The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Fela Kuti

I haven’t written in an incredibly long time because I’ve dedicated all the words my brain has held over the past 2 months to my senior thesis which, hamd’Allah, is FINALLY done. Even so, it may take me a little while to get back to producing my usual epically long treatises on Africa and love and all that goodness. So I’m easing back into the groove with something simple: music. I went to see the Fela musical for the second time yesterday, and it gave my soul some sorely-needed comfort. For those of you who don’t know, Fela Anikulapo Kuti is one of the greatest musicians to come out of the African continent (and by that I mean of all time, Naija for life!!!!) and there is now a Broadway show dedicated to his life. I have an incredibly deep emotional attachment to Fela and his music: apart from the fact that he fought for social justice in my home country of Nigeria, I grew up listening to his hits “Zombie,” “Yellow Fever” and “Gentleman.” Both my parents are huge fans of Fela, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for them as young people dealing with the repression of successive military dictatorships and the legacy of colonialism and its distorting effects on Nigerian society. Hearing his music takes me far away from the stress of New York and being a senior in college and puts me back in Surulere with the Lagos heat warming my back and the smell of roast corn in the air. And, most importantly: he made jawns to shake your nyash to (ugh, typing that out, I see what my sister means – that IS a gross word, but it’s also the most apt one to describe Fela’s vibe).

Besides the point: his music, along with that of musicians ranging from the Roots to Faithless have gotten me through some pretty tough times (and transformed some regular ones into incredible memories). And as it’s been a minute since I did a list of 10, here’s one of the songs that are making me smile, dance and feel right now:

  1. “Migraine Skank” – Gracious K: I’ll actually be writing a piece on UK Funky for Idaya this week, so it’s pretty perfect that a dear friend from England recently put me on to this tune.
  2. “Rude Boy” – Rihanna: Sigh. I’m not meant to like this track at all, but that beat is infectious and it sounds like the summer I’m craving right now (New York, this cloudiness is not a good look – can we get back to 90 degrees? Kthanksbye).
  3. “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” – Fela Kuti: This song’s lyrics get me kind of emotional, but those afrobeat drums make me dance without fail.
  4. “Face in a Crowd” – Kosheen: This brings back memories of modern dance performances during secondary school… SUCH good times.
  5. “The Blast” – Reflection Eternal: Brooklyn in the springtime, Talib and Hi-Tek… need I say more?
  6. “Honey” – Erykah Badu: I haven’t had time to listen to all of her new album, but I love “Window Seat” and “Jump in the Air”… I may dedicate this weekend to reacquainting myself with Ms Badu. This track’s off her last album and always cheers me up.
  7. “Lady” – D’Angelo: Those lips. That voice. That laidback jazz vibe. Enough said.
  8. “Acapella” – Kelis: I’ve loved Kelis since “Caught Out There” and even though I’m still devastated that she and Nas are no longer together, this dedication to her son is infectious (and the end of the video is SO cute!)
  9. “Go Deep” – Janet Jackson: I saw Janet on her Velvet Rope tour, which solidified the massive crush I have on her (alongside the rest of my family). I love the understated sexiness of this track.
  10. “My Sweetie” – Wale: I love this Bunny Mack sample SO so much – and Wale laced the track perfectly. I’m sure Fela would approve.

P.S. Had to go with some classic Gaga for the title… this track DEFINITELY gets me dancing every time I hear it.

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Le sigh – and another stay at home comes to an end. In 3 days time I’ll be sitting in the Atlanta airport after a vigorous patting-down and grilling by airport authorities (thanks, underwear bomber) waiting for my flight back to NYC and my last semester of college. Although I’m excited for this final stretch and to see all my people back on campus, I’m really going to miss home. The thought of trading jollof rice and the heat of the equator for greasy pizza and North-Eastern snow is wild depressing, especially because this trip home has been particularly enjoyable. My father, feeling adventurous, decided that we should make a trip to Senegal. Yesterday we returned home after spending 6 days in Dakar, which is officially one of my new favourite places in the world. It’s where the French Riviera and the West African savannah had a love child raised by a North African nanny. It’s considerably less chaotic than Lagos, and much more of a walking city. I loved the fact that the buildings were so close to the roadside that you could reach up and touch one of the brightly coloured shutters. It was fun practising my (rusty) French with market traders. And poulet yassa with un peu de pili pili? Heavenly.

