Academic Technology, CCSU
For more information
Prof. Gloria Emeagwali
CCSU History Dept.
1615 Stanley Street
New Britain, CT 06050
Ransome Kuti was enigmatic and complex -
a creative genius who became an iconoclast, a revolutionary,
a resistor and an ebullient,
radical - a man larger
than life. The Broadway
Fela! encapsulates color,
beauty, symbolism, exuberance, rhythm and spiritualism. We see the
great Orisas and spiritual entities of Yoruba culture in their
paraphernalia; and relish the
dynamic dance. But this
is Africa in all its pain and glory, its tribulations and triumphs.
One also weeps over the death of Nigeria's
activist, the great Funmilayo Ransome Kuti,
the mother of
Fela Ransome Kuti. The musical deals with grand themes, including
the critique of the Nigerian military; the agonizing process of
transformation of Fela,
from a naive
musician to an informed pan - Africanist,
pained nationalist, and
tortured musical genius; and the
courage and daring of Mrs Ransome Kuti.
Fela! also deals
with human rights violations,
and reflects African resilience through song and dance. It includes
great protest music and
immortalizes one of
the most daring songs of protest of the 20th century
against trigger-happy military
adventurism. 'Zombie' is a critique of the Nigerian military
but it has global resonance and meaning for military encampments and
militaristic adventurers everywhere.
Oseye, Professor of English
her article ‘Fela revisited, Breaking it down,’ in this issue of
Africa Update, offers an
incisive and illuminating critique of
Fela! with a major focus
on the symbolic use of number and color in this masterpiece.
Professor Oseye uncovers the complex layers of physics, philosophy
and art, the underlying symbolism, and
the complex ‘layers of brilliance’ expressed in the choreography and
the musical narrative. She identifies some of the core tenets of
Orisha theology and their
significance to Fela! the
musical, and provides an
indispensable guide for both the layman and the initiated. We thank
her for her illuminating contribution.
The issue concludes with
insightful reflections on rap
and Senegal by Lavonda Staples, a doctoral
student at Howard University.
Dr. Gloria Emeagwali
Return to Table of Contents
Revisited Breaking it Down’
Ebele N. Oseye,
Pace University, New York
Who is Obalogun?
Who are the monsters who kill with their terrible cries? What
happens when the Cat wakes up?
I thought that I had entered a dream during my first viewing of
Fela! at the Eugene
O'Neill Theater, early in December 2009. I was so immersed in a
collision of colors and the orchestrated pandemonium that I could
barely breathe. Early in Act One, I had to pull away from the cosmic
energies so furiously spinning to ask, "What mind could harmonize
such breathtaking wonder?"
To my far right, in a box seat, sat Director and Choreographer, Bill
T. Jones. He was the visible presence of years of incredibly hard
work, research, collaboration, patience, experience and sheer
talent. At my most recent viewing, Saturday 22 May 2010, ticket
holders started fancy stepping in the lobby and we kept
shaking until we reached our seats, enjoying the live music which
precedes the opening of each show: the Afrobeat created by musician
and activist, the internationally celebrated, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
The title role is being played by Sahr Nguajah and Kevin
How to describe Fela!
This musical is timeless,
almost uncanny as we see the horrific results of oil gushing in the
Gulf of Mexico, destroying livelihoods and lives.
Fela is life-affirming
educational entertainment. it gives us an indispensable teaching
It is true recreation (re-creation): an experience which connects us
to self-knowledge, an experience which continuously makes us new. It
is art born of a magnificent imagination which comprehends science
and art. Compassion flows in every song, in every dance. It is art
which allows the audience to dream. It is art layered with beauty
and terror. It is light in its complete spectrum. It speaks
truth effectively, in a word or in dance. It speaks truth with
courage regarding religion, enslavement and economic exploitation.
It connects us to history and African culture, especially the Yoruba
culture of Nigeria.
It is the coming together of Africans born on the continent and
Africans born in America. In
Act One of two acts, Fela!
tells many stories within the main story of the
protagonist's struggles to live in a corrupt Nigeria following
independence from the British. While Fela's mother, Funmilayo, had
already been murdered by the state as the musical opens, she
comes to life through dream, and through memory. A cat, ornately
sculptured, is placed near her portrait. There could be trouble when
the Cat wakes up.
One begins as the narratives of all world heroes begin, with a
departure. Fela would leave Nigeria and begin a physical journey to
London, New York, California, Berlin, Madrid and other international
localities. But the greater dangers occur in Act Two as Fela
struggles to make the ascent, to reach the higher realm of the
ancestors so that he can communicate with his mother. Here he risks
mind and body in order to save himself and community. The story will
come full circle when Fela returns home.
