The music of Fela Anikulapo Kuti is rarely heard on the radio in Nigeria. Everyone is in a possession of a CD or two of his, but to listen to his music, you've got to go out of your way to look for it.
Suffering and Smiling is a documentary about the movement started by Fela, and continued by Femi. Its about the passion of a gifted family for the betterment of a country that refuses to give them access to its radio waves, and is literally falling to pieces around them. On stage, they are alive, fearless and awe-inspiring. Off stage, they are persecuted, at times taken for granted, but nonetheless fiercely dedicated.
In Suffering and Smiling, we see with alarming clarity, how dire the situation in Nigeria is, and just how consuming the depression that stems from the hopelessness of it all, can be. Desperation was the common thread uniting our country’s people. In churches they cried out, screamed and begged God for change. In the Shrine, they got high, drunk and violent, clutching like animals at the fleeting opportunity for an escape from their despair. In the Niger Delta, they spoke with the bitterness of decades of lost livelihoods and unbearable impoverishment.
We knew Fela had a message (many messages in fact). We knew the powers that be had refused to listen to that message, and had ultimately regarded it as contrary to national security. We knew his mother was thrown out of a window, and that he was arrested and tortured repeatedly. What we didn’t know, was the instrumental role played by our current (and hopefully outgoing) President in the relentless vendetta against him. Neither did we know how unreceptive the Nigerians many of us interact with were to the message he intended for their benefit.
When Misan and I started The Afro Beat, Jeremy was very quick to send us an email of encouragement. In his mini eulogy on the greatness of Fela, he touched on something that we had honestly never noticed. For many Nigerians, Fela was, and still is, an embarrassment, a no-go area. It doesn’t matter to them that his music touched and gave hope to the man on the street. And it certainly doesn’t matter to them that his passion for his beliefs was greater than his concerns for his life and his safety. These are the very people that the commentators we've featured on The Afro Beat blog so far, have spoken out against - the passive observers who see Nigeria as a disgrace, a failed experiment not worth salvaging. These are the people who don’t challenge wrongdoing when they see it, but instead focus all their energy on simply getting from A to B. These are the people who are so worn out and despondent, that they turn a blind eye to the extreme poverty and inhumane conditions in which so many of their countrymen are condemned to fester and rot.
The Afro Beat admittedly hasn’t gone very far towards achieving much at the moment. Like everyone else, Misan and I have so much going on in our lives that sometimes it can be incredibly easy to forget to log on to The Afro Beat. Trying to cater to the interests of such a diverse audience, and at the same time stay true to the core of The Afro Beat, has indeed been very difficult. Trying to do this, especially when it has become clear that interest in the project is waning, has been even more difficult.
Motivated by Suffering and Smiling, and its depiction of true dedication in the face of extreme oppression and opposition, we’ve decided to open up The Afro Beat. It is no longer a movement that will require membership of any sort, simply because such a requirement is a barrier to progress. At the same time, obviously we’ve got to be careful about unpatriotic or separatist input over which we would have no control, and which could potentially get us into a lot of trouble. But it’s a risk worth taking if only to spark a few fires in the minds of others like ourselves who want to work out a role for The Afro Beat, its members and this generation in the alleviation of Nigeria’s unending crisis.
Suffering and Smiling is showing next on Wednesday 28th March at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London, as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Click here for more information. The footage shown at the start of this post is an independent video from YouTube and is not part of the Suffering and Smiling film.