Of course, it being a city, the hustlers were out in full effect. Every time we walked out of our hotel, we would be approached by an Abdul/Amadou/Yuyu who would smile and hail us with a “Bonjour!” hoping that we hapless tourists would be persuaded to take him on as our guide (for a few thousand CFA, bien sûr). If only they’d known that we were Nigerians: mon cher, you can’t scam the original scammers. But that was the interesting thing – they didn’t seem to know that we were Nigerians. I got asked if I was everything from Senegalese to Ethiopian, but never my home country. Given recent events, I’m sure most would tell me to be grateful that people don’t think I’m Nigerian. It’s been an interesting pattern since I’ve lived abroad, people thinking that I’m not from West Africa. I’ve been asked if I was from the USA, Kenya, Botswana and even Fiji (yeah, that right there got the side eye). I don’t think there’s anything about the way I look that suggests that I’m not a Nigerian. And as I grew up here, it’s even more baffling to me. Maybe motherfuckers just aren’t that perceptive. Or maybe I have a “non-African” air about me that throws people off – perhaps I don’t come across as your average African.

This is something that has plagued me increasingly throughout my life. What is it about me that makes people think I’m from Brooklyn rather than Ofagbe? Why don’t I come across as “authentic”? I guess the ideal place to begin answering that question would be to figure out what the “typical” African is like. Let’s begin with appearances: according to an African-American security guard at my college, African people are black.  As in, we’re all on that chocolate/ebony/midnight type skin tone. I guess my brown skin fails the first test – thanks, Scottish great-grandfather. Second of all, African women don’t wear their hair the way I do. In Lagos, I stand out when my hair is fro’ed – most women here have their hair relaxed, in braids or in weaves. If they do wear it natural, it’s cut short like a man’s. Second fail. What about the way I dress? West African women are supposed to wear ankara (traditional cloth often sewn into dresses or a skirt and blouse), and love them some gold jewellery. I guess my skinny jeans and wooden bracelets fail this authenticity test. Other ways in which I don’t measure up: I don’t speak any African languages. My accent has lingering traces of South-East England and New York City. I didn’t go to secondary school in Nigeria. I’m not poor. I like Russian literature… the list continues. Everywhere I go, from the streets of Dakar to the sidewalks of NYC, people seem to enjoy reminding me how I’m not really African. Yes, I have a Nigerian passport, but because my appearance and experiences are not typical, I’ve somehow lost my African-ness (if, indeed, I ever had it) and fallen into a no-man’s-land (after all, with a name like mine I can’t possibly pass for a real Westerner or as being from any other part of the world but West Africa). As a friend once told me, my “bourgeoisie” background which enabled me to fly home 3 times in as many months for my sisters’ weddings undermines my claim to being a “real” African. Mon Dieu! – I am, vraiment, in the position of being a member of the colonised elite that Fanon and so many others have written about. Caught between the world of the colonial power, which my education has given me some level of access to, but to which my skin tone denies me full entry, and the world of the colonised subject which my socio-economic status has moved me out of reach, what am I to do?

Following along this reason, I guess Leopold Senghor, Chinua Achebe and other intellectuals like them are also not legitimate Africans. Neither are any of the Africans that attend my university. Although some of them pass more “tests” than I do, surely their failure of others means that they too are condemned to flounder in the frustration of being an undefined hybrid, of not being fully able to “belong” to their respect homes.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I think all of this right here is bullshit. To all the people who have questioned the authenticity of my West African-ness: are you fucking serious? The fact that you define “true African-ness” just highlights the extent to which your mindset is dominated by colonialism. In case you forgot, when the British, French and Portuguese came it was them who drew a line between the “native” and the “citizen.” Your denial of my African-ness is you repeating the exact same ideology. Here’s the wonderful thing about identity: it’s fluid. This means that it doesn’t follow a set of rules or fall under a single list, especially in the context of Africa. I have the freedom to shape my own African identity, to accept what I was given, change what I don’t like and embrace the new. Just because it doesn’t match up to your personal definition doesn’t make it less valid. If you tell someone that their Western education makes them un-African, you are suggesting that Africans can only learn within the context of Africa. If you tell someone that their clothing makes them an outsider, you are saying that Africans can only dress in an African way. If you tell someone that speaking English instead of Wolof highlights a colonial mentality, you are claiming that Africans are only truly African when speaking “native” languages, and underscoring your own colonial mentality.  In other words, you are making a monolith out of the people of this incredibly diverse continent and reinforcing the very stereotypes that are keeping this continent down.

