FELA!, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical (Best Choreography, Best Costume Design for a Musical and Best Sound Design of a Musical) is now on tour!
Firebrand, iconoloclast, rabble-rouser, composer of genius — Fela Anikulapo Kuti used his extraordinary big-band music as a vehicle within which he created biting, satirical diatribes against the excesses of successive military regimes in his native Nigeria. Any form of injustice, oppression, mismanagement, corruption was fearlessly and ferociously attacked, using eloquent harangues that specifically named the perpetrators.
He paid a steep price for his courage in the face of powerful and implacable enemies, with 200 arrests and countless beatings that left scars all over his body. But even these beatings didn’t stop him. “Ah well, they didn’t kill me”, he would proclaim as he wrote yet another acerbic lyric and gave inflammatory quotes to the press.
Fela died in August, 1997. AIDS, they said, but as far as those close to him were concerned, he died of one beating too many. He was a giant of a man, but a man nevertheless. The system can only take so much. One million people attended his funeral.
His legacy was a testament of incredible courage, together with almost 50 albums of music that are now available globally through Knitting Factory Records. His message of transparency, honest government and justice for all is still as relevant today as when it was released 4 decades ago — not just in Nigeria but globally.
In 2000, New Yorker Stephen Hendel stumbled across a Fela CD and was so impressed with the music and with Fela’s keen sense of social justice that he determined to create a theatre piece depicting his life and times. In 2004, he joined forces with Tony Award-winning choreographer, Bill T Jones, who he invited to direct the play. Bill then brought in writer Jim Lewis. Together, the three set about mounting a series of workshops, involving musicians, actors, dancers and technicians. It took two years to reach the stage where they were ready to begin mounting the piece Off-Broadway at a New York theatre complex, 37 Arts.
Three months later they were ready to open Fela! The Musical. The show was an immediate and unmitigated critical and public success. Celebrities flocked to see the show; Jay-Z, Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Christine Amanpour, Charlize Theron, and countless others. The decision was taken to go to Broadway.
In 2009, the show opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre with Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith coming on board as producers. Over the next 15 months the show played to half a million people. Celebrities kept coming; Madonna, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller, Mick Jagger, Sting, Harry Belafonte, Spike Lee (8 times!) and Michelle Obama, to name but a few. The show received 11 Tony nominations and three Tony Awards for Best Choreography, Best Costumes and Best Sound.