The circle is one of several powerful symbols which transports the
audience. It's the movement of the clock. It's in the nine
wives who encircle Fela. Nine lights spiral on the floor all going
counter clockwise, following the movement of planets and Sun in our
own solar system - when
viewed above the Sun. In another scene, there are fifteen circles to
set another less pleasant mood.
You can expect the circles to reverse direction and to increase the
speed of rotation as things take a turn for the worse. And they do.
All circles completely disappear from the stage when Fela is
tortured. There is a grate of square lights on the floor of
the darkened stage. The general public,
aspiring writers and other artists will benefit greatly from a
closer look at symbols and techniques at work in this musical. The
general public needs to protect itself from literature which
deforms; our young can be transformed by literature which heals.
How does Fela! generate
such life supporting energies? Consider the basics: use of light and
color, water and fire, iron, the cat and the rat, the ladder, and
the vehicles which facilitate the opening movement of both acts. In
addition to symbols, there is knowledge of physics expressed
in the choreography and in the narrative of Obalogun, the great
warrior. Dialogue between Fela and the audience, and other devices,
create the underlying serenity which permeates the musical.
The whole band unobtrusively rolling across the stage accompanies
Funmilayo's movement during a dream. A lyrical gliding of the ladder
accompanies Sandra Isadore, played by Saycon Sengbloh, as she
descends, singing a love song to Fela. These and other moments
deepen introspection and balance high pitched emotion. The
communication is brought full circle. It's no wonder that the
air literally crackles with electricity as people emerge from the
One could simply follow the light and color and experience pure
In Fela! light is really
brought to light. In contrast with the many scenes bathed in a
lavish flow of colors, and pounding rhythmic music, there are
scenes in black and gray, all color drained from the stage
during times of distress. Together with the absence of color there
is silence. At one point there are 18 long seconds of pure black.
That's taking a chance. And it works. (It's allowing the
battery to fully discharge so that it can fully recharge. ) In
contrast, when Funmilayo, played by Lillias White, hits those bone
chilling notes in her song of courage, she breaks the white
full spectrum light into its component colors. And as her voice
rises, the color gradually returns to the stage. In each act, the
colors which Fela wears carry particular importance: blue in
Act One, pink and white in Act Two. There was no way that he
could make an ascent to a higher realm without being dressed in
The song which Funmilayo sings is of Yemaya, mother of the Gods who
saw her son, Obalogun, the great warrior, fighting the demons who
kill with their cries. The warrior stuffed his ears with dirt when
threatened by the monsters, lured them into his arms then
burst into flames, killing the demons and cleansing the earth.
But Yemaya saw her son on fire and wept tears which
changed to torrential rains and put out the flames which could have
destroyed her son.
Ogun, whose colors are green and black, is the Orisha of iron,
hunting and war. In the cosmos, iron behaves in ways identical to
the behavior of this Orisha; hours after a star forms iron, it
will collapse and supernova. In its exploding death the star
will give birth to all the other elements in the periodic table in
rapid succession. The ingredients needed for life on Earth come
through the death of the star. Of course, there must be the cooling
off. There must be water in order for life to exist. Ogun is
associated with creation and formation, as blacksmith, and
associated with communal support as hunter, providing nutrition.
Through iron, we have our connections to Obalogun; the core of our
Earth is made of iron. Iron enables our red blood cells to carry
oxygen, without which we would have no life.
Science works closely with this art. The fantastic dance reflects a
working knowledge of physics. One must understand the laws of
gravity before tossing dancers horizontally, and elevating
dancers overhead. Knowledge of culture is also indispensable in the
creation of fine literature. Fela, whose name means "he who
shines with greatness" is from Abeokuta, a village known for its
great warriors. Anikulapo, he reminds us, means "I carry death
in my pouch. No mortal can kill me."
We'll all be singing, "Water no get enemy" for quite some time.
We are told that even if water kills your child, you will still have
to use it. There is rich philosophical content in this work. Water
is the sacred vehicle that will carry us to a higher realm in Act
Two. In Act One the opening vehicle was the bus which
carried the embattled Fela people to jail. In the serenity of the
water dance, which is a balance to the frenetic dance of the Orishas
to follow, the dancers move as though peacefully rowing boats.
