Pictured above: A scene from the play “Fela!” — which tells the life story of musician/activist Fela Kuti and is on its way to the Belk Theater. The Gantt Center delves deep Fela’s life Friday, Feb. 15, via two special programs. (Photo courtesy of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.)
If you attend the award-winning musical “Fela!” during its Feb. 25 and 26 run at the Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the play’s infectious music and dancing will be more than enough to satisfy. But to add meaning to the music, you need to know something about artist and activist Fela Kuti, the subject of the high-energy show.
“Fela: From Abeokuta to Broadway — a Panel Discussion” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture on Feb. 15, 6 p.m.-8 p.m., will explore the man behind the musical, a figure whose Afrobeat rhythms carried a message about the quest for social justice in his Nigerian home that resonated across the globe.
“My generation lived on his music,” said Dr. Akin Ogundiran, chair of the Africana Studies Department at UNC Charlotte. “You can listen to it and dance, but when you really pay attention you don’t want to dance, you want to listen to the words. When it’s finished, you are either angry or you are sober.” Ogundiran, who is from Nigeria, has lived in the United States for about 20 years, the last five in the Charlotte area.
When he was a university student in Nigeria, Ogundiran visited the “The Shrine” that is the musical’s setting to hear Fela many times and invited him to his school. “He came not soon after he was released from prison in the 1980s.” Ogundiran was also on a visit back to Nigeria when Fela died in 1997 at the age of 58.
“I always refer to Fela as one of those people who come every three or four generations. He was born into privileges — his father was a school principal, his mother was a successful feminist before people used the word,” Ogundiran said. “He had the option to live a quiet life as a well-groomed lawyer or in the civil service. He chose the path of his mother, for the poor. … He brought to the fore the nature of post-colonial corruption, in which leaders weren’t leading.”
Fela was influenced by the black liberation movement in the United States during time he spent here, and, as Ogundiran said, “brought the Diaspora back to Nigeria” in his activism and music. “What he was saying has echoes today, beyond Nigeria,” said Ogundiran. “Democracy means that people have a voice in government — that they can ask their leaders questions.”
The musical also touches on other parts of Fela’s lifestyle, including his multiple wives. “People want to focus on the eccentric side of him,” said Ogundiran, who would rather concentrate on his mission. “He was talking about reclaiming our heritage, our African culture for everybody.” Catherine Courtlandt McElvane, director of education and outreach at the Gantt, said the Feb. 15 discussion fits in well with the mission of the center, which “presents, preserves and celebrates excellence in the art, history and culture of African-Americans and those of African descent.
“We aspire to engage our members and visitors in conversations that inspire, empower and enlighten all,” she said, “so it is only right that we celebrate musical genius, human rights activist, cultural legend and African icon, Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, who has inspired scores of people around the world. The fact that PNC Bank has chosen to sponsor our activities this year and the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center is presenting ‘Fela!’ during Black History Month has made this even more of a golden opportunity to share knowledge, history and culture with the Charlotte community.”
Scheduled to join Ogundiran on the panel are Okyerema Asante, an accomplished Asante drummer, who will share personal stories about Fela and his music; Obakunle Akinlana, a storyteller, musician, and babalawo (chief), who has studied Yoruba folklore and will share insights about the Orishas, Yoruba deities who make an appearance in the musical; and moderator Amadou Shakur, who has lectured about African-American folklore, including the retentions of African music in jazz.
That same night, from 9 p.m.-1 a.m., on the Gantt rooftop pavilion, the local event promotion group Su Casa will host “We Love Fela!” — a multimedia dance party featuring photography, films, face painting, Afrobeat music and more.
Ogundiran, who saw “Fela!”on Broadway two years ago, has his tickets for the Charlotte run. “I don’t think I can be tired of seeing it,” he said. And what would Fela think if he could see a show about his life attracting leaders, celebrities and even the wife of the president of the United States?
“He would be surprised, of course,” said Ogundiran. But he would be happy that people are paying attention to his message.”
“Fela: From Abeokuta to Broadway — A Panel Discussion”: Feb. 15, 6 p.m.-8 p.m.; $5 for non-members, free for Gantt Center members. — “We Love Fela!” dance party: Feb. 15, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.; $10 admission, $5 for Gantt Center members and panel discussion participants. Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, at Levine Center for the Arts, 551 South Tryon Street. 704-547-3700. www.ganttcenter.org.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post’s “She the People” blog, The Root and theGrio. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte. Follow her on Twitter.
This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.