‘My Friend Fela’ doc, a definitive view of a man on a mission

Written by on 01/17/2020

Juan Gomez, Sandra Izsadore, Iminah Ahmad, Asaba M Kugonza and JR Valrey at the Starline Social Club

by JR Valrey, the People’s Minister of Information

“This is one of the main markets in Lagos, and
it was here that I met Fela for the first time. At that time, they had huge
human-sized speakers blaring different types of music, but there was this one
music that stood out, and I asked, what music is that? And he said to me, ‘That
be Fela.’ And I never heard a music that was so beautiful. It was just like the
first time when I heard jazz in my life, when I was young. It was the same
sensation,” said social scientist and writer Carlos Moore, the narrator and
host who guides us through the musical and political development of the legendary
African giant of a musician and political thinker, Fela Kuti, in Joel Zito
Araujo’s new documentary, “My Friend Fela,” which was released earlier this
year, initially in Brazil.

“The Afrobeat of Fela was a politico-cultural
manifesto. It wasn’t only a music, it was a politico-cultural manifesto. He
wanted to say something as an African, and he said it,” said Ray Lerma, a
musician and friend of Fela, who was interviewed in the film.

This is a very important film for today’s
times. Fela was a political Black revolutionary who used music as his sole
weapon to address injustices perpetrated by the government, mostly in his
country of Nigeria.

Some know the catalog and about the lives of
Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, as they should, and an
even smaller percentage knows about the lyrical teachings of Nigeria’s Afrobeat
prophet of rage Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who rightfully deserves his seat in the
pantheon of Black revolutionary fighters and teachers who fought against
colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and capitalism.

“Fela was such an important and vigorous and
extraordinary figure within the Pan African movement, the Negritude movement,
the movement of Black rights, Civil Rights, call it Human Rights, whatever you
want to call it, to reduce him to a cultural icon. He’s a ghetto hero,” says
Carlos Moore who also documents his own road to Black consciousness right
alongside Fela in this elegantly shot and thoroughly researched piece of

I love that “My Friend Fela” is not a fluff
piece. It contains voices that are critical of Fela. It also contains the
voices of people who passionately loved him. Sometimes these contrasting voices
came out of the same body, like in the clips of Sandra Izsadore’s interview
that are used. She was one of Fela’s lovers, a fellow musician who recorded
with him, and also one of his most prominent political teachers, be it that she
was associated with the Black Panther Party chapter in Los Angeles.

“So then I’m saying, what are you singing about.
And that’s when he told me, he was singing about his suit. And then after my
laughter kind of subsided, I literally said there are so many important things
and issues in the world, that we need to sing about. Why would you sing about

“It wasn’t until he made the statement about
how stupid Africans were, that I had a mental break down, and I went off on
him. When I reflect back, and I see how animated I was, it was like I really
literally became the Panther, and I pounced. And I told him how stupid and
ignorant he was, to say such things, and to never speak like that again about
Black people, because he didn’t know nothing. And I started giving him books,”
said Sandra Izsadore in this one hour and 34 minute documentary.

Fela also speaks largely for himself
throughout “My Friend Fela” through archived interviews, which I think is
valuable, although the context given as well as the elaborate stories from
people who knew him who were interviewed color the film in such a way that
makes it unforgettable.

“If you are in England, the music can be an
instrument of enjoyment. You can sing about love. You can sing about who you
are going to bed with next. But in my environment, my society is
under-developed because of an alien system on our people now, so there’s no
musical enjoyment.

“There’s nothing like love, but there is
something like struggle for people’s existence. So as an artist, politically,
artistically, the whole idea about your environment must be represented in the
music, in the art. So really art is what is happening at a particular time of a
people’s development. So I think as far as Africa is concerned, music cannot be
for enjoyment. Music has to be for revolution,” says a politically polished

“My music is not for entertainment; it is for
revolution. I have my own selfish reasons for being in this struggle, and the
reason is this: I want to be a great man. Because I have this in my mind, and I
know that many Black brothers and sisters have this in their minds, I will not

Surprisingly the filmmakers let Fela address
his own radical views on polygamy head-on in “My Friend Fela,” in light of the
fact that many documentaries lionize their subject, but fail to meticulously
examine the complexities that deem the subject radical and controversial,
especially around a topic like polygamy, which can possibly affect how Fela and
the film itself is seen in countries that are bastions of feminist thought,
like Brazil, the U.S. and the U.K., which are huge markets for cinema.

“It’s very important for a man to marry many
women, because a man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe,
when a man is married, when his wife is sleeping, he goes out and fucks around.
And he should bring the women in the house to live with him, and stop running
around in the streets. That’s what a man is supposed to do, a man’s not
supposed to run around in the streets after women, you see. Women should be in
his home.”

The film also discusses how in February of
1977, 1,000 soldiers from the Obasango regime attacked Fela’s Kalakuta Republic
Commune because of the political nature of his song “Zombie” and the civil
unrest that he would stir up whenever he decided to sing it. The soldiers ended
up killing his mother Fumilayo, who was considered to be a socialist force in
Africa on par with the late Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. In the film, a
respectable amount of time was given to address how this traumatic event
affected his mental state throughout his turbulent, one-of-a-kind life. Fela
died Aug. 2, 1997.

“My Friend Fela” is a definitive look at a man
who helped to give a revolutionary, funked out musical voice to a continent as
well as a planet suffering under the brutality of imperialism and post-colonialism.

Look out for “Loud Impressions, Subtle
Thoughts,” the new film critique and interview book by JR Valrey, the People’s
Minister of Information, coming out in early 2020.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and
filmmaker, can be reached at
blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.

Source: San Francisco Bay View

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