I think it’s important to make it clear that I am in no way, shape or form privileging my own experiences as an African to those of others: my American education doesn’t make me “better” than someone who went to the University of Lagos. Although I’m not going to engage in the “Western” vs. “non-Western” debate here, I’m definitely not okay with the privileging of Western ideals and standards over the many African ones. What I do what to emphasise is that difference – even when that difference comes from outside of the African context – is what makes Africa so vibrant and beautiful. Part of what I love about being African is the fact that you can see so many different cultural influences at play within our societies – for example, the way Dakar is a totally different kind of African city to Accra because of their histories.

In summary, I don’t believe judging people according to how “African” you think they are in order to make yourself feel better is doing anyone any favours. We’re ALL African, period. And especially to those who tell me these things as we both sit in an American university classroom – c’mon son. Fuckouttaherewiththatshitson. Africans, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery” and fucking do better.

And with that said, let me go find some rice and beans to eat. I’m starved.

P.S. Title is from Fela’s “Gentleman.”

Nigeria, my Nigeria…

Anyone who knows me is probably sick and tired of the amount of times I’ve said “I cannot WAIT to go home” in the past month alone. But I can’t help it – it’s been almost ten months since I was last in Nigeria. Ten long months since that red earth/hot sun/blue sky/sea breeze/palm trees/roast corn/go-slow/fast talk that signifies home for me. If you haven’t been to Lagos, start saving your money for a plane ticket right now. Seriously. There is nowhere else on this planet that is the same combination of cool/crazy/dangerous/beautiful/intense as my home city. Not only that, but going home means that I’ll be reunited with my family again. I haven’t seen my mother since April, nor have I met my adorable new niece, Amina, who was born in August. We’ve also moved into a new house in a different part of the city and have acquired a new dog (who’s butt ugly, but still). In just over two weeks I’ll be eating beans and plantain, watching MNET and indulging in the feel of the scorching sun on my back, a welcome break from the miserable cold of New York City in December.

But as much as I am looking forward to going home, I am also very sceptical about returning. Reading 234Next, a Lagos-based newspaper, has made me very concerned about the current state of political affairs in Nigeria – and by “concerned” I mean furious. For those who aren’t up on Nigerian Politics 101, let me explain: my country’s current president is Umaru Yar’Adua, a former chemistry professor who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP has been in charge of Nigeria for the past ten years of “democracy” following the death of the military dictator General Sani Abacha. President Yar’Adua has been ill for most of his presidency. He has been making regular trips out of the country for “medical check-ups,” is rarely seen in public and has been neglecting some of his presidential duties. When he ran for the presidency in 2007, there were persistent rumours that he was suffering from a kidney ailment, and his doctors have recently revealed that he has a “heart condition.” Many Nigerians are worried that he’s going to die before his term is over in 2011, and as a result there have been calls for his resignation. In any other country, this would seem perfectly logical, right? Not my people. This weekend, six of the politicians who had led calls for his resignation were threatened by members of the PDP who showed up at their homes with thugs, ready to assault them. And it will only get worse. You see, the PDP is not so much a political party as a crew of old army friends who have ruled Nigeria in some form – whether democratically or in authoritarian fashion – since the 1970s and who have no intention of letting go of power. They are drunk on the country’s oil and the money that it keeps flowing into official coffers, and which they believe they have free rein to siphon off for their multi-million dollar mansions in London and fleets of cars. And President Yar’Adua is their personal puppet – despite his probably good intentions, the power of the PDP is so deeply entrenched that efforts to prosecute the corrupt have been severely hindered by political wrangling. One example is the treatment of Nuhu Ribadu, the head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, who was dismissed from his position by the Inspector-General of Police for actually doing his job rather than stealing. The president was powerless to do anything to stop this move, a sign of his political weakness that his physical ailments are doing little to help.