Sometimes the bodies of the dancers become the water itself. As the
musical opens, we see large drops of water cross the portrait of
Funmilayo which turns and comes to life each time Fela speaks of
leaving Nigeria. The water is both tears and rain. As already cited,
it is water which will save the warrior's life.
musical, there are no curtains. And yet, during one of the
most harrowing scenes in Act II there are two "curtains" of the
thinnest fabric which allow us to see Fela as he journeys and
prepares to enter his mother's realm. It's no easy trip. Here, the
drum, the impulse of life, and the Egungun of the spirit world,
entrap Fela, each approaching from opposite ends of the
passage, the drums rapidly beating and the spirit as rapidly dancing
with the struggling Fela running from one to the other, trying to
break free. The humor of the intent and heavily focused drummer
increases the intensity of the ordeal.
It is with some measure of relief that we watch the thin curtains
rise, allowing Fela to enter a larger space which is not free from
So much drama unfolds in Part One, that the audience, already
fulfilled, would be hard pressed to believe that Act Two could
offer more. It does. After intermission, Fela's direct address
to the audience,"So you decided to come back?" makes us laugh.
And then we enjoy new discoveries. We see the maternal
energies continued in the African American lover, Sandra, whom we
first saw wearing red and black (colors of Eshu, guardian of the
crossroads), then later in Act Two, wearing blue, colors of
Yemaya, associated with Fela's mother.
Humor, sign of higher intelligence, provides the underlying energy
for eighty percent of the musical even in some of the most somber
moments. Before his torture (and the audience is visibly
distressed), Fela comes out wearing the coat and cap of a military
officer, and for the moment, the incongruity makes the audience
laugh. But not for long. This does not detract from the brutal
beatings which hospitalized Fela for seventeen days. Everyone
needs to hear the lament pouring from the body of the tortured Fela
(played by another actor, Ismael Kouyate). The theater falls quiet
under the weight of this terrible beauty. The same voice that
earlier sang James Brown's "I got the feeling" with an irrepressible
energy, and left the audience in rollicking laughter, now
chants in long melodious anguish through unbearable pain.
This is one of many highly imagined moments where truth is not
compromised by humor, this humor which is the twin to truth. This is
a critical teaching moment demonstrating how to effectively
dramatize violence without abusing both narrator and audience.
The author trusted us to recognize the intersection of beauty and
terror in this moment and in many others throughout
Fela.As for numbers? When
Fela first enters the stage he is escorted by four dancers. The
African American lover, Sandra Isadore, descends the ladder
accompanied by four attendants. When Fela is to climb the
ladder,this physical effort is accompanied by four members of the
ensemble pointing up. We find a similar attention to the number
four, representing totality, the cardinal points, and representing
the superlative in Chinua Achebe's
Things Fall Apart. The nine wives of Fela on stage represent well
the twenty-seven (two plus seven equals nine) wives that he married
in real life. Numbers are used in a most ominous way
especially the day Funmilayo died. The time was given in
silence, with only a single chime sounding; 5:45 she was dragged up
the stairs. 5:47 she was thrown from the window. Earlier, in
Act One, the "clock game" generated life. Cultural
understanding of numbers provides useful insights in literary
This musical celebrating the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, delivers a
vision which connects history and the contemporary moment. The more
I see this fine work of art, the more I uncover layers of
Summer 2009, in Nigeria, I overheard a customs agent ask a young
Russian, "Why have you come to Nigeria?"
The young man's firm answer, "Off shore-drilling," burned in my
ears. It sounded like, "To violate your mother." At the time I did
not know that only a few months, the violation of off-shore drilling
would reach American soil.
Lines from Fela!:
"Like rat we steal
Make a hole
"Ax Falls on British Petroleum," an old Nigerian headline, almost
feels uncanny, as the past looks into the present day.
In this Broadway production, the audience is physically surrounded by
history. Every wall of the theater is filled with sculptures,
portraits, and cinematic images of actual newspaper headlines:
Majority Live in Poverty; Soldiers Advised to Exercise Restraint
with Public, Stern Warnings to Students; Army Retakes University, 35
Students Dead. There are images of Angela Davis, Malcolm and Martin,
including The Dead Lecturer
by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). The new Black Studies programs of the
1960's and The Black Arts Movement are brought to life in this
to Table of Contents
Even without a story, Fela!
would be worth its weight in gold.
The innovative, fast shaking dance, the cosmic colors, and the songs
all speak a universal language. The musicians alone would make the
production more than phenomenal. But the education delivered
with the entertainment makes this production, Fela! priceless.
"Speaking Truth To Empower."
Reflections on Rap and
La Vonda R. Staples
American rap artists have gained new audiences through the advent of media
campaigns in Sub-Saharan African countries, increased immigration,
and internet access. As
Africa’s population nears one billion persons, of which the majority
are youth, it becomes an attractive target for market-creation as
well as a possible source of artists.
