When the ‘President of the rich’ met the ‘Black President’
What does Emmanuel Macron's visit to Fela Kuti's New Afrika Shrine say about what happened to Fela Kuti's legacy in Nigeria.
Even after the event, many Nigerians may have missed that a French president had spent an entire evening, on July 8 2018, in one of the most emblematic, but also one of the most contested places of Lagos: the New Afrika Shrine—an historic cultural space associated with the iconic Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. It took giant advertising boards that read “Ecobank and TRACE invite President Macron to the Shrine,” the refurbishment of the road leading to the club, and finally an official announcement by the Lagos Authorities of the closing of the main axis around the New Afrika Shrine from noon to midnight, for everyone to realize that president Macron will spend an evening at the mythical club of Fela Kuti, surrounded by meticulously selected French, Nigerian and African personalities. The music and cultural TV channel, Trace.tv, proudly announced that the objective of this “night out” was meant to celebrate “African culture.”
Two days after the event, reactions began to emerge on social networks, first from Nigerian cultural and political personalities, but also from eminent members of African and diaspora artistic and intellectual spheres. Some artists, particularly those inspired by Fela Kuti, were as stupefied by the events that unfolded that night at the Shrine. Take Qudus Onikeku for instance, a dancer who choreographed a piece on Fela Kuti titled Africaman original, who described being “flabberwhelmed … I’ve written ten posts about last night at Afrika Shrine and I keep deleting them. Still can’t find the words,” he said. For others, such as Serge Aimé Coulibaly, also a dancer, choreographer and creator of a show on Fela Kuti, Kalakuta Republik, anger quickly replaced stupefaction: “Emmanuel Macron represents everything Fela was fighting against, so the symbol is contradictory. If it was to meet the youth, there are many other places in Lagos to do so.” On the contrary, the Kuti family, expressed a feeling of pride that the young president of a great Western power had chosen to visit an emblematic Nigerian venue in the frame of his two-day only official visit in their country.
So, for many people in Nigeria, the fact that President Macron – nicknamed in France the “President of the rich” – visited the Shrine of Fela Kuti, the self-proclaimed “Black President,” was quite exceptional. At the same time, this visit remained relatively unnoticed in French media, mentioned briefly as the president’s visit to a nightclub in the Nigerian economic capital.
In order to fully grasp the challenges at stake in this presidential visit to the Shrine in July 2018, one must revisit both the history of this mythical cultural and political place, the trajectory of its founder, Fela Kuti, and the evolution of the place since the death of its “Chief Priest” in 1997. This brief history of the Shrine allows us to understand how this place evolved from an artistic space, emblematic of forms of creativity and contestation conceived by its founder as “Pan-African” in opposition to the Western cultural, political and economic hegemony, to the emblem of a globalized “African” culture, stripped of its dissenting dimensions to support the political communication of a European president.
The many lives of the temple of Afrobeat
In fact, the New Afrika Shrine that hosted President Macron in July is not the first club founded by Fela Kuti. It is rather the third, opened by his son Femi Kuti following the death of his father, after a life dedicated to music and contestation of the Nigerian moral and political order deeply entrenched in 70 years of British colonisation and over 30 years of military dictatorship.
After studying classical music in London at the end of the 1950s and making a promising start as a saxophonist of “high life jazz” in Nigeria with his band Koola Lobitos, in 1967 Fela Kuti launched a new musical genre, an original mix of jazz, soul, funk, high-life and diverse Nigerian musical influences (such as Yoruba fuji or juju music). He named it “Afro-beat” around the same time he opened his first night club, The Afro-Spot, in The Empire Hotel, located between popular neighborhoods of Mushin, Yaba and Surulere on the Lagos mainland. At the time, the Biafra war was raging, but Fela was not yet involved politically. The seeds of his activism, planted notably during his childhood in Abeokuta by his mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, one of the leaders of the fight for independence and women rights at the end of the British colonial period, were still dormant.
During his stay in the USA in 1969, and after his intellectual and romantic encounter with the Afro-American activist Sandra Smith who was committed in the fight for civil rights, Fela developed deep anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist and Pan-African convictions:
It was in America I saw I was making a mistake. I didn’t know myself. I realized that neither me nor my music was going in the right direction. I came back home with the intent to change the whole system [….]. As soon as I got back home, I started to preach.
