The New York Times

July 20, 2003

How Fela Landed Me in Jail


It's not always easy to realize when you're in the presence of genius especially when it comes in the form of a muscular 5-foot-7 Nigerian, dressed in leopard-skin bikini underpants, his eyes blurry-red from overindulgence in marijuana, who is ranting on and on about a toothbrush. Not a specific toothbrush, but the very idea the concept of the toothbrush, which turns out to be a vestige of colonialism, another Western assault on the dignity of Africans.

"Before the white man came, we Africans used sharpened sticks to clean our teeth," said Fela, glaring out from the stage. "I've thrown away my toothbrush. My brothers, we must all throw away our toothbrushes."

It wasn't one of his more thoughtful diatribes. Still, the audience of 400 or so, mostly men in their 20's and 30's, drank it in. The time was somewhere around 3 a.m., in July 1976, at the Shrine, Fela's nightclub in the Surulere section of Lagos. The ramshackle structure was roofed in corrugated metal and threaded by open sewage drains, with women in Band-Aid-strip panties gyrating on bird-cage platforms under the red neon glow of a giant map of Africa. It didn't look like the center of a political-musical revolution.

I liked going to the Shrine: the sweltering heat, the pounding music, the palpable anger in the air, the weapons search at the door, where it was hard to say if more weapons were going or coming. It was my education. The teacher was Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the originator of Afrobeat, a synthesis of Nigerian high life and American jazz and rock. Thoughts of Fela, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1997, came flooding back recently as I went to an exhibition in his honor at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, at 583 Broadway in SoHo. The show, "Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti," explores his influence through the work of 34 artists. It says he "was arguably Africa's most influential musician of the last 50 years."

Who am I to argue? Simply put, Fela was the best performer I've ever seen. And not incidentally, he was Nigeria's most notorious political dissident. He had been arrested a half-dozen times. His songs were not allowed on government radio but blared out of thousands of shanties in the slums, which is to say everywhere. Little did I know that my contact with him would help land me in a Lagos dungeon, also stripped to my underwear, and then earn me a one-way ticket out of the country, together with my wife and our two daughters, ages 4 and 6. But I get ahead of myself.

Late one night in February 1976, I arrived in Lagos to take up residence as the West Africa correspondent for The New York Times. The next morning I awakened to military music on the radio. A coup was under way, and the head of state, Murtala Muhammed, had been gunned down in his Mercedes in a traffic jam. The coup failed. But because it was said to involve a former ruler who lived in London, it ignited a week of anti-Western demonstrations, and during one of these I noticed a bizarre caravan of young people led by a Ken Kesey-type Day-Glo bus.

"What's that?" I asked.

"That is Fela," said an Agence France-Presse man, the only other Western reporter in town, "and to the government, he's nothing but trouble." Over the ensuing weeks, I heard more and more about him, so I resolved to meet this 38-year-old legend.

His house, painted yellow and encircled by barbed wire, was called the Kalakuta Republic, because, I was to discover, he took the position that he and his followers could no longer get along with Nigeria, and so had decided to secede. When my wife, Nina, and I were ushered in, we found him an imperial presence. He was seated on a thronelike chair (as always, in his bikini briefs), smoking a cigar-sized joint that was held for him between tokes by one of three or four female attendants. The interview was awkward at first, but he soon warmed up; he was grateful to America, which he had visited in 1969, for teaching him about black power, he said. It was odd, he added, but it took photos of African-Americans wearing dashikis on 125th Street for Nigerians to feel proud in their own national dress. What he most disparaged about the United States was the size of the joints: "Do you believe," he told his circle of wide-eyed followers, "over there, they light up one little one, and they have to pass it around!"

Later that night much later we accompanied Fela to the Shrine, a walk of about four blocks. In a ritual that I was to see repeated time and again, he stopped traffic for blocks around, strolling down the center of the street like a bantam toreador while a multitude of worshipers pressed in from all sides, throwing clenched-fist power salutes and chanting his name in a quasi-religious fervor: "Fay-leh!" "Fay-leh!" "Fay-leh!"

Once we were inside, the music took some getting used to. The songs by his band, Afrika 70, lasted 40 minutes or more, and after a while, the beat behind the jazz riffs caught momentum. But from the first moment, his performance was electrifying: imagine the sauciness of Mick Jagger, the rebellious snarl of Bob Dylan and the cool authority of John Coltrane. He strutted and strolled, danced and pranced and played the saxophone like a madman. From time to time, he would break into pidgin English to drive home a political point about the backwardness of Africa or the corruption of its leaders. He derided the "colonized" African: "African man no de bare African name. African man no de think African style." And in a song called "Zombie o Zombie," he taunted the military, marching around the stage with his sax tucked under his arm like a rifle. The audience loved it. It was the military, of course, that eventually did him in.