In this paper I will attempt to give a brief history of
American hiphop as well as
briefly compare and contrast
African, specifically Senegalese, and African American artistes.
West African countries have two, new invisible colonizers, a
musical art form completely indigenous to America, the under current
colloquially known as
gangsta rap, and the insatiable force of American media.
On the surface, it could be seen as a mere transmission of
culture but the historical implications and deeper cultural,
political, and social trends portend a much more auspicious
gangsta rap may be the
impetus and the vehicle for the next African revolution.
It may also be the next attempt at binding Black youth
worldwide as the first 21st century Pan-African
To some extent, all Senegalese recorded music may not
be readily available in the
United States, and, for that matter, all available types of rap
music from the United States may
not be readily
available in Senegal.
The trickle of available American rap music that finds a new home in
Africa is not representative of the various forms of
rap music which are
inclusive of a vast array or approaches, themes and styles:
From the frivolous (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince/Will
Smith) to musical (Black-Eyed Peas), from poetic (Common) to
militant (KRS-ONE), from boastful (Jay-Z) to introspection,
bordering on becoming
self-absorbed (Kanye West), and finally “gangsta” (gangster) rap,
the form which garners the most legislative and parental attention.
This form depends heavily on violence (Ice-T, Ice Cube, etc.)
as its central and sometimes only theme.
Further, the categories of violent American
rap music also have a
range in types of violence.
American hiphop/rap forms
also have geographical subdivisions.
For example, New Orleans rappers typically speak of
neighborhood violence and retaliation in their wards and parishes.
Atlanta rappers have similar themes of violence but differ
from New Orleans rappers in terms of location, lyrical style .New
Orleans vocal accents are redolent with remnants of
a French and Haitian linguistic presence.
Although New Orleans is
culturally rich, due to the African presence as well as an
additional infusion of Kongo culture during the Haitian Revolution,
it has a decidedly rural feel with very little attempts towards
Orleans is tragically mystic and beautiful.
By contrast, Atlanta’s musical offerings are decidedly urban
with a dedicated adherence to elements common in the American south
such as Blues or “roots” music.
Atlanta and New Orleans comprise the majority of what is
commonly referred to as the “Dirty South.”
The most widely recognized geographical subdivision,
and the undisputed point of
genesis of rap is, without
dispute, New York City.
There are arguments as to the exact borough, but the most
intellectual argument as to front-runners for geographical placement
of this artistic phenomenon are Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.
The first rappers, however, were poets and performance
artists; many were college students, professors, teachers, members
of East Coast Black intelligentsia.
Their performances were mainly concerned with socio-economic
conditions of Black and Latin American minorities.
In regards to Latin Americans, the main contributors to this
new genre were Puerto Ricans and no other Latin spoken word artist
had greater impact than Miguel Pinero (December 19, 1946 to June 18,
1988). Pinero was a
multi-talented artist, nominated for theater as well as television
African American artist Gil Scott- Heron epitomized the rapper/poet
sobriquet. His most
famous poems: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “White Man Got
a God Complex,” and “Whitey’s On the Moon.”
Scott –Heron is
separate from the contemporary hiphop culture for a number of
reasons. He is not the
product of a ghetto environment, although he did live in the Jim
Crow south. He attended
Lincoln University and received a Master of Arts in creative writing
from John Hopkins University.
Unlike many, if not most present-day rap artists, Scot t
-Heron was also an accomplished musician and his first literary
success was not in the poetry and spoken word genre but as a
The Vulture, his first
was first published in 1970.
Afrika Bambaataa, also known as ‘Bam, was the first rapper to create
a distinct, other self. His real name is Kevin Donovan. He is a
direct descendant of the Black Power Movement.
His topics were mainly socio-economic conditions of African
Americans, lack of political regard for Blacks by White power
structure, and intra-racial violence, the so-called Black on Black
crime, but they were addressed from a grassroots, urban point of
view. In contrast, Gil
Scott-Heron was the son of Jamaican immigrants and had an additional
cultural schema in which to draw his theories and opinions.
Although he spent his adolescence in rural Tennessee, he
began his life in New York as a teen-ager.
Bambaataa, the son of West Indian immigrants, was a product
of New York public schools in the Bronx.
His work is the voice of the unschooled but far from
ignorant, unadulterated, ghetto environment.
Bambaataa, after a visit to Africa, changed his given name
and began the process of creating a socially responsible group
called the Zulu Nation.
From this larger group came a stage show that consisted of
break-dancers and rappers.