And to preach his new engagement through his music, Fela needed a shrine. Not long after his return to Nigeria in 1971, while General Yakubu Gowon was in power, Fela Kuti renamed his club the Afrika Shrine. He wished to set “some place meaningful, of progressive, mindful background with roots. I didn’t believe in playing any more in nightclubs.” The Afrika Shrine was for Fela everything but a night club. It was rather a space for contestation of the current military order, but also for intellectual exchanges and artistic and sensual communion around his music. A sacred space, in the true sense of the term. In parallel, Fela started an original communitarian experience in a compound in Surulere, not far from the Shrine. Baptized “Kalakuta Republic” in 1974, in reference to Fela’s first jail cell in Alagbon Close (marking the beginning of a long list of cells visited until the eve of his death), the compound welcomed numerous members of his family, including his mother and his partners (many of which were chorus girls and dancers at the Shrine), members of his band and even a recording studio.
Despite the frequent violent rampages by the Nigerian military, Fela and his people lived there until 1977, while preaching his Pan-African ideology several times a week at the Shrine. Benson Idonije, radio producer and close friend of Fela, described the politico-artistic-religious atmosphere of the space in these terms:
[Fela] saw it as a place of worship, like the church or the mosque in conformity with his politically motivated music machine and the ideals of his ideological heroes such as Kwame Nkrumah, Malcom X and Marcus Garvey. In pursuit of this avowed objective, the Shrine attracted people of all religions, classes and professions, among whom were university professors, students, foreign diplomats, and all. […] Relevant books and pamphlets were distributed to devotees by members of the Young African Pioneers to underscore the need for a cultural awareness, revival and economic power for a united Africa and Africans in the Diaspora. […]. However, as his marijuana imagery heightened, the Shrine began to be perceived by some cynics as a place where lawless people hid and indulged themselves in criminal activities. […]. It was as though the Shrine was patronised mainly by miscreants, never-do-wells, criminals, prostitutes, school drop-outs and people of dubious character.
It was from this jarring mix of audiences that emanated the originality and the power of the place, one of the few places in the 1970s where the entire Lagosian society could hang out, enjoy music and the good word of the ”Chief Priest.” Nevertheless, it was the presence of marginal people, seen as “troublesome,” and the practices of illegal activities such as consumption of marijuana, together with the always more virulent dissenting frond led by Fela in his songs and political diatribes, that signed the end of the first Shrine.
In 1977, after several years of military raids conducted with diverse and more or less fallacious motives against the Shrine and Kalakuta Republic, Fela’s compound suffered an ultimate intrusion when the compound was burnt to the ground and several of Fela’s wives violently molested, some of them raped. Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown from the 1st floor window. Aged 78, she will die of her wounds a couple of months later. Meanwhile, the Afrika Shrine was closed and destroyed in the years that followed.
But Fela Kuti was resilient and his fire still burnt vividly: he declared his candidacy for the presidential elections of 1979 (which was rejected) and as an umpteenth provocation, set up a representation of his mother’s coffin in front of General Obasanjo’s barracks; an event that inspired the song Coffin for the Head of State. Then, a year after the wreckage of Kalakuta Republic, he married 27 of his dancers and singers, as a claim for a necessary return to the “African” values and lifestyle; an event that caused a stir in Nigeria.
In 1980, the “Black President” opened a second Afrika Shrine on Pepple Street, at the heart of Ikeja, another popular district on the mainland. In an advertisement published in the newspaper The Punch to announce the official opening of the place, Fela reasserted the sacred character of the Shrine which he compared, with humor and a certain sense of provocation, to churches assiduously frequented by Nigerians:
- “The Church is an ideological center for the spreading of European and American cultural and political awareness.
The Shrine is an ideological center for the spreading of African cultural and political awareness.
- The Church is a place where songs are rendered for worship.
The Shrine is a place where songs are rendered for worship.
- The Church is a place where they collect money.
The Shrine is a place where we collect money.
- The Church is a place where they drink while worshipping (Holy Communion).
The Shrine is a place where we drink while worshipping.
- The Church is place where they smoke during worshipping (burning of incense).
The Shrine is place where we smoke during worshipping […]
- The Church is a place where they practice foreign religion. The Shrine is a place where we practice African religion.”
Indeed, during a stay in Ghana, where he met a ritualist, Professor Kwaku Addae Hindu, who subsequently became his “spiritual counsellor,” Fela deepened his commitment to what he called “African spirituality.” The ritual dimension of his music and performances at the Shrine got stronger, while staying as politically engaged as before. Apart from the Tuesday and Sunday evening performances, the Shrine offered a “Divination night,” comprising a ritual service followed by the “Comprehensive show.” Sola Olorunyomi provided a vibrant description of the atmosphere of these nights on Pepple Street:
At about 10pm on Saturdays, Pepple Street […] takes on an eerie mood […]. With only about two artisan shops, the street has bowed to the commercial pressure of the crowd that peaks on three days of the week: only confectionaries and bars dot this single lane bypass […].
