple remark, and I’ve always hesitated to explain it.”
In as much as the medium is the message, we shouldn’t let the man’s personality gets in the way. The medium and message of the Abami Eda is not the Abami Eda. The Abami Eda is like McLuhan’s car. If you take away the effects of the medium and the message, the man is nothing. So, it’s better to separate the man from his music to better appreciate his message.
Someone like Kehinde Michael may conclude that Fela led his followers astray by not practicing what he preached. That’s not true. People won’t believe what you say. They will believe what you do. But, even if what you do matches what you say, you will eventually falter if it doesn’t match your fundamental beliefs. It only works when what you believe and do and say align.
Nothing kills credibility faster than not practicing what is preached. Fela never had such a problem. He practiced what he preached till August 2, 1997.
However, the focus should always be on his music. All Fela’s songs have an expressive power. Some more (Alagbon Close) and some less (Open and Close). The question for someone like Kehinde Michael is: “Is there a meaning to his music?” The answer would be, “Yes”.
Being a journalist, he would ask another question: “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?” The answer to that would be, ‘No”. I can only state in few words: All his tracks have a certain meaning behind the notes, behind the horns. Like McLuhan, I won’t explain it further either. It’s for the listener to discover it himself.
In the article, The Man With Music in his Pouch (The Guardian, August 9, 1997), Jahman Anikulapo and Sola Ojewusi wrote: “In spite of the shortcomings or excesses of the magnificent character, the world would continue to feel with fond nostalgia, the presence of a man who spoke, sang, and danced with admirable social responsibility; a man who proved art’s divinity transcended mere entertainment. That art was a force, a sponge for cleansing of society.”
Dunamis Kente +233 50 257 6068
Kukah puts it in another way: “Fela’s moral life is another matter altogether, and we must not make it stand in the way. He loved this country. He was a rebel with a cause. He had everything to gain from the system, given his background, but he rebelled against it because he wanted something for others, not himself. Had he wanted, he would have been living a far more dignified and meaningful life in the chic resorts of Los Angeles. But he chose to live and die here. That indeed was a sacrifice.”
With Fela, what you see is what you get. However, don’t judge a book by its cover. The medium and the message was not the man.