By Azuka Jebose Molokwu
Days of innocence
One early morning, during the harmattan period of January 1967, I rode in the company of a tall and beautiful lady from Onicha Ugbo, my home town, to Lagos; it was an eight hour drive that changed my life and my humanity in a way I could not have imagined or planned.
Some weeks after I settled to a new life in Lagos (our family had lived in Kano and was forced to relocate to the Mid West as the civil war raged in Northern Nigeria), my step mother enrolled me at Jehovah Jireh primary school, Idi Oro. Across the street from the school was the home of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the most profound creative artiste of our century; the base of third-world sermon, a sermon that inspired us to challenge our self-serving leaders. To this day I remain eternally grateful to Jehovah for my early exposure to the Fela brand of music.
The atmosphere of the house was overwhelming: walking to school from Caxton (later Kadiri) Street, off Ojuelegba, proved a perfect foundation for the future relationship I would have with Fela, my fella. Fela’s home became a widely known temple, where frustrated Nigerians gathered to be sanctified and sanitized. They had listened to his yarns on vinyl on the radio and at parties. They heard about his fearless challenge of the ruling military governments. Much more than that, however, they wanted to confirm the rumours about his bohemian lifestyle.
I spent some of my holidays standing with other fans of Fela in front of his Kalakuta Republic, straining to have a glimpse of him, his women, who were more often than not sensually dressed. Those moments felt like being on a pilgrimage. Through their fashion and bodily decorations, Fela’s women were rebelling against our indigenous cultures in a way that also showed that they appreciated the best of our cultural values.
A hustler’s life
Kalakuta was where you could walk with your head upside down and no one would care, and the occasional confrontation with the armed forces made the Kalakuta lifestyle the more intriguing, even intoxicating. For whatever reason, I simply wanted to live and die inside this Republic. Who was this man, blessed with followers that believed so much in him? To us, Fela was a cult leader of sorts, the voice of Nigerians long cowed into silence and submission. He was our hero, beaten and battered countless times, smeared in his own blood and left to die. Yet, we still loved him, because he encouraged us to be brave and not zombies, suffering and smiling while the military guys thoughtlessly frittered our lives away.
My step mother’s brother, Barbwire (as he was fondly called) would later deepen my attraction for Fela. Barbwire was a gifted guitarist and a frequent visitor to Kalakuta Republic. From him I learnt about the hustling that was a regular feature of the Republic. And later, from my own regular visits, I was introduced to the carefree lifestyles of a people inspired by its leading light, Fela. Barbwire was the typical Kalakuta hustler and he dealt in marijuana. He would come home on weekends and sit me through lessons in how to roll the weed. He also taught me how to pick the acoustic guitar strings.
A sham trial
In 1984, the federal Military Government under the leaderships of Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon arrested Fela for violations of the foreign exchange decree. He was allegedly found with $1200 in his possession. The government needed to make a statement in pursuit of its war against indiscipline and Fela was readily a poster child for such nuisance. I was then a young and restless reporter with The Punch, aggressively seeking anything newsworthy. I was also seriously flirting with entertainment desk at the Onipetesi newsroom office.
As fate would have it, I was seconded to the Marina office of The Punch during the closing days of Fela’s trial by an army tribunal. City Editor Feyi Smith encouraged me to come early to the court house so as to get a better place to view Fela whenever he was on the dock. There was chaos that September mid-morning when he was declared guilty and sentenced to five years in jail.
As he stepped into the Black Maria, he turned around and gave his trademark ‘black power’ salute, clenched fist in defiance and as a special appreciation to the legions of fans that gathered to support his journey to prison. I captured the mood and reactions of that moment: the next day, Punch published my story as one of the front-page leads: “SORROWS, TEARS, MINUS BLOOD…”
Very Important Prisoner
One Friday evening Jerry Agbeyegbe (late) dashed to the entertainment desk to tell me that he had spotted Fela at the Presidential Wing of the local section of the Lagos airport. He had been told that Fela was ill and was being transferred to Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) for treatment. Fela was a high-value prisoner and the powers that be did all they could to shield his movement from the press.
The security scene at LUTH admissions centre suggested that a Very Important Prisoner of the federal government was on admission. As I walked down the alley, I spotted Feyintola and one of the queens walking out from the building. She had Seun strapped to her back. She it was who told me where to go. I walked swiftly past the three stern-faced military police personnel, each armed with an AK 47 rifle.
Fela wore his prison uniform and he sat on his bed; some members of the Egypt 80 band were also present. Femi Foto, Fela’s media relations man, stood to leave the partitioned room when I opened the curtain and walked in. “I beg no forget to bring the sponge tomorrow,” I heard Fela tell Femi as I waved salutations.
He motioned for me to seat beside him on the bed. I sat there as he played with Funmilayo, his daughter, briefly. When the room was less crowded I asked after his health and what was wrong with him. “My brother, dem give me this kind food for prison wey just balloon my bele. I don dey shit for days,” he said.
“Fela, would you mind if I put you on record?” He gave me the same cynical smile Beko beamed at me that morning. “Hmmm, Azuka, I beg no interviews today till am well, I beg, I beg…”
“Okay what message do you wish to send to your fans?”
He hesitated for a few seconds and uttered a headliner: “Don’t forget am a prisoner…”
While Fela was in jail, I became a regular at Femi’s house in Bariga. The family quickly adored and adopted me. Femi’s mom, Remi, would seat on the couch, smoking cigarette and offer me tea. The family had this black mean looking German shepherd that disliked my regular visits. Remi had promised that I was going to write her biography whenever she was comfortable and ready to tell all about her love and marriage to Fela. I never got that priceless chance to work with her.
Sundays were a must visit because we would all catch a cab to the Afrika Shrine for Sunday Jump. So it was no surprise that Femi had to drive all the way to the Punch office one day to confirm from me if truly Fela had been released from prison, 18 months after he was sentenced. He told me he heard on the FRCN (Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria) 4 p.m. news.
“Yes,” I told him. “Baba is coming home.” Later that day, he drove to Benin City to bring his father home. Little did he know that the nation was in jubilation, anticipating Fela’s arrival. It was a magnanimous celebration for the return of the peoples’ voice. A convoy of jubilant supporters, fans and family led Fela into town mid-morning.
Babangida had ordered Fela’s release when Newswatch exclusively reported that Justice Okoro Idogwu, the head of the tribunal that tried and sentenced the afrobeat King to jail, secretly visited him in prison and begged for forgiveness: an embarrassed and disgraced leadership had no choice but to release a man wrongfully accused and sentenced.
I rushed to Beko’s home where the first reception was to be held. By a turn of fate, I sat next to Fela, the second time in my life I would be sitting next to an iconoclast! The smell of fresh marijuana mingled with God’s fresh air. It was hard not to inhale that afternoon at both Beko’s house and The Shrine, where the reception ended.