Around the Shrine, contour-lined faces milling around the street corridor betray an unnamed anxiety. Bands of youth in thick-coated lipsticks, baseball caps, fez caps, corduroys and denim jeans sway by, in swagger style. Christian Dior, Alicia Alonso—irreverent perfumes make frantic efforts to impact on the whiff but get wafted off by a teenager’s single puff of marijuana. The sky of Pepple Street on Saturdays is a momentary overcast of marijuana smoke […].
It is midnight and there is a sudden eruption at the gate [of the Shrine] as a small cluster of youngsters guide a figure in the direction of the stage, and the charged atmosphere yields to catcalls, whistlings and shouts of “Bàbà Kuti”, “Fela Baba” […], some of Fela’s more familiar sobriquets […]. The crow is querying and accusing Fela of omnibus offenses. “Who the hell are you to keep us waiting?”, “Any member of your household ever got a wrist-watch?”, “Serves you right that the government detained you the last time!” […].
The band leader is standing on the central stage, slightly elevated […]. A neon light in blue background reflects a map of Africa in red contrast. Behind the band is inscribed the slogan: « Blackism-Force of the Mind ». The worship cubicle housing deities in on the left-hand corner, midway between the stage and the audience. [The band leader] seizes the microphone, tells a little anecdote about the African condition […], and then, “introducing to you the one and only A-bà-mi-E-da, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti,” coinciding with a spontaneous outburst of percussive rhythm, followed by brass instruments, guitar and all, in no particular order […] stops! Microphone in one hand, a long wrap of marijuana in the other: “Everybody say yee-ye,” here is Fela trying to give prep the night’s performance.”
On the shrine displaying the representations of several Yoruba deities, portraits of Black leaders such as Malcom X, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti could be also noticed. After singing for a while, Fela would leave the stage for the shrine to do some offerings of gin, cola nuts and the sacrifice of a fowl. When this ritual would be over, Fela would come back on stage to deliver his famous “yabbis,” political and religious dithyrambs, thrown between humor and anger, sometimes ending up as a harangue. They were said to be inspired by the ancestors and the Yoruba entities that had just been honored, and could plead for an election boycott, for the support of a political cause or announce the fall of a military regime on the continent.
Often oriented against the successive military governments, the long politico-religious speeches of Fela also regularly targeted the Western powers and the foreign multinational companies accused of collaborating to maintain a form of neocolonial exploitation of Africa and of plundering its resources with the help of African leaders. The song I.T.T. (International Thief Thief), released in 1979, where Fela used the acronym of the American multinational International Telephone and Telegraph, was emblematic of his anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist commitments.
During the 1980s, Fela acquired an international audience and multiplied tours overseas, while the Afrika Shrine in Pepple Street remained his Nigerian headquarters. He reinforced the political dimension of the place in 1992 by welcoming five activists and first-hand opponents to the Nigerian political system freshly released from General Babangida’s gaols. Human rights activists from all over the world also came to visit the place regularly and show their support to Fela. Paradoxically, it was probably one of the most relative peaceful periods of Fela’s life, even if he continued to protest fiercely against Shagari (from 1979 to 1983), Buhari (from 1983 to 1985) and then Babangida (from 1985 to 1993).
However, harassment from the authorities resumed in 1993. It reached a peak between February and June 1997, under General Abacha, when Fela Kuti was arrested six times consecutively, his last detention being undoubtedly the most inhumane and humiliating of the previous 199 arrests for diverse motives—ranging from possession of marijuana to homicide or pedophilia—he experienced during his life. At this occasion, soldiers invaded the Shrine, shut it down and forbade its access to Fela, even to honor the deities on the club’s altar.
Fela Kuti died two months later, aged 58, following an HIV infection that he never wanted to admit. Even after the official announcement of the causes of his death by his brother and doctor, the deputy priest of the Shrine, Ayorunbo, argued that the “Black President” did not die of AIDS but rather because of the anger of the Shrine’s deities, following its desecration by the military. This explanation seemed perfectly in line with the way Fela originally conceived his Afrika Shrine, both as an artistic gathering, a place of worship and a space for political contestation. It also highlighted the central role of the Shrine in the existence of its “Chief Priest,” even as a potential cause of his dramatic end.