So why doesn’t it make sense for him to step down and the vice-president to take over? Again, my dear people: politics. The current vice-president, Jonathan Goodluck, is from the oil-rich South-South region of Nigeria (the part of the country from which I also hail). The PDP, which is dominated by Northerners, instituted a “rotational policy” of sorts regarding the presidency: they unilaterally divided the country up into six zones between the north and south, which the president is to be elected from in turn. However, the ethnic group that dominates the North (the Hausa-Fulani) benefit from this arrangement the most: in 24 years they would hold the presidency for 12 years in total (their exclusion of smaller ethnic groups in the same geographic region make it unlikely that they would allow someone from a minority tribe to be nominated for president), while the other two large ethnic groups (the Yoruba and Igbo) and the mix of Itsekiri, Ijaw and others in the South-South would only rule for 4 years each. Not only is this a problematic power fixation, but it also does nothing to dismantle the artificial ethnic divides put in place by the British during colonial rule which split Nigeria between North and South.

A further complication is the current constitution and how it defines the role of the Vice-President. Goodluck’s powers, now that Yar’Adua is technically incapacitated, are fairly limited: he can only act as president if Yar’Adua writes a letter informing the Senate and House of Representatives that says he can – which Yar’Adua has not done.  This isn’t surprising – I highly doubt that the people that actually run Nigeria would let Yar’Adua cede his “power” to someone who may, quite possibly, want to do the job of president properly and prevent them from taking advantage of the political system for their own benefit. What frustrates me is the way that the game of politics in Nigeria is played out within the confines of such a small circle. There is zero political transparency and no true representation in government – our supposed leaders make no effort in hiding the fact that they seek power for their own benefit, not for the benefit of their constituents. No popular movement or revolution can take place if people aren’t aware of the political process and the ways that they are being excluded from it.

Or are they? The Western media has increasingly picked up on one particular anti-government group in Nigeria: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This is a group of “militants” (for lack of a better word) who are seeking greater resources for the people of the South-South, one of the most woefully under-developed areas of Nigeria. Their main tactics have involved kidnapping and disrupting the oil production process – not the most savoury methods, but nonetheless highly effective at putting the divide between the people of Nigeria and their government on the national stage. The government couldn’t just ignore or shut down the militants when the oil money was being threatened – they had to negotiate with the fighters and are now finally channelling money into the region (and bypassing the corrupt state governors in that area by giving it directly to local governments). There are still tensions in the region and the self-interest of many of the militants who feel hard done by the recent ceasefire (read: they didn’t get the money they were expecting) could lead to more violence at the expense of the ordinary people in the area. There is, of course, far more to the current political situation than my knowledge allows for, but from my perspective these are among the most crucial because of their potential to destabilise the country.

I remember reading the Odyssey my freshman year of college and discussing with my professor the inevitably bittersweet nature of returning home. Sitting in this miserable library with a ton of homework awaiting me, the thought of warm, sunny Lagos, good food and the love of my family seem so incredibly perfect. But then I read the news that leaves me increasingly fearful that my country could potentially plunge back into civil war and wonder about the place that I want to go back to so much. Despite the problems hanging over Nigeria, I know that being home will be good for me on some level, at least as I am right now. What exactly the future holds for me and my country… I suppose I’ll have to wait and see. Right now, everything seems as devoid of answers as the paper I have due tomorrow is of words =/

P.S. Had to bring back the main man Fela for the title.

Fact: I was one of those dorky kids who genuinely liked going to school.

Seriously. I liked writing essays, I enjoyed my classes and I especially loved my teachers. This may have been partially because I could bully them into giving me better grades (no joke, I once told a teacher who had previously given me a B that I expected an A in his class, and he actually gave me one at the end of term), but also because the teachers at my last school were genuinely inspirational. They knew their subject matter well and liked young people enough to share their knowledge without being patronising or confusing. So when I set off to college, I was convinced that I would find nothing but incredibly gifted Nobel Prize-winning professors who couldn’t wait to teach me.

