The NGOisation of Fela Kuti

I wanted to follow up very, very belatedly on my previous post with some brief reflections on how Sudan and elitist politics cropped up again in a very big way for me.

Not long after I posted the piece about Clooney, I went to see the Broadway production Fela!–something I was originally skeptical about, but which I decided to check out after hearing good things from people I trusted.

Fela Kuti is one of my favorite musicians, and embodies so much of what I think of as a true fusion of culture and politics–one not being exclusive of the other, both being crucial for creating a sense of movement, for creating countercultural spaces for political expression. Pulling on influences from pop music to indigenous Nigerian traditions, Kuti embraced a style of communication that had mass appeal but was not simplistic; that was accessible but deeply profound (much like today’s Manu Chao, I would argue). “I see them people–they do bad, bad things.” In many ways, if your politics cannot touch upon this most basic of human instincts, of detecting and naming evil, then I struggle to imagine how you plan to achieve your goals as a political subject, a political animal.

So it’s not without reason that I felt a big production–a Broadway production  no less–with all of its usual flare, pomp, and circumstance, might be more than a little, shall we say, off. Kuti definitely had flare, but not pomp and circumstance: he was down-to-earth, direct, urgent and urging in his speech and song.

And in many ways, I was not wrong–despite being treated to what was truly an outstanding performance with a dedicated team of actors, singers, dancers, and musicians, filled with comedy, drama, romance, and yes, politics, there was some irony in hearing all of this in the context of a prohibitively expensive space. Sitting in the very back, our tickets were 40$ a piece; some of the best seats went upwards of 100-200$. This in Chicago’s excessively ornate Oriental Theater, a fine relic of another time before the invention of cheap cinema, when theaters were the swankiest late-night option to take your date (that is, if you could afford to). Now its exclusionary history only serves to be exploited by the current management to charge even more exorbitant fees just for the imagined prestige of the thing. Interesting, that–once depleted, capitalist excess can be zombified and re-consumed as another form of contemporary excess…

So Fela Kuti, popular musician–musician of the people–is dancing and singing a minstrel show in front of a patient and ‘sophisticated’ theater audience, surrounded by (expensive) props (including intricate lighting systems and HD TV screens) that are supposed to indicate that he is ‘really‘ in Kuti’s countercultural venue and birthplace of his following, The Shrine: a freeflowing mix of working-class and intellectual currents, an intoxicating chaos with a searing political bite: the exhilaration of total freedom of expression.

Consciousness-raising, perhaps, but of the liberal–read bourgeois–classes.

But okay, I’ll bite. I am saying all this and yet I was there, and I am the last person that wants to be the knowingly-participating cynic. So I’ll be clear: none of this is to say that the performance was downright tacky, if I’m making it out to sound like an uncomfortable scene out of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In truth, I was surprised by how slick and put together the night was–how much, despite and in spite of all of these atrocious things working against its ability to be honest, it managed to maintain some kind of artistic integrity in not ‘watering down’ Kuti’s message or politics (at one point actors paraded around the stage with the names of major regulating institutions, alliances, and corporations, such as the IMF , World Bank, and NAFTA, chanting “International thief!“). It included its own moments of bravery and managed to not butcher at least the content of Fela’s life and legacy (if we at least accept that aesthetically, as art, it would either give him a huge laugh or make him roll over in his grave). It could also, no doubt, be a wonderful teaching tool for youth–you know, if you  wanted to bother with the whole access thing and could figure out a way to stage it somewhere affordable that wouldn’t implicitly rebuff said youth at the door.

But this is all still an aside, because all of this, in a certain sense, crumbled at the very end of the production.

After the final number, the bows, the standing ovations, and “Fela’s” witty final words, he took on a serious tone. This is what this production was all about, we were assured–connecting Kuti’s legacy to issues of social importance. The man who decried colonialism & neocolonialism, the man who called out transnational megacorporations for exploiting African resources, who fought bitterly against the Nigerian state to protect the small enclave of resistant culture he managed to create with his comrades, the man who declared his compound/commune/recording studio to be its own republic, Kalakuta, separate from the Nigerian state–housing hundreds of people at its peak—whose own freedom-fighting, radical mother was famously and fatally thrown out the window of the fledgling state in a raid, the man who became a symbol for an era of conflicting but high spirits for new possibilities to carry on the mantle of the African liberation movements of yesteryear, this man–or rather, his avatar, his spectral representative on earth and on this stage in the form of Fela! The Amazing, New, Hip, and Culturally-Sensitive Broadway Musical that Only Costs an Arm and a Leg–proceeded to ask of us that we all think about taking out our wallets and donating to Nothing But Nets, an NGO that delivers malaria nets to Sudanese communities.

Nothing But Nets.

I feel that I should let that sink in. And I want to be clear: I do not want to give the impression that I think there is some kind of “problem” with wanting people to be safe from malaria.