The New Afrika Shrine of Femi Kuti
After Fela’s death, the Afrika Shrine on Pepple Street was destroyed in 1999. In October 2000, Femi, who took up the musical, and to a lesser extent, political and spiritual torch of his father, opened the New Afrika Shrine, in the same district of Ikeja, this time on Nerdc Road. Inside a wide warehouse converted into a concert hall, everything was designed to recreate the aesthetic and the atmosphere of the Shrine on Pepple Street. Portraits of Fela’s pan-African and Afro-American heroes now adorn the stage, together with his mother’s and a huge map of Africa showing Fela doing his famous “Black salute”. On the right side of the stage, visitors can see the shrine welcoming the deities of the place, where Femi also regularly makes offerings. Every wall is now also adorned by representations of and emblematic quotes from Fela Kuti, such as “The secret to life is to have no fear.”
From an aesthetic perspective, the New Afrika Shrine seems close to the descriptions of Fela’s past Shrines. As for the atmosphere, the rough acoustic of the place, produced through a tinkered sound system amplified by the metal roofs, reflects the one evoked by the faithful of the Black President’s old clubs. The dampness of the hot air penetrating from the openings in the roof, then pushed down on the audience by the multiple fans feverishly rotating on the ceiling, enhances the sensual atmosphere of the place. Stripped dancers, adorned with glass beads ornaments, their faces skillfully painted with white dots, are still lasciviously swaying their hips on stage or in one of the two little cage-like podiums encased with a net that are installed on both side of the stage.
Many hawkers navigate between the plastic tables and chairs, trying to draw customers’ attention on their trails full of peppered goat meat, fried shrimps, beef suya or vanilla ice creams that are rapidly melting in the moist and hot air. The whole place is bathed in a cloud of tobacco and cannabis smoke, which makes it one of the only places in Lagos – to our knowledge – where so many people openly smoke in public. Students from Lagos University on a spree hang out next to “area boys”, petty thugs from the neighborhood some of them recruited by the security services of the Shrine, young beggars crippled by polio circulating on skate boards, and expats and members of the Lagosian youth elite removed from their ultra-secured estates of Ikoyi or Victoria Island on the other side of the lagoon. On stage, during several hours of performances organized every Thursday, Sunday and sometimes Saturday (when Seun Kuti, the other son of Fela Kuti who also carries on the family tradition, plays), Femi Kuti often interrupts his band to take over the passionate “yabbis” of his father. The entrance fee stays modest (few hundred Nairas no more), while some nights are totally free. The atmosphere of Fela’s shrine seems also to be preserved.
But what of the spirit of the place? That is where many things seem to have changed. Many advertisement boards have mushroomed on the club’s walls, associating Fela Kuti’s image with beer brands or phone operators. Also, each October during Felabration, the annual festival dedicated to Fela Kuti, a crowd fills up the place every night to see new and young Nigerian artists perform. Though all claim to be in line with Fela, very few actually have taken over his musical style and even fewer his values and commitments. These singers of “Pop Naija” or “Afrobeats” (so not to be confused with “Afrobeat”), the lucrative Lagosian music industry flooding the African continent with its production, take turns on stage to sing without auto-tune support, sounding mostly out of tune.
Finally, despite the militant speeches of Femi and Seun Kuti, presented abroad as Nigerian political activists in line with their father’s commitments (while they seem actually relatively uninvolved in Nigerian political life), the New Afrika Shrine has opened its doors to administrative authorities, starting with the former Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, otherwise very contested for his management of the megacity, which seems more oriented toward the elite and foreign investors (see for instance the emblematic Eko Atlantic project) than toward infrastructures and primary public services development for the more than 12 million Lagosians. Indeed, Ambode was first seen at the New Afrika Shrine in October 2017, dancing on stage with Femi Kuti to celebrate the 79th posthumous birthday of Fela, before being joined by President Macron on this evening of July 2018.
Pilgrimage or desecration?
On the evening of the French president’s visit at the New Afrika Shrine, the event co-organized by Nigerian owned EcoBank, the self-proclaimed “Pan African Bank” and TRACE, a French media group oriented toward “afro-urban entertainment,” billed it as a memorable cultural, political and economic event. President Macron was to announce the organization of the “Season of African cultures” in France in 2020, with the objective “to promote in France the image of an Africa in move and mutation.” A myriad of renowned artists were supposed to represent the musical diversity of the continent, from the Beninese Angélique Kidjo to the Senegalese Youssou NDour. TheTRACE CEO, Olivier Laouchez, also stressed how President Macron’s visit at the New Afrika Shrine symbolized the latter’s respect for the Nigerian cultural identity. However, despite all these efforts, it was rather an evening when a so-called “African culture”, in its most essentialist acceptation, was celebrated.