Yeah, whatever. This is what happened instead:

First semester: For a compulsory science class I had to take, I had an Indian professor whose droning voice combined with her refusal to put on the lights in our windowless classroom for the first half of the semester and wrap-and-cheesecake-brownie-induced-itis resulted in me falling asleep in every class. And her hating me. And me hating her. And me not learning anything and getting a C+.  

Second semester: A professor of mine who sounded bizarrely like a male Mrs Brovlawski (Kyle’s mum from South Park, one of the greatest shows of all time for those of y’all who don’t know) succeeded in making me hate macroeconomics more than I love Idris Elba (which, by the way, is a fucking lot). How, you ask? By a) not actually teaching any of the subject matter but instead throwing in all kinds of complicated equations not necessary for the class and b) telling us for half of the lesson time that none of us would end up with jobs after graduating because “it’s about to be a recession, bitches.” To give props where due, he was fucking on point with that prediction so somewhere deep down, I guess he actually did know his shit.

Summer session: Calculus One. An overly eager Eastern-European TA-looking professor. An hour and a half, four times a week, for six weeks. Need I say more?

I hated it. By the end of my second year of college, I’d only taken a handful of classes that made me feel like, “Damn, I learned some real shit from that dude/chick.” Most of my professors were grouchy, uninterested and totally inaccessible. I found myself missing the days where I got chocolate bars and tea breaks in the middle of class, just because. (Jesus, did I go to high school or freaking kindergarten???)

This year, things have gotten a little better. Maybe it’s because I’ve settled into my major more, and I’m comfortable enough with the protocols of the classes to actually feel like I’m learning something. Maybe it’s the enthusiasm that my most recent professors embody – the fact that they actually seem to love what they’re teaching has made me also love Yeats’ poetry and 16th century treatises on Catholicism. Or maybe I’ve unconsciously adapted to the difference between college and high school teaching styles.

I went to high school in England, and the last two years which I spent doing my A Levels did a lot to make me academically independent. But at the same time, if shit was ever really bad, I could go have a banter with my teacher and get an extension for an essay/help with a tricky problem set/brandy to help drink my problems away soothe a sore throat. In part because I attended a boarding school, they felt like kinda like my family at my home-away-from-home.

But at college, there isn’t enough time for you to get to know a professor that well. I knew most of my high school teachers for seven years. In a big lecture class, I’ll be lucky if I even see my professor past the big-ass head of the kid in front of me, let alone get to speak to them during the 14-week semester that they teach me for. More than that, they always seem so aloof and all-important, with their PhD-holding-flying-to-Switzerland-for-a-scholars’-conference selves. I got pride – I don’t need to be made to feel stupid by someone who really is a lot cleverer than I am. Then again, the way my GPA is looking, I might need to just say “fuck it,” get off my ass and go suck up like my life depends on it. Shit, a bitch needs job references.

Rational Chaos and I were conversing about this topic a while ago, and he tells me that the problem is worse in the engineering school. Most of the professors are more interested in their research than in their students, and this reflects in the robotic way they deliver their classes. The engineers end up just learning to get shit done, rather than actually enjoying the subject matter. For the few of them who don’t actually want to go into finance, this is kind of a damn shame and explains why most of them want to get the fuck up out of here for grad school.

Maybe I need to stop being so idealistic about the professor-student relationship. After all, this isn’t Oxford in the 1930s. Most people come to college to get a degree that will enable them to get a high-paying job when they graduate, not to embark on a scholarly journey full of tweed caps and 19th century Romantic poetry. At the same time, I wonder why there can’t be a combination of the two – after all, money isn’t absolutely everything, is it? There is some joy in learning for the sake of learning, right?

 Speak on it.

 P.S. Title is from a Fela Kuti song. For those of you who don’t know him, he’s one of the greatest African musicians of all time and the baddest motherfucker ever. Check it. And this, just because it’s my favourite Fela song.