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There are many people who would want to rule the world and there are also many people who would want to change the world. Few succeed in doing so but there are those who belong to neither group and yet left a legacy that became some form of blueprint that others try to emulate.
The lives of Bob Marely and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti came from divergent paths but led to the same conclusion: the creation of music icons that influenced future generations. Their success can be attributed to their musical genius but at the same time it is also due to their ability to speak to their times, especially the socio-political component of nation building. They were also able to speak words, through their music that transcended culture, religion and social classes.
Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s music and lyrics would make no sense until the reader is acquainted with three powerful forces that shaped Africa, the American continent and nearby tropical nations like Jamaica. These three related terms came to shape how people behave and how they were treated by outsiders and these three are: slavery; inequality; and poverty. These three are related and it can even be argued that these three were listed in descending order based on the history of these places.
Slavery came first via a twisted concept called racism. It is therefore important to have a clear definition of this word. From a standard dictionary the definition is revealed to be the idea that one group of individuals is superior to another.
Interestingly, this definition did not only come from philosophers and opinionated intellectuals not sure of what to do with their time. This definition came via university studies. Social scientists in the 19th century were adamant that people can be categorized in descending order of importance. A Caucasian may not take offense with this view but if one is of African descent then this mindset is racist and utterly unacceptable.
In a level playing field those of African and even Asian heritage can compete with those who came from European stock. But this view came late after the end of slavery in the latter part of the 19th century and finally laid to rest after the successful although tumultuous Civil Rights movement in the United States. However, before the time of liberation came people of African ancestry had to find ways to speak out against slavery, inequality and poverty.
The obvious consequence of slavery is inequality. In a society populated by men and women created equal in the eyes of God, there has now a differentiation based on social classes. During the time of Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti the social classes were rigidly structured.
As a result there were forces at play preventing the progress of the mind and spirit of those who lived in the colonies. The common bond between Nigeria and Jamaica are the British overlords that subjected the population into years of harsh treatment on the basis of the color of their skin.
Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti saw the destructive effects of inequality and it soon became clear to them that unless an egalitarian society rises up from the ashes of colonial rule then there is no way to end poverty in Jamaica and Nigeria. These two magnificent songwriters and incredible performers had to be commended for how they tried to shape their world for the better when they had the chance to do so.
But this is not the main reason why they continue to be popular and as of this moment their stock continues to rise as they become more of a legendary figure not only in the music industry but even in the sphere of political science. One of the reasons why they have a strong appeal in the hearts and minds of 21st century people can be traced to the fact that their messages continue to ring true in the hearts and minds of the listeners. For instance, inequality and poverty continue to exist decades after their death.
Consider for instance that in the January 22nd issue of The Economist for year 2011, there is an article entitled the Inequality: The Rich and the Rest (Shah, p.1). According to the said article, inequality and poverty exists because of the lack of social mobility (Shah, p.1). Social mobility is impossible without access to quality education and institutions that will make it possible to acquire loans and other means to start up some form of business enterprise. The lyrics of Marley and Fela’s songs speak against this form of inequality.
In countries were there is a conscious drive towards an egalitarian society, there is a deliberate eradication of the walls that acts as barriers for social mobility. Marley and Fela try to influence the political powers of Jamaica and Nigeria so that real change can occur. There are other people with different expertise that can hope to achieve the same thing but the special giftedness of these two artists gave them the ability to rise above the rest because they have a potent weapon: poetry and music.
In February 18, 1977 a thousand soldiers stormed into the home of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and they beat up the musician together with his friends, guests, and family members (Olaniyan, p.1). The women were sexually assaulted and Fela’s sickly mother was violently tossed to the ground and all of these things were done in broad daylight (Olaniyan, p.1).
It requires a great deal of offense in order for a civilian to generate such kind of hatred from the government. Part of the answer lies in the fact that Fela’s mother was an anticolonial nationalist and feminist. The attack generated global condemnation but a government sanctioned inquiry said that no one knew the real identity of the soldiers and if indeed they were soldiers at all.
