I sat and listened as my colleagues recounted to me what really happened on August 11th 1997. Afterwards, i went on my own journey and found the Abami Eda in his life, his music and his immortality.
I know well of the story of the man that was buried that day; Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He influenced entire generations from all over the world, He created something genuinely explosive; Afrobeat.
Afrobeat is boisterous and hearty, full of horns, poetry and staggered rhythm. It was born from a rebel in a time of rebellion and cried out anti-establishment ideology that spoke to the people of the hard struggling Nigerian grassroots.
Afrobeat started as a form of outcry, now it is the unofficial anthem of Nigerians and can be heard live in the cafes, bars, clubs and concerts of New York, London, Paris, New Orleans, San Francisco etc.
To everyone he met, Fela was a genius, a composer. Many have compared him to the likes of Beethoven and Mozart. In the early 70s, he built a commune which he named ‘The Kalakuta Republic’. He was an avid believer in the traditional african religions and often performed ceremonies during his shows at the African Shrine. Fela’s spirit ran deep and strong in the hearts of the people.
His funeral was preceded by three days of processions as his family debated where to hold the lying in state. Fela’s family did not expect more than 300 people to attend. It was attended by more than one million people and brought the city of Lagos, a city of more than five million people at the time, to a complete standstill.
The funeral was truly a festival, people cried openly in the streets and Fela’s records could be heard playing as though from everywhere and nowhere.
The lying in state was held at the open arena of Tafawa Balewa Square. Around the Square were giant signs announcing ‘BABA 70’ and a coffin, all of glass, was placed on a raised dais.
Nigerians from all walks of life and all ethnicities filed past in silence, there was no shoving or pushing. The man, even in death, held the world in silent awe.
After the ceremony, the funeral procession began.
Close to two million people trekked 28 kilometres in 7.2 hours from Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos Island to Fela’s home at Gbemisola Street, Ikeja, that’s like driving at 4km/hr on a Lagos road. Imagine a car on an otherwise busy road moving at an almost snail’s pace. The length of Ikorodu road was jam packed and crawling for the amount of time to get from Lagos to London or leave earth’s atmosphere into space.
All businesses were closed, there was singing and dancing and the air was full of billowing clouds of Marijuana smoke. As Fela was lowered into his grave in accompaniment to a dirge blown on the Saxophone by Femi, his eldest son, a dusty rain started to fall.
The vault was sealed and guarded.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Abami Eda, Omo Eleniyan, the people’s president and the music he created as well as the life he led and principles he believed in represented the spirit of truth. He was the voice of the tired and trampled, a clenched fist and a voice raised in defiance.
I saw with new eyes and a freshly taken breath.
The man with death in his pouch lives on.