Research in African Literatures 32.2 (2001) 76-89
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The Cosmopolitan Nativist: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the Antinomies of Postcolonial Modernity
Even in death, the Nigerian Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-97) remains, without doubt, Africa's most controversial popular musician, and the one with perhaps the largest following outside the continent. Today, no reputable online compact disc store is without a generous sample of the musician's recordings, many of which appear to be no more than opportunistic compilations designed to cash in on the renewed popular interest in the musician since his death. Fela, as his fans call him, is renowned for his distinctive "Afrobeat" sound (itself a masterly blend of diverse forms), his politically charged lyrics and anti-establishment politics, his offbeat charismatic figure, his many encounters with the Nigerian authorities leading to his repeated harassments, prosecutions, and imprisonments, and his general flamboyantly nonconformist lifestyle. Such a spectacular figure is already a sure candidate for uncomplicated and one-dimensional appropriations, especially given the pressures of "watered-down" labeling demanded by mass culture marketing, not to say marketers. In any case, the point could be made in the latter's defense that those cash-and-carry profiles in popular encyclopedias and "world beat" pamphlets pretend to no higher purpose than advertisement, that plainly motivated and unashamedly biased genre of persuasion. But even otherwise useful studies have been understandably awed by this or that particular side of Fela, sacrificing a much more robust assessment as a result (Grass, Stanovsky, Idowu).
The frank admission needs to be made right away that an even-tempered critique of such a multisided popular artist who excites little but untethered passions is indeed a great challenge to thought. Yet Fela's musical practice is too textured to gloss and discipline into a univocal narrative, no matter how alluring that option is. I suggest that a chastening, and therefore potentially more rewarding, study of that musical practice is best pursued by examining what I identify as its hallmark: its "antinomies."
Musically, Fela was an accomplished musician but his extrasonic or extramusical reputation dominated and still dominates that of the musical. He thoroughly enjoyed this extramusical reputation and repeatedly stoked its fire in pronouncements and lifestyle, but he nevertheless struggled laboriously in each (of his trademark one-song) album to subvert and redirect that attention to the musical. He did this by emphasizing "pure sound" in two ways: (1) he sang only on one side of an album, while the other side is devoted entirely to instrumentals; and (2) even the side devoted to the song is prefaced by an extended instrumental "introduction," further reducing the overall time allotted to the sensational, rhetorically ostentatious, and politically inflaming lyrics. At the level of personal lifestyle, he was an indefatigable campaigner against tyranny but ran a strictly hierarchical [End Page 76] household, much like a palace, though with hardly the structural checks and balances of model indigenous Yoruba monarchies. He was the son of Nigeria's foremost nationalist feminist (Johnson-Odim and Mba), but he was also the one who gave many boys of my generation a language for our sexism, and made that sexist language extremely musically pleasurable. In terms of political ideology, he was a cultural nationalist, but his main intellectual props were Kwame Nkrumah and Walter Rodney, two decidedly left-leaning and anti-cultural nationalist intellectuals. The critic, and Fela's friend, John Howe hints at these antinomies when he notes that Fela "had no interest in perfect philosophic correctness," and that "contradictions of a sometimes painful sort were apparent in Fela's own life and household" (130).
A figure of crisis, antinomy describes a contradiction between conclusions or inferences drawn from equally warranted or necessary principles. It marks the radically dispersed heterogeneity of desire, and a reaffirmation of the irrepressible bursting seams of the social in the face of the usually disciplining aspirations of thought, of the knowing subject. A "fundamental aporia" (McCole 295), antinomy is the condition of incommensurability between judgments that seem just as valid, coherent, or...