Bam lead the Zulu Nation and
SoulSonic Force through
the 1980’s and early 1990’s until rap became a mainstream concoction
and product calculated in units rather than songs.
In 1990, Bam was selected by Life magazine as one of “The
Twenty Most Influential Americans” for his work against apartheid.
Of all the things there are to regard with wonder or even
mild curiosity, there is a certain fascination (for me) with the way
American culture acts on its own, autonomously and without
physical presence, in the rest of the world.
When I was pursuing a graduate degree in contemporary
European history, I received an intense education in the ways in
which a physical presence could manifest positive or negative
changes in societies, cultures, people, and traditions.
A physical presence can be a military occupation or a
human-rights intervention and it is also exhibited in a wave of
missionaries, musicians, or merchants.
The definition of a non-physical or intangible presence must
always be made, as a rule, post fact; you do not know when it
arrived but you know that it has arrived.
This new form is intangible and has been made possible via
One of the resultant indications of Africa’s consumption of American
media is the growth of hiphop
music and culture in countries such as Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria
and Ghana. This process
has taken place without an even exchange of products or performers
from Africa to America. As with most other instances there appears
to be a single direction of the route.
What has this to do with rappers in Senegal?
Rappers in Senegal may not, in their work, give homage to the
earliest roots of rap.
However, they do seem to convey the politicized revolutionary spirit
of the earliest American rap artists.
The fact that they display stylistic elements, which, on
prima facie examination, may lead a non-African consumer to
assumptions of gangsta rap
imitation, does not mar their work.
Using hand gestures known as ‘gang signs’, the word “nigger”,
and wearing low-slung pants may perhaps only be evidence of an
adherence and observation of a transnational youth “same-ing.”
Because their national history includes a dialogue on
colonialism and economic oppression as opposed to the African
American dialogue on slavery and race, they easily use words, names,
and slang which, to an American, are forms of racial pejoratives.
Sky Coon and DJ Darky might be horrified to know that their
“street names” are actually very serious racial slurs.
It is not an activity of co-option, rather, the words are
used as their meanings are seen within African cultures.
In simple language, African hiphop artists sometimes
re-purpose American words, and
usage of these names is not a reference to anything African
American or American. It
is simply a form of protest against Western, that is, French,
colonial and/or European Union international subjugation.
It is not immediately apparent if the names are a form of protest or
if they are simply chosen for impact rather than meaning. Most
Senegalese rappers choose English in American form, even when they
are not fluent speakers of American English.
At the least, a Senegalese rapper will add on the very
American “MC (emcee)” or “DJ (disc jockey).”
Where titles or names are concerned, a plausible contextual
cross can be made by contrasting a hypothetical African American man
who takes the singular “Abdul” as a new Arabic name.
Without knowledge of the nuances of Arabic he cannot possibly
know that this name literally means “servant” and is a variation of
the Arabic word abd (slave) and is also perceived as pejorative
without the addition of a second name which would tell to whom he is
a servant i.e. Abdullah, meaning servant of God.
However, for our imaginary individual who becomes “Abdul” the
name is taken not for its literal meaning but as an act of
self-determination and perhaps defiance to a dominant religion and
language. In the final
analysis, Senegalese rappers’ use of hiphop/spoken word music is not
a component of an impersonal international corporation, with
corporation- approved lyrics, with artistes firmly ensconced in the
exercise and under the yoke of obtaining “bling.” It is just a
single route of many routes chosen by African artists to express
dissatisfaction with cultural norms, oppression via French neo-
colonization, and the daily struggle for political voice and
In listening to hours of Senegalese rappers, the one recognizable
English word is “niggah.”
Senegalese rappers employ a mélange of languages and the most
reliable consistency is Wolof, French, and American English.
It is nearly impossible to decipher the double entendre of
their French without knowing the cultural context of its usage.
In American hip hop, the
poets and socially conscious rappers rarely garner the attention
paid to gangsta rappers. If one
is to become a gangsta
rapper one must sell drugs, get shot, and go to jail.
It is an absolute requirement.
This industry gives the world the impression that all African
American men are guests of some penal institution.
Factually, there are 20 million African American males in
this country and of that number 800,000 are incarcerated and an
additional quarter of a million are on probation or parole.
Those numbers are dismal but they do not represent an entire
Gangsta rap gives the
non-American listener, and the American listeners as well, that
criminality is a necessary rite of passage.
In the confines of America this often leads to adolescents
committing crimes or acting out.
In Muslim Senegal, the musical mantras of African American
rappers have the potential of inciting much more than street
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