AV Club: “Finding Fela” & the importance of wholesomely documenting African music’s heroes

Alex Gibney’s documentary is far from a hagiography, but it clearly doesn’t dig deep enough

In the history of Nigerian music, no other figure possesses a mythos as powerful as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Of the myriad of hugely popular and trailblazing African artists of the twentieth century, the Afrobeat originator is arguably the most fascinating, confounding, and complex musical figure of that period. The Afrobeat pioneer’s story stands out for many reasons; between creating one of the most distinct and singular genres to emerge out of Africa, insidiously tackling the corrupt powers that be, and leading a heavily hedonistic lifestyle, Fela’s life has served as an unending wellspring for many to (attempt to) tell his story in varying forms.

Finding Fela, a documentary centred on the life and times of the artist, premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was recently made available for free viewing for a limited one-week period last week, on the online documentary archival channel, Link TV. Co-produced and directed by prolific, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, Finding Fela is a sprawling, 2-hour long feature, largely aimed at intensifying the spotlight on Fela’s political activism, as an awe-inspiring introduction for previously unfamiliar audiences, and to further endear him to those already acquainted with his life story.

On the surface, it’s an interesting perspective considering how much of his time on earth was consumed and defined by loudly sticking it to corrupt military regimes, with severe consequences to match. However, as a wholesome examination of Fela’s life and a portrayal of his legacy, Finding Fela falls short, obsessing over his martyrdom while visibly inching away from fully exploring the complexities that made up the man. Initially conceived as an on-screen accompaniment to ‘FELA!’, the 2009 Broadway musical executive produced by Shawn Carter and Will Smith, the documentary constantly revels in the spectacle of Fela’s confrontational approach to socio-political issues, and the mystic he garnered from being a social dissident and defiant truth-teller.

Contextually speaking, it is impossible to divorce the mythos of Fela from the social, political, and economic condition of Nigeria in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Following the Nigerian civil war in the late ‘60s, the country entered into a prosperous period mainly due to the discovery and exportation of crude oil as Nigeria’s main earner. During those years of the oil boom, revenue inflow was abundant, but rather than heavily invest in building up infrastructure and creating a system to ensure national wealth that lasted for decades, the military regimes in those times were ultra-corrupt, recklessly looting and casually oppressing the majority of its citizens. By the ‘80s, due to the effect of the oil glut, Nigeria’s socio-economic conditions worsened significantly, perhaps reaching its lowest during a recession in 1984 under a familiar figure (the Military ruler,  President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria).

Enlightened by his encounter with the Civil Rights movement during a brief, but quite tumultuous stay in the U.S. in the late ‘60s, Fela’s music and activism, following his initial years of making featherweight highlife-jazz with his first band Koola Lobitos, is indelibly linked to this period in Nigerian history. Finding Fela does a remarkable job of highlighting this bond, examining the push-and-pull between the government’s responses to his “incendiary” brand of music, and Fela’s increasing obstinacy and unyielding mentality, even after the infamous attack by “Unkown Soldiers” which led to the tragic passing of his mother, the late Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. In these moments, Alex Gibney perfectly presents Fela as a rebel, but if you’re looking for anything deeper than the usual “Music is a weapon” shtick, this documentary is sorely lacking.

With testimonies from the now-deceased Africa ’70 drummer and bandleader Tony Allen, visual artist and close friend Lemi Ghariokwu, authorised Fela biographer, Carlos Moore, author of Fela: Life & Times of an African, Michael Veal, his most famous children, Femi, Seun and Yeni, and more, Finding Fela pulls in from a wide and apt range of sources. At that, the focus on deification means that Fela’s work as a musician and the fallible sides of his person are under-explored and handled shoddily.

