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‘Fela!’ portrays the best and worst of Nigeria

‘Fela!’ portrays the best and worst of Nigeria
Sahr Ngaujah stars as Fela Anikulapo Kuti in “Fela!” . (Photo: Fela Production)

Boston City Councillor Charles C. Yancey recently welcomed the critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning musical, “Fela!,” to Boston.

Yancey called the musical, which tells the important story of legendary Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, an incredible demonstration of one man’s sacrifice to improve the political environment and human rights conditions in Nigeria. “The music, the dance, the costumes, and the extraordinary talent made “Fela!” one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Kuti was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician and composer, the pioneer of Afrobeat music, human rights activist and a political maverick. He defied Nigeria’s corrupt and oppressive military governments and devoted his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity. His staunch defiance toward corrupt administrations consequently led to more than 200 arrests and numerous severe beatings that left scars all over his body.

Kuti recorded nearly 50 albums portraying his message of transparency, honest government and justice for all. He died in August of 1997 of complications from AIDS. His musical legacy is available globally through Knitting Factory Records.

“Fela!”  has received 11 Tony nominations and three Tony Awards for Best Choreography, Best Costumes and Best Sound. It is a collaboration between Steve and Ruth Hendel, Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, with support from Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Before last month’s debut, Sarah Ann Shaw, a well-known Roxbury community activist and former local television reporter, said she couldn’t wait to see the  musical.

“I am very excited,” she said, “because it will help educate people in America about the attempt that one man made to change the politics in Nigeria. Despite the fact that America imports a great deal of oil from Nigeria, we don’t know a lot about the country or its political picture.  ‘Fela!’ gives us the opportunity to find out how one man was willing to fight against corruption during the ’70s.”

Olutayo Idowu, president of the Nigerian Cultural Community of Massachusetts  echoed Shaw’s sentiments. “In spite of the political entity that tried to suppress Fela’s outspokenness,” Idowu said, “he was able to not only enlighten the masses in Nigeria and Africa, but also the whole world.”

Idowu also said that Kuti signified the best in humans. “Fela speaks both physically and politically through his music,” Idowu said. “His music is a political show. Fela allows people to see where Nigeria is and where Africa ought to be.”

In honor of the show, Yancey issued a proclamation declaring April 29 as “Fela!” Day in Boston. Yancey’s resolution notes the work of Kuti’s mother as a civil rights activist.

“Fela defied Nigeria’s corrupt and oppressive military governments and devoted his life and music to the struggle for freedom and human dignity,” the resolution stated.