To match the expected standards of an official presidential visit, the place was “sanitized”, to recall the expression of Sola Olorunyomi, lecturer at the University of Ibadan and author of Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined continent, one of the must-reads on Fela Kuti (see also the detailed description of the evening by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo). The waiters were dressed in pink shirts and bow ties. A new sound and light system were set up on stage. Large black boards exhibiting Nigerian artworks, selected by Art X Lagos, an annual contemporary art fair, were installed alongside the walls, hiding some of Fela’s quotes. Similarly, the portraits of the Pan-African political icons were masked by a huge digital screen set up at the back of the stage. Last but not least, the toilets were entirely renovated.
Concerning the narratives mobilized during this evening, the recurrent slippage by President Macron from Nigerian culture to an “African” culture seems to please the Nigerian audience, whose cultural industries, through cinema (Nollywood) or music (Pop Naija), have sought for several years now to represent the entire continent on the international scene.
But one can also notice how Macron recycled, behind the recurrent mobilization of the term “Africa”, the themes of “unity” and “Pan African independence” dear to Fela Kuti, to use them for completely different purposes. On the one hand, the Nigeria youth was invited to build Africa by staying there (or going back there), a statement which sounded quite contradictory coming from a young president who, on multiple occasions during his public interventions, highlighted how his stay in Abuja as an intern of the French National School of Administration (ENA) was precious and impactful in his outstanding political career.
On the other hand, the “Season of African cultures” announced for 2020 will represent according to President Macron a major innovation, because these events organized in France will be exclusively funded by African entrepreneurs, who will therefore show the “face of African culture in Europe, but organized by Africa, with Africa, [proposing] what you like, what is important to you here.” A statement which can seem quite cynical, considering the lack of investment from the public sphere and from African entrepreneurs into the artistic and cultural scenes of their own countries.
Finally, from a political perspective, President Macron also knows how to use for his benefit the dissenting dimension of the New Afrika Shrine. He doesn’t fail to point it out at the beginning of his speech, only to better position himself in line with Fela Kuti by reminding the “young” Nigerians, as a “young” president, that it is important to get into politics. On the Nigerian side, and especially for the Kuti family, a French President’s visit in the history of the successive Shrines is seen as long-awaited recognition of Fela, both as an artist and an activist: “the presence of E. Macron tonight at the Shrine gives justice to my father’s fight,” declared Femi to the press, “it justifies the reconstruction of the Shrine after his death. Back then, many criticized us stating that the Shrine was only a place for hoodlums and weed smokers. The fact that a French president is here today is a very strong symbolic and political statement.” Femi Kuti called also Emmanuel Macron “as the rest of the world, to stop to sustain corruption and injustice in the all of Africa to support progressive forces in this continent.” For the Kuti family, as for many Nigerians, living in an ultra-liberal context while being maybe little aware of French politics, the ideological and political positions of E. Macron, notably on social questions or migration, were considered as “very progressive.” Hence, they are not seen as contradictory with the anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist and Pan African principles of the “Black President.”
An ‘African’ symbol rendered meaningless
President Macron’s visit to the New Afrika Shrine, invited jointly by the Kuti family and two French and Nigerian companies, cannot be reduced to a simple diplomatic-fashionable party for African and Afrophile artists and cultural operators. On the contrary, this event, together with popular phenomena such as the global box office success of Black Panther, showcased how cultural “African” symbols are gaining ground and legitimacy in the globalized imaginaries, conveyed notably by international media. As a space for artistic, but also political expression well-known by African or Afro-descendant intellectuals and artists, but relatively little known by the international general public, Fela Kuti’s Shrine, and through it, the emblematic figure of the “Black President” gained a new resonance with the French president’s visit. But at the same time, the attempts of political recovery of this symbol by President Macron marked the culmination of a long attenuation process of the space’s ideological and dissenting dimensions that started since the opening of the last Shrine by Fela’s heirs, eighteen years ago.
Moreover, on the occasion of this presidential visit, the Shrine was denied its particular history, intrinsically linked to that of its founder, itself so representative of the political, economic and cultural upheavals of Lagos and Nigeria postcolonial history. The reinvestment of this artistic, religious and political symbol, originally built as an emblem of pan African unity by Fela Kuti, to represent an “African” culture essentialized for political communication ends by President Macron, doesn’t signal the “beginning of a new fight around the “African sign” (as analyzed by Achille Mbembe), but rather its re-actualization to a new global scale. At its heart, the defense of “the plurality of the world,” and notably of the African continent, to think a truly universal horizon, as championed by the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, appears now more than ever a colossal challenge.