Culture

Fela Kuti, The Radical Fashion Icon

We take a dive into how the Nigerian musical legend used fashion as a form of protest.

There’s no doubt that Fela Kuti is one of the most radical musicians that the world has ever seen. His politically-charged lyrics, sardonic album titles and covers, and his unabashed denouncement of the Nigerian government (which led to the infamous raid on his compound, resulting in the death of his mother and landing him in jail) are confirmation of this.

A less obvious symbol of Fela’s revolutionary proclivity was his fashion sense. His clothing choices were not only an expression of good taste and bravado, but also a conspicuous rejection of Western ideals. In his song “Gentleman,” Fela breaks down his aversion to Western attire by telling the story of a friend that has adopted a European style of dress.

“Africa hot, I like am so. I know what to wear, but my friends don't know. Him put him socks, him put him shoe. Him put him pant, him put him singlet. Him put him trouser, him put him shirt. Him put him tie, him put him coat. Him come cover all with him hat. Him be gentleman. Him go sweat all over, him go faint right down. Him go smell like shit Him go piss for body, him no go know. Me I no be gentleman like that.”

For Fela, wearing, what was considered to be, non-Western attire was a matter of authenticity. "I be Africa man original," he goes on to sing. True “Africanness”meant refusing to subject himself to the ways of others or compromise himself for the sake of conformity and assimilation. Achieving full liberation meant rejecting the customs and rules of the oppressor—all the way down to the oppressor’s clothing. Fela’s aesthetic was to be understood as the antithesis of that of the deadpan politicians and military leaders that he so often criticized.

Fela’s sartorial choices were a mirror of his political views, equally forthright and expressive, and a reminder that fashion can be a form of protest. He often appeared shirtless with large beads adorning his neck, or in ankara jumpsuits and matching top and bottoms, or simply in his underwear.

Fela’s decision to rock underwear publicly was yet another showing of his apathy towards the “white man’s” social order—an act of wearable subversion. Fela would conduct interviews and make appearance in his undergarments, sometimes smiling, with a blunt in his hand, showing very little regard about how he might be perceived. This swaggering show of boldness translated to him lambasting government corruption and Westernization. His underwear, as well as other items from his wardrobe, are forever immortalized with a display at the Kalakuta Republic Museum in Lagos.

Fela’s rebellious fashion sense, extended to the people around him as well. The stylistic prowess of the “Fela Kuti Queens”—the 27 women he married in a single ceremony in the 1970s—cannot and should not be overlooked. With their beaded braids, head wraps, and elaborate ceremonial face paint, these women effortlessly defied Eurocentric beauty standards.

#FelaKutiQueens 🌺

A post shared by Maria Gloria Grace Angelico (@mariagloriagraceangelico) on

It’s hard to find artists nowadays so unwaveringly devoted to a cause that their politics are worn on their bodies. Fela’s wardrobe was a form of resistance all on its own.

The next time you see a picture of Fela, pay attention to his clothing—or lack thereof—and be inspired. There's never been a more compelling time to channel his spirit of outspokenness, proud blackness, and peerless audacity.

Photos
"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

This Photo Series Is a Much-Needed Counter to Violent Images of the Black Body

"Infinite Essence" is Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna's response to the one-dimensional narrative we tend to see of the black body.

This beautiful, thought-provoking photo series affirms what we already know—that the black body is magical, no matter what odds are against us.

Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, touched base with OkayAfrica to share his new photo series, Infinite Essence. The series is Owunna's response to America's issue of police brutality, like the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Walter Scott, and the viral and violent images of the dead black body we've seen as a result.

"It has become frighteningly routine to turn on the television or log onto Facebook and see a video or image of a black person either dead or dying, like images of Africans dying in the Mediterranean," Owunna says.

"With this series, I work to counter these one-dimensional narratives of the black body as a site of death and destruction with imagery capturing what I see in my friends, family and community—love, joy, and ultimately, magic."

Owunna worked on Infinite Essence for the past year, and says his creative process began with a feeling. As he notes further, it's was a process of trial and error.

"I was beginning to explore my own spirituality and journey and learning about how black, queer and trans people in particular were respected for their magical abilities in many pre-colonial African societies. I was meditating on this idea of magic and how I can capture that in my work, harkening back to the 'Final Fantasy' video games and anime series I grew up on. How could I capture all of this? I did two pretty disastrous test shoots using long exposures and lights, that did nothing for me artistically.

It had none of the feeling I was looking for. So I went back to the drawing board. I pulled up Google image search results of magic in Final Fantasy and kept scrolling and scrolling and staring at images that had that emotional tug, that spiritual capture of magic and transcendence that I so wanted to bring into the work. As I was staring at the works, a voice in my head told me glow in the dark paints, and then from looking at that I found the world of UV photography. As soon as I saw some sample works in that space, I knew that was the direction the project would go and it was all steam ahead."

Shooting this series was the first time Owunna collaborated with makeup artists Karla Grifith-Burns and Davone Goins to bring his vision to life. "It was powerful and inspirational and brought so much structure to my feeling and thought," he says.

Owunna settled on the name of his series after reading about Odinani, the Igbo traditional belief system.

"Seeking to understand the basics of that, I came across brilliant writing by Chinua Achebe wherein he used the phrase 'infinite essence' and that clicked everything around it," he says. "When I can name something, it brings it to life in my head in stunning color."

Click through the slideshow below view Owunna's series, Infinite Essence. Read his artist statement for the project, where he speaks more in depth of Achebe's work on infinite essence here. The series is also on display at Owunna's solo exhibition at Montréal's Never Apart Gallery from today until April 7, 2018.

"The Astral." Photo by Mikael Owunna.

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