No, the problem is not only in the narrowness of the NGO’s mission, but its extreme banality–this kind of “humanitarian” work being so common as to be the butt-end of many a joke about the self-involved narcissism of Western “aid” NGOs in tricontinental countries (expressed beautifully by a former friend from Honduras who would say to me, “no me ONGes“, or, “don’t NGO me”). It is a banality unworthy of Kuti, such an extraordinary man with such extraordinary, keen insight to the problems of his people and of the day, always hitting at the root causes of inequality and poverty in his art, in his daily, lived politics…Kuti would most definitely have battled against the mindset that, according to the Nothing But Nets website,

provides everyone – students to CEOs, bishops to basketball players – the opportunity to join the fight against malaria by giving $10 to send a net and save a life. (emphasis mine)

I am tempted, against my better instincts, to quote the wily and frequently annoying Slavoj Žižek: “It is not about what you are buying, but what you are buying into.” In other words, one poorly-written and falsely grandiose sentence later, the logic of capitalism has been perfectly transplanted onto “human rights”. In this narrative, there is no such thing as class, much less any other kind of positionality: in this narrative, what matters is the intention of all consumers to merely redirect a little bit of their finances towards the greater good (sounds eerily like taxes, no?). Why bother with addressing, in the way a spiritualist like Kuti always would, ways of life that are unsustainable, the dark paths that have been created upon the backs and corpses of others and called ‘modernity’, this imperial way of life that creates resource imbalances in the world? Why bother with–as I said in my last post–issues of dire importance, that is to say, root causes, or the international military and political structures that have manufactured a Sudan still in need of malarial nets? Really, why bother when you can leave the foundations of your diamond-studded imperialist theater chair pristine and intact, forking over a little bit of dead labor to somehow relieve the existential guilt you might have over sitting in the chair in the first place?

No, somehow sitting in the swanky, statue- and mural-adorned, faux-gold encrusted ampitheater of the Oriental Theater, none of this seems to come to mind. And no wonder–aesthetically, from the location to the production itself, everything is working together to make sure that this never even enters the realm of possibility. If “Fela’s” specter is to be radical, it is in an ornamental sense only: when he is “acting”, “playing” on stage the great disruptor of Western domination. When it comes to how he might pay homage in a real sense, this specter, to the Fela that lived before him, he dashes the literal spotlight given him to ask audience members to dig in their wallets, or swipe their credit cards at the counter. And don’t you worry–looking over Nothing But Nets’s list of partners, which includes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ExxonMobil (!), and Sports Illustrated (from whence the basketball-inspired name drew its inspiration in 2006, according to the organization’s website), among other illustrious do-gooders working tirelessly to save humanity, you can rest assured that your money is in good hands.

I can’t express how utterly confused I was at that moment, knowing that the NATO warmakers were on the eve of descending upon Chicago to turn it into the experimental mini-police state which they hope to impose on the whole world. What a fine opportunity it might have been to ruffle some feathers, to make some noise, even if a mere echo in the spacious, hallowed halls of Chicago’s ritzy high life. What a fine chance to make such a fantastical, eye-opening performance at least be a platform for something other than itself. Instead, Fela! resigned itself in that final moment to ‘art for art’s sake’: the refuge of scoundrels, a flashy spectacle literally meant to distract and do no more, the worst kind of self-important navel-gazing with a shoddy after-thought pasted on to give it the pretense of being something more. And in this age of ‘humanitarian wars’ and all manner of delusional self-justifying necropolitics, it’s no surprise that such a production felt that it could not meet the pedigree of a truly great work of art without a ’cause’ to whiten its teeth for the high-definition media cameras. Unfortunately, that is just what a ’cause’ is meant to be, in our modern apocalypse–a pastime, a distraction, something to go on about while you ‘get on’ with the rest of your life. Heaven forbid it be something that drives you beyond, perhaps to be something like Fela–the real Fela–a fighter, a warrior, an uncompromising, abrasive, righteous prophet with the infinite love for humanity that makes revolutionaries.

But let’s not kid ourselves. With a production supported by such a diverse crew of “political activists” like Jay-Z and Will Smith, there was little hope from the get go that this would be anything more than an extremely impressive pile of money with a few racy moments of imagined political radicalism which, like a horror movie, are titillating precisely because they are controlled. It’s times like these that one almost wishes that a young Eisenstein might start setting firecrackers off under theater goers’ seats, if only to jolt viewers from their complacency and break down the immensely thick walls of false humanitarian pretense a bit.

Check out, Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon, if you can, embedded below, for some much-needed perspective. This might also be a perfect time to check out the new live album released of Fela’s performance in Detroit in ’86. And finally, to really just do the work and find out what the man behind the glam was all about: for this I have earmarked The Ikoyi Prison Narratives: the Political Philosophy of Fela Kuti. I’ll surely have another post up when I get around to reading it…

In the meantime, let Fela’s music wash over you and don’t be led astray by those who would evoke this prophet’s name in vain.