- Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics
Tejumola Olaniyan's book examines the aesthetic and political dimensions of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's afro-beat, a musical idiom that draws from multiple styles like highlife, jazz, and varieties of indigenous African music, and through which Fela addressed many of the challenges that beset the African postcolonial environment. Olaniyan argues that afro-beat, in its full maturity, constituted the denouement of Fela's transformation from an "apolitical hustler" to an ideologically committed artist. Musical features like multilayered ostinato patterns, corroborative punctuations of brass instruments, solo-dominated call-responsorial phrases, and the sheer force of a massive ensemble, though initially devoid of any strong political meaning in Fela's music, would later become bearers of a dissident political ideology.
In spite of the clarity of Fela's political message, however, a seeming element of ambivalence pervades his music. Take, for example, Fela's persistent advocacy of an "authentic" African culture, and its negation of the quite considerable impact of European elements on his music. Olaniyan employs the figure of antinomy to engage such contradictions, and suggests that Fela's music is both a symptom and a resister of a modernism that is at once oppressive and "enchanting." The resort to an illusionary African authenticity was strategic to Fela's attempt to configure a protected space within which he could reclaim an agency that he believed had been undermined by colonization and modernity.
Olaniyan ascribes symbolic and performative significance to Fela's narcissist traits and "libidinal obsession." He argues that Fela's popularizing of sex in and out of performances was discomforting for many listeners, and thus had a deconstructive tendency that matched the counterhegemonic theme of his music. Fela's employment of satire as a mode of discourse and his appropriation of the pedagogical image of a teacher in his musical performances were ego-boosting strategies that served to impose his views on audiences by closing the gap "between signification and meaning." Fela's music, though attenuating to the oppressive power of the ruling elite in Nigeria, ironically also provides symbolic evidence of his overbearing personality.
It is a pity that the views of Fela's teeming admirers are evidently marginalized in Olaniyan's study. Given the populist nature of the subject of investigation, the opinions of listeners would have provided additional basis for understanding the nature of public response to Fela's music and for evaluating the effectiveness of his political crusade both within and outside Nigeria.
A literary scholar, Olaniyan writes lucidly and in an entertaining manner. His passion for Fela's music, though quite palpable throughout the book, is well contained within a critical discourse that is incisive and engaging. While his descriptions of Fela's music do not rely on notation and on the sort of technical language that might be employed by ethnomusicologists or musicologists, they are nonetheless very effective in conveying important features and themes of Fela's music.