Legacy of legendary Nigerian musician, activist gets fresh look

Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti inspired millions of Africans and some of the biggest names in western pop with the Afrobeat sound he created and his heroic struggle against an oppressive military dictatorship.

Now, 17 years after his death, Fela's legacy is getting a fresh look in a new film, CBS News' Anthony Mason reports.

"He's small but has enormous presence, who moves so gracefully. Big smile, but burning eyes with a kind of hurt and also intensity and rage that I think captivates you," said Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney. "You think, wow!"

Gibney combed through 1,000 hours of archival film for his new documentary, "Finding Fela."

The film tells the story of the man who, for nearly three decades, led a one-man revolution with his music.

"Here was a guy who sat around his compound nearly naked, almost all the time, maybe a Speedo on, holding forth, usually with a huge number of women all around," Gibney said, "but at the same time was going toe to toe with the military."

Fela was born to a prominent Nigerian family. In 1969, his music took him to Los Angeles, where he was deeply influenced by the American civil rights movement. When he returned to Nigeria, Fela took up the fight against a corrupt military dictatorship.

"That's what his phrase was, 'music is a weapon,' in the sense that there's no shield for the human heart," Gibney said. "Once you imbue the spirit of that music, no matter how powerful the dictator, you can't shatter that spirit."

Gibney was inspired to create the film partly because of Fela's profound impact on other popular artists.

"Paul McCartney, who's in the film, talks about how he wept when he went to the shrine, which is where Fela used to perform in Lagos," Gibney said.

He called the sound Afrobeat, a mixture jazz, funk, church hymns and chanted vocals. That sound hooked American businessman Stephen Hendel, who, after discovering Fela's music online, would become the most unlikely messenger of his story.

"I was just totally floored," Hendel said. "I had never heard music like that, the great musician who had sacrificed everything to stand up for human dignity, and nobody knew who he was."

In 2003, Hendel acquired the rights to Fela's music, and along with backers like Jay Z and Will and Jada Smith, Hendel produced the musical "Fela!", which had a two-year run on Broadway.

"They arrested him 200 times," Hendel said. "They beat him incessantly. They burned his compound down, threw his mother out the window, and she died from that."

But Hendel said nothing stopped the musician.

"He'd come out of jail, and he'd write another incredibly brilliant song, and the words of the song essentially were, 'You guys are stealing our liberty, our freedom, our dignity, and we're never going to stop fighting you.'"

Fela was jailed in 1984. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, which elevated his profile.

When Fela died of AIDS in 1997, one million people went to his memorial.

Today, his legacy is carried on by groups like Chop and Quench, the band from the Broadway musical.

Last month, they were joined on stage by one of Fela's sons, Femi Kuti.

"Ideas must be taken from great musicians who have great ideas," Femi said. "Because they identify with the masses. They identify with the suffering of a lot of people. So it's very important for politicians to communicate with these kind of people for brilliant ideas on how to resolve a lot of political issues."

Gibney said, "His music resonates for resistance and the unwillingness to bow your head to authority."

"It's about legacy and inspiration," Hendel said, "what a man can stand for, what a man leaves and how a man's legacy can inspire."

Comments

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

The Newsroom