Arts + Culture

Fela Lives: How Felabration Is a Timeless Moment to Honor What Fela Kuti Stood For

An ode to the Black President as we kick off celebrating his birthday and 20 years since his passing this week.

"There is a higher law than the law of government. That's the law of conscience." —Stokley Carmichael.

Few people in history of Nigeria have had the power to expose the innate, unrelenting and abiding corruption in the marrow of Nigerian leaders as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela—who needs no introduction, no reference, no subtext—lives on in the psyche of the people, in their fashion, in their musical aspirations, in their poetry, in their anger, in their hope. This week, Felabration begins, marking its 20th year celebrating the life, legacy, and significance of Fela since his death on August 2, 1997.

In 1998, Felabration was conceived by Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti—a radiant figure with a hair full of colored beads and the soul of her father. Her idea was to create a week of festivities in which people would celebrate Fela. It holds once a year in October, during the week of Fela's birthday. Felabration activities are often centered around a theme, and this year's is called, 'The Prophecy: Fela Lives!'

Felabration has shown itself to be more than just a festival of music and art; it has proven to be a powerful voice in uplifting Africa, encouraging black pride and proclaiming that black lives matter. When we look at the essence of Fela—his defiance, his energy, his love for the people, his disdain for corruption and its fatal effects on a nation grappling with post colonial daze—we see how deeply he sensed the desire of few to enrich themselves, the sorrow, tears and blood of the masses.

Fela saw the gamut of Nigerians; Nigerians who may or may not be from Cameroon. Nigerians who are Cameroonians because of arbitrary borderlines; Nigerians with Lebanese names. Nigerians with Indian grandmothers. Nigerians who speak Arabic. Nigerians with British accents; so well read, they couldn't understand the common man. Nigerians whose ancestors have always sold dry fish at Opobo market. Nigerians who never saw a book in their lives; who live in arid land, rear cattle and do not bother with raiment. Nigerians without limbs amputated for stealing bread. Nigerians who live in Ikoyi, blind to their fellow Nigerians. Nigerians who were born with melanin but are now plagued with Yellow Fever. Nigerians who love religion so much, they deny themselves and Follow-follow their pastor or imam. Nigerians who are hungry. Who are slick. Nigerians who believe in jungle justice, whose lives depend on oil reserves, who have never known a day without power cuts, who are sick and tired. Nigerians who love Expensive Shit, who are VIPs, who love to Open and Close their eyes to corruption, who are nothing but beasts of No Nation. Fela saw them all and made music for and about them all.

Celebrating Fela is akin to breathing. It is the hope and significance of truth that is amaranthine, even after the body dies. We were told that Fela's body died on August 2, 1997. But truth does not die. This knowledge is not exclusive to anyone who has ever been privy to truth. However, it takes on a powerful significance for Nigerians, who, for decades, have endured the same issues Fela sang about. It has powerful significance for Nigerians who continue to live with Authority stealing, whose leaders still lose billions of dollars in oil money (this magical oil money that has disappeared consistently over decades of recycled leaders), whose brother was given a necklace of rubber and set ablaze by the misplaced anger of a hungry market square. Corruption is not this abstract thing, this nepotism, this 'na turn by turn' life; one day you sef go hammer. This corruption is the virus that has our youth stark raving mad in the streets because the elders have made off in private jets with their inheritance. It is the 18-year-old girl coerced into sexual relationships with professors too dumb to teach, only brilliant in selling grades for sex and money. It is your 87-year-old grandfather, who worked dutifully as a civil servant for 52 years, who served colonial masters, who loves twilight, who sits on his verandah night after night wondering when his pension will come in. It is your cousin, who has applied for 726 jobs to be precise, who has received 0 calls for interviews, who has no godfather, no connection, no source of livelihood.

Fela was both a prince and a prophet. A timeless voice, often persecuted, never silenced. Fela Lives! You can hear his music everywhere in the world; in Soweto, in Harlem, in Kyoto, in Birmingham, in Brazil, in Korea, in Ikeja, in your heart. He knew that truth was the only thing he had and he yelled it from the rooftops. The rancor of his voice, the gleam in his eyes, the fervor in his music, the unquenchable fire in his essence has ensured he never died. Fela is Nigerian, his tenacity, his resilience. He is an ephemeral being, one we will never fully know; yet he lives in the depths of our psyche, his voice a clarion call. He is a collective metaphor for the average Nigerian—beaten, cheated, betrayed, deceived yet still standing. Always standing.

Felabration has become a premier festival for artists and musicians worldwide who look forward to paying homage as well as carrying on Fela's legacy. If you have never made it to any Felabration, it's imperative you attend any of the events slated for the rest of the week at New Africa Shrine, Freedom Park, Radisson Blue, Kalakuta Museum and several others. A full list of events is available on the official Felabration website.

Emalohi Iruobe is a Slasher: Attorney/Writer/Artist. Keep up with her on Instagram.

Interview
Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF


You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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Tanzanian Filmmaker Amil Shivji is Making History with a Story of Love and Resistance

As the first Tanzanian film to be chosen for TIFF, Shiviji's film is sure to get the African country a seat at the table.