Over the course of a year, we saw quite a bit of Fela. Once, in an attempt to deepen the friendship by removing him from his entourage, we invited him to dinner at our place on the island of Ikoyi, the enclave for rich Nigerians and foreigners, that he sometimes lambasted in his songs. My wife negotiated the numbers. He wanted to bring 38. She insisted on 3. They struck a compromise: it would be 5. The evening of the dinner, he turned up almost on time in the Day-Glo bus, with 18 others. We ate small. He sat in the tallest chair and put his own records on the hi-fi, just like home. The next day he sent us a thank-you gift: a jar of the substance he called N.N.G. Nigerian natural grass.

Fela was born in Abeokuta, the center of Yoruba culture, to a family that grew to prominence under British colonialism. (His father was an Anglican preacher, and his mother a fighter for independence.) In 1959 he studied classical music in London, where he fell under the spell of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other Americans. It took years for his jazz-infused music to catch on at home.

His politics were not deep. His three heroes were Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, which was fine, but also Sékou Touré, the leftist tyrant of Guinea; and Idi Amin, the deranged buffoon leading Uganda into bloody ruination. I could never shake his idolatry for Amin, whom he admired as "a big man." Inside his own republic, he himself was a dictator. He meted out punishments: lashings with a cane for the men and confinement in a tin-shed "jail" for women. Once, in a hotel room in Accra, Ghana, we walked in while he was administering "justice" to one of his 27 wives, and we turned and left in disgust.

My own time in the slammer can be traced to the evening of Feb. 18, 1977. Our dinner was interrupted with a frantic knock at the door. It was a runner from Fela, delivering a two-word message: "Come urgent." I made my way to the Kalakuta Republic, and from blocks away, I saw flames leaping high into the night air. Soldiers were beating passers-by, who were fleeing with their arms raised in a gesture of surrender. It was a riot by the military. It lasted five hours. When it was over, Fela was wounded, along with 60 others, including his mother (who was to die much later from her injuries). I high-tailed it home, wrote an article and sent it off to New York. The next morning, I picked up the Nigerian newspapers and saw how seriously the government viewed the incident: not a single word anywhere on the attack.

The riot caused such public distress that the military authorities held a public inquiry in the new national theater. I accompanied a friend, a drummer named Bayo Martins, who had had a falling out with Fela but still respected him. As the only white face in the crowd, I was not hard to spot; police summoned me, confiscated my notes and told me to leave. A small item appeared in a Nigerian paper the next day.

One week later, after I returned from Ethiopia, I found four plainclothes security policemen in my office, rifling the files. One was pretending to read letters and holding them upside down. Luckily, about three hours later, my driver appeared. I took him aside and gave a message to be delivered to my wife: for God's sake, get rid of Fela's gift. I used a term he had never heard, and in carrying out my injunction, he breathlessly mangled it (the malalaba? maraluba? Maryjanal?), but she caught on and flushed it down the toilet moments before the police arrived.

I was taken to a prison and handed over to a 7-foot-tall warden who was stripped to the waist, with a raised scar curving around his shoulder and across his belly. He demanded my clothes, piece by piece. When I removed my shirt, he was shocked at the juju charm around my neck and asked, politely, where I had obtained it.

"Zaire," I replied. Even then, Zaire was collapsing as a country, but its magic was the envy of the continent. In exchange for an elephant-hair bracelet, the warden let me keep my underpants. He escorted me to an underground cell with a straw mat and a tiny window that was out of reach. After about eight hours, I was summoned for interrogation by a young man in reflecting sunglasses. I had been told by the American ambassador weeks before that the military authorities were displeased with various articles I had written: one on infant mortality, one on pirates in Lagos harbor and one on a campaign to unsnarl Lagos's notorious traffic jams by whipping motorists. But among the questions put to me by the young man was: "And what kind of music do you like?" I was definitely a lover of Brahms and Beethoven.

Some 16 hours later, after my wife and daughters also put in time in jail, we were expelled from the country. The man who locked us into a holding cell at Murtala Muhammed Airport shook his head sadly and said, "I am so ashamed for my country." The plane we were put on landed in Kenya, and there we remained for another three years.

From time to time, I would hear about Fela. Many years later, in 1986, he came to New York and called me. He said I should quit the newspaper and go to work for him as his "minister of information."

I was taken aback. "Minister?" I said. "What are you some kind of country?"

He laughed and said: "Yes. And I'm bigger than all Nigeria."

John Darnton, an associate editor of The New York Times, was its West Africa correspondent from 1976 to 1979.