Apart from Femi narrating how Fela ended up at the Trinity College of Music in London, the short 2-minutes detailing his synergy with Tony Allen, led by legendary drummer Questlove, and Michael Veal breaking down the difference between Africa ’70 and Egypt ’80, there isn’t much about Afrobeat as a creative landmark in all of music. If you’ve read any of the several biographies on Fela, there’s a heavy emphasis on him being a consummate artist and a composer with golden ears who demanded excellence from members of his band at all times. Too little of this makes its way into the doc, and it fragments several important details about Fela’s artistry, such as the way he ran his band with an iron hand, and the constant fiscal issues they suffered – several band members of Africa ’70 held day jobs at the height of Fela’s popularity, to supplement their earnings which often came in late. Tony Allen and a significant portion of the band left after the 1978 Berlin Jazz festival, after months of no pay and finding out that Fela planned on using the 6-figure payment to fund his presidential run.

In a similar manner, perhaps even more aggravating, details of Fela’s personal life are also fragmented to keep the veneration intact. In perhaps the wildest revelation of the doc, Femi and Yeni revealed that Fela insisted that his children address him by his name rather than “Dad” or any other variation, because he didn’t want it to seem like he was favouring his own children over the hundreds of people living in his commune, Kalakuta republic. Rather than using that as a cue to dig deeper into his parenting method – Fela infamously refused to let his children attend school since he detested western education –the doc finds a way to spin it into a sign of altruism. It was a missed moment to capture Fela’s complex character matrix, as someone who was a man of the people and also a terrible father, by most standards.

Of all the non-ideal traits Fela exhibited, none was more infamous than his hedonistic lifestyle, particularly marked by stories of his voracious sex appetite and his marriage to 27 women in one day. To live this lifestyle, Fela was openly misogynistic, cordoning women to the role of “helpmates” both on wax and off it. Of course, this was the ‘70s, and feminism wasn’t a welcome concept in these parts (it still isn’t but it’s more popular). At that, this part of Fela’s life is very unsettling, not really because he had so many sexual partners at once, but for the fact that several of them got involved with him while they were minors. No one’s disputing the role of the Kalakuta queens to the very fabric of Afrobeat, but there’s a predatory and paternalistic aspect that is always worth exploring when narrating Fela.

In the authorised biography, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, author Carlos Moore interviewed Fela’s wives, and about half a dozen admitted to being sexually involved with Fela from as young as their mid-teen years – from fifteen to sixteen. In Finding Fela, none of this is acknowledged, rather it is side-stepped to focus on the “honour” he bestowed on them by hailing them as his queens. Choreographer and director of ‘FELA!’, Bill T. Jones, explains in the doc that he couldn’t fully explore this side of Fela in the musical, mainly because the times have changed and many in the audience would be experiencing the man for the first time in a theatre in Manhattan, New York. Alex Gibney does the same, very likely for the same reason.

Another reason why Finding Fela isn’t an entirely compelling watch, especially to audiences who are familiar with his life’s story and those seeking to know more beyond his status as a political activist, is the wealth of information about Fela that’s been made available to the public. Many long-form articles have been written, books have been published, and multiple documentaries about the man have been released, even dating as recent as BBC’s Fela: Father of Afrobeat from late last year. On a broader level, it begs the question of the fate of the stories of African music’s heroes, considering that very few have been able to corner the same level of obsessive attention Fela has garnered.

From What Happened, Miss Simone? to Amy and Beware of Mr. Baker, documentaries about iconic artists are full-on inquisitions that allow audiences to reckon with their inspirations as extremely talented individuals with their own quirks and traits, however undesirable. Finding Fela is far from a hagiography, but it clearly doesn’t dig deep enough. In a way, it portrays Fela as a bunch of ideas – mostly political – but people, even the most famous ones, are a lot more than a summation of their ideals.

It is widely known that African music has a documentation problem; many of our iconic figures’ stories are untold, and even when that happens, they aren’t always wholly represented. Finding Fela is a reminder of the dearth of these stories, not just as a pointer of the need to preserve, but also an example of why proper, critically tight documentation is urgent and important.

Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter