I felt that familiar rush of endorphins which happens in my brain when I speak about the genius of the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Had Netflix outsmarted the competition completely and launched its first movie about the life of one of the greatest musicians of all time?
My face flushed in anticipation. I was about to watch the trailer of “Beast of No Nation” directed by Joji Fukunaga. I was thrilled. How might Fukunaga tell some of the complex human and the socio-political stories which Fela vocalised in his lyrics?
Stories of lives in a society struggling to shape its identity whilst caught in the clutches of a corrupt government. Narratives of a country full of promise, watching its citizens wallow in poverty, violence and fear? And of course the personal stories of highs and lows, of overwhelming sacrifice and individual loss ?
As I watched the trailer, it dawned on me. Beasts of No Nation is a great film with some exceptional performances. It tells the story of militant overlords and child solders caught up in conflict zones in West Africa.
Nonetheless, it brought back memories of the original Beasts of No Nation (BONN), one of my favourite Fela albums, released in 1989 in protest at the injustice of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Typical of Fela`s style, the front cover itself is evocative, with superb caricatures of Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and of course the notorious P.W Botha.
BONN then and now remains a compelling track. It encapsulates the storytelling prowess which Fela was capable of in his songs. I recalled the brilliance of Fela`s imagery. His superb lyrical skill at drawing together so many different threads in his narratives. His sometimes subtle yet striking juxtaposition of literal and metaphorical connotations and characters.
In BONN like most of his songs, and indeed in the expression of his life, Fela was in a state of direct protest against all forms of political and personal injustice. He talked about himself. He talked about Nigeria. He talked about the world in which he lived.
Wherever injustice had been sown, Fela would weed it out with his lyrics and his masterful musical style. He was one of the only artists brave enough to do it. Fela was fearless.
He openly made a mockery of the antics of failed governments and political leaders who were corrupt, cruel and completely oblivious to the suffering of the Nigerian masses.
In BONN, it was to ridicule the military generals who had sent him to prison, P.W Botha and his blatant atrocities towards the black underclass in South Africa and the United Nations who looked on at the evil of Apartheid.
As many powerful nations pretended that apartheid was acceptable, Fela wanted his voice to ring out in dissent.
In 1986, Botha was famously quoted as saying, “This uprising will bring out the beast in us”. Beasts of No Nation echoes these words. Fela cleverly plays on and develops this metaphor of the “beast”.
BONN is Fela’s incisive retort to Botha`s arrogant sense of his own superiority and his belief that the cruelty of apartheid would continue unchanged . It was also a direct response to the insensitivity of the military regime led by General Idiagbon.
In BONN Fela says:
MANY LEADERS AS YOU SEE DEM
NA DIFFERENT DISGUISE DEM DEY-OH
ANIMALS IN HUMAN SKIN
ANIMAL-I PUT-U TIE-OH
ANIMAL-I WEAR AGBADA
ANIMAL-I PUT-U SUIT-U
These words unpeel the layers of the metaphorical “beasts”. In almost 28 minutes of lyrical content, Fela paints a poignant picture of the inhuman attributes of leaders deaf to the cries and insensitive to the voices which rage around them.
With their countries in chaos and disarray, leaders like Botha and the military regime in Nigeria were really beasts of no nation; human on the outside but lacking the compassion which qualifies them as human.
They are non leaders. Callous and unfeeling. In them are exemplified the worst aspects of humanity.
I miss Fela`s voice.
I miss his compassion for the underdog. I miss his courage and strength of purpose. Two decades on, we only need to look around the world to see the relevance and prophecy of his words. The world it seems is almost overrun by a pack of maurauding “Beasts of No Nation”.
Leaders full of lies and acts which divide societies, leaders who preach sermons of bigotry and genocide. In their cruel actions they embody the very essence of Fela`s metaphor of the troglodytes in BONN .
I am glad I was baptised in Fela`s special brand of humanity all those years ago in Pepple Street. I am moved to action- no jonesing here-exactly as Fela would have wanted.