Fela's Foundation: Examining the Revolutionary Songs of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Abeokuta Market Women's Movement in 1940s Western Nigeria

Article excerpt

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's afrobeat occupies a pivotal position in Nigeria's musical continuum and socio-political discourse. Through Fela, a new medium of social and political criticism was unearthed for the critical mass of Nigerians in the 1970s. Although Nigeria was experiencing what would turn out to be a brief respite of oil-boom prosperity after the bitter Biafran civil war, Fela used his music to remind the society to be critical of and cautious about the military dictatorship and the impact of neocolonialism on the psyche of the Nigerian people.

Nigerian artists who arrived on the scene decades after Fela--including Lagbaja and Fela's sons, Femi and Seun--were influenced by the style and content that characterized Fela's music. Afrobeat, a syncopated fusion of jazz, flank, and African beats, formed a colorful backdrop for Fela's caustic social commentary and political criticism, which were framed by lyrics replete with defiance, symbolism, satire, and dry humor. Carlos Moore appropriately describes Fela, the man, as being "synonymous with music and protest" (Moore 1982, 12). This peculiar mixture of sound and message has been carried on by other contemporary artists in the African diaspora, including Common, Talib Kweli, Sade, Mos Def, Macy Gray, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello. Michael Eric Dyson calls this group of contemporary American artists the progeny of Fela (Dyson 2003, xiv). In tracing the most significant musical and political influences upon Fela, musical historians usually point to jazz, soul, James Brown, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bob Marley on the one hand, and Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Eldridge Cleaver on the other (Grass 1986; Moore 1982; Collins 1992).

According to journalist Richard Byrne (2003, xx), "it was [Fela's] trip to the United States in 1969 that cemented the marriage between afrobeat and politics. On this journey, Fela encountered America's 'Black Power' movement--which was then at its zenith--and began to see the possibilities of mixing pop and politics." Many other scholars have corroborated this view, suggesting that this is the only way in which one can understand him. They seem to insist that "the immediate setting for [his] revolution (and for the shaping of Fela's consciousness) was the United States, and the immediate revolutionaries were Black Americans" (Labinjoh 1982, 119).

Tejumola Olaniyan notes in his book Arrest the Music (2004) that most Fela enthusiasts come forth with an attitude of "now convince me what else there is to know about Fela" (18). This paper contends that there is indeed more to consider. Branching away from the collective of afrobeat experts and enthusiasts, this paper urges a rethinking of Fela's influences. The primary contention here is that he was heavily influenced both musically and politically by his mother. Leading a group of embattled local women, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900--1978) confronted deeply rooted traditional patriarchy and the choking tentacles of colonialism in 1940s Abeokuta. Far from detracting from the existing discourse on Fela, this paper seeks to add a vital dimension to our understanding of his genius by examining closely the character of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) and the songs that she and the market women created and sang during their revolt in Abeokuta.

The rare attention that a few of Fela's biographers have bestowed on his mother's activism has not closely examined the nature of her activism in relation to his music. For instance, in Arrest the Music, Olaniyan describes FRK's activism but seems to doubt its real impact on her son's music. According to Olaniyan (2004, 23, 161), Fela's particular mode of elocution seemed to come straight out of American gangster movies and as to her direct musical influence, he refers only to the fact that she advised him to play more highlife and less jazz. This is reiterated in Moore's Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life (1982, 78). …