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Fela responded with a composition entitled Unknown Soldier and once again he was able to lift himself up above the fray. All his life his music was his primary weapon. Fela’s music of choice can be simplified into one genre, the afrobeat.
It is a form of African music that Fela unconsciously turned into a way to express his political views. It was not Fela’s original intent to use music to speak against the government and the Nigerian way of life characterized by poverty, violence and corruption in the highest levels of governance (Olaniyan, p.175). But it was a responsibility forced upon by the circumstances, of which he had no control.
Fela utilized his talent in creating music and writing poetry as he attempted to inspire his people to stand up against a corrupt government. He said that corruption has become part of the fabric of Nigerian society, to the point that the word has lost its meaning there (Veal, p.2).
He said that the politicians had no shame parading their wealth around the capital even if the whole nation reeled from the impact of hunger and suffering. The following poem, written in crude English explains why a thousand soldiers descended upon his home that fateful day in February 1977 and he spoke it out loud in his nightclub named the Shrine:
When Corrupted Babangida (the President of Nigeria at that time) go for France, Mitterand no wan meet am. He go dey send a cultural minister. He go say Nigeria be nation of thieves. The man was disgraced. When he came back, the fucking army was kicking ass all over Nigeria! Na how many students dem kill fo’ dat one? (Veal, p.3).
No wonder then that his life and music attracted government persecution for three decades. His sharpest criticism is centered upon his disgust for what he termed as the second coming of slavery in his country. In one of his famous performances he gestured to the crowd and said “Bro’s and sisters, I’m gonna play for you now, a thing we call M.A.S.S. – Music Against Second Slavery” (Veal, p.3). Fela was able to mix religion, music, poetry, and politics into a potent brew and that partially explains his success and enduring legacy.
He was born Robert Marley to a Jamaican mother and Englishman father. At a very young age he understood the meaning of abandonment and social inequality when his white father left him and his mother. Just like Fela, Marley was conscious of his past, especially when it comes to the history of slavery in his country.
When Great Britain took control of Jamaica from the Spanish Empire in 1655, they introduced the use of slaves to be utilized as workers in farm sugar plantations (Jeffrey, p.4). When the sugar industry went through tough times, the slaves were freed in 1838 (Jeffrey, p.4). But this created a mass of people that were illiterate and without any form of asset to their names. As a result a major divide can be seen between the rich and the poorest of the poor.
Marley’s music was like a healing balm to the poor and the hopeless people of Jamaica. But he was so good at what he does that he transcended the boundaries of Jamaica. Influenced by music that came from the United States, Marley was able to create music the Americans love and through them he became known all over the world.
He became a part of a singing trio called the Wailing Wailers and their first hit was a direct appeal for their fellow Jamaicans to stay calm during a period of civil unrest (Jeffrey, p.7). While Fela used the afrobeat as a medium for his political message, Marley made reggae the vehicle to which his poetry and music can soar.
According to one commentary, “Marley’s lyrics are representative of that aspect of Jamaican popular culture which challenges the episteme of the colonial and neocolonial order, and engages in symbolic warfare against this order … one not only dances to Marley, but one has to listen to Marley, since he is both singing and engaging in social criticism” (Bogues, p.197).
Marley became the spokesman for those who cannot speak and even after his death there are those who carried that mantle and like Fela he is celebrated not only as a revolutionary but someone who changed lives through music.
There is a big gulf of separation between Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Marley was from Jamaica and Fela was from Nigeria. They both lived in different times and under different cultures. Fela used afrobeat to send forth his message against inequality, corruption and poverty. Marley on the other hand used reggae to disperse his message of love and unity. Both men used music and poetry to change the lives of many people and their legacy endures to this day.
Bogues, Anthony. Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Individuals. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
Jeffrey, Gary. Bob Marley: The Life of a Musical Legend. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2007. Print.
Olaniyan, Tejumola. Arrest the Music!: Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics. IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.
Shah, Anup. 10 Mar. 2011. “Inequality: The Rich and the Rest.” The Economist. Jan. 2011. 09 June 2011. http://www.globalissues.org/issue/2/causes-of-poverty
Veal, Michael. Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. PA: Temple University Press, 2000. Print.