You can’t be a leader from the outside looking in. You have to remain in it, in order to mark your movement and make it mean something.
Learning Fela’s story while a student in college, I was drawn in to the music and then the life. Learning about Funmilayo Kuti, his mother, during the stage production of FELA! on Broadway, I began to understand even more.
The relationship between Fela and his mother was spiritually bonded. She was his refuge and voice of reason when he felt like walking away from Nigeria and fully indulging the lifestyle of an international music star—something that he could have easily done—but he remained loyal to his home and his people.
Set in Fela’s home, The Shrine, a majestic compound that Fela built, we were brought into his world. We were shown the thickness of his music—the fusion of sounds that birthed ‘Afrobeat’ and real scenarios of the accounts that took place in Fela Kuti’s life in Nigeria, located north of Lagos.
Through the trials, that included constant police harassment to the point where they did anything in their power to have him arrested – think along the lines of more than 200 times and endless raids on his Abeokuta compound — it was the relationship with his mother, Funmilayo, that kept him on a path of education and leadership.
I spoke with Melanie Marshall, who portrays Funmilayo in the running production of Fela! at the Oriental Theater, to go further into her portrayal and the relevance of Fela’s story, today.
Something that immediately caught my eye while watching the production was the relationship between Fela and his mother. The spiritual connection was so strong and it seemed that, that’s where Fela gained his strength.
Funmilayo is a very spiritual woman, very emotional, stern and strict. Very family-oriented and political. And all of the ideas that Fela had were instilled in him from his mother. Everything he wanted to do, everything that she had said to him years and years before he even came to America…he had to leave his country of like-minded people to find more like-minded people, particularly Black people and political ideas and to really see what his mother had been telling him all those years before.
When learning about Funmilayo and her beliefs and standards, did you make any personal discoveries about yourself?
I haven’t specifically had any children; I’m still able to get that emotional bond, especially with my eldest niece Olivia. It’s very strong and you want to always steer them in the right direction. You always want to make sure that they are representing themselves and taking in everything that is being offered.
But let’s be clear, you’re getting the poverty of ideas instilled and so using that anonymity with my niece for example, I was able to say ‘ok, let me just see what it would be like to step into a mother’s shoe–someone who has all the many views about everything.
She (Funmilayo) started so many important ideologies in Nigeria, especially for the women. She made sure that when the women were selling their wears in the market, they were getting their fair share of the money for selling their stuff, instead of losing most of it in a so-called bribe.
What I’m loving about her is her almost regal person that she had within that whole Shrine. Fela, of course was looked up to. But his mother was also looked upon. They were a family that you Do. Not. Cross. Don’t even think about it! (laughs).
And you felt that strength and power in the production. It just opened my eyes …the political fights and the struggles going on through that time. How were Fela and Funmilayo able to keep their strength? Are there ever doubts in moving forward as being “the chosen one”, so to speak?
You can’t imagine being beaten, tortured, invaded over 200 times and every single time, getting up and saying ‘ok, I’m not dead, let me write this song, write more lyrics, let me put across exactly what it is that I’m feeling, exactly what’s on my mind.
The Shrine was Fela’s home. He built that so that he could perform his music. So he could be free in the confines of those walls that he built, away from the government, away from the people that wanted to come there and tear it down.
People would come after work just to be in that Shrine. Fela sometimes wouldn’t even appear until 2 o’clock in the morning. That was the draw that he had with those people. People wanted to be around this man.
I noticed how relevant some of the messages and the happenings are still present today. From a spiritual aspect to political struggles, the treatment of Black people by the police, a lot of those situations are so relevant and it’s almost like this is the perfect time to share Fela’s story.
What do you walk away with in terms of education and new pieces of knowledge after each show?
I walk away with, probably the strongest message which would be – courage. If it’s one message that I hope that this show portrays to everybody it is courage because, if you imagine, someone says to you all the time ‘No’ you can’t do this, do that, just have the courage to stand up for what you believe in no matter how many times you get knocked down. Just stand up and some how, some day, it will come true.
In your words, why do you think this production and Fela’s story is so important and needed right now?
People are still struggling to make ends meet. People are still struggling against all of these huge corporations that seem to be taking over. It’s things like that, that make you realize that unless you seem to have a part of a huge corporation, you just don’t seem to matter as much. That’s sad.
The song just before the intermission, “International People”, that’s very relevant. They changed some of the names of the corporation so that it’s very relevant today and I’m sure if Fela were still alive, they’d still sing some of those same songs to match what’s happening nowadays.
History is repeating itself. It’s all coming full-circle. Good does come of it, I’m sure it does. Unfortunately, you’re still going to get the bad things happening in life, that’s just life. But I’d like to think that we’ve come just a little bit further away from all of the negativity that happened back in his day- when his mother was alive and he was at the Shrine.
Stepping into the rehearsal aspect, because I can imagine the amount of emotional pain that was endured when learning of the 1977 government attack on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic commune, where women were beaten and raped and his mother, at 82-years-old was thrown from an upstairs window. In rehearsal and practicing that, how do you get to that place?
I have to say when we first started that part in rehearsal and I read the concepts that went with each, I thought: ‘oh my goodness, how am I going to say this?’ And because we don’t say it and that you, as an audience member, have to read it, I thought that it was even more powerful.
Sometimes it can be completely quiet- you can hear a pin drop and sometimes you can hear the gasps from the audience.
I don’t see it, I just have to walk out onto the balcony and the writing is to my right in the theater, so I don’t have to read it. But I can assure you, I feel that emotion and that goes with me then into my next scene, because then I need twice the strength to talk to my son.
He has come to visit me (Funmilayo) through the spirit. He’s filled with me now and I have to tell him that no matter what, he cannot leave Nigeria, he has to stay there. He’s got to be strong for his people. He can’t be here, there, and everywhere saying one thing to his people and then doing another, no, no, no. He has to be seen doing what he has stood up for and that’s why I say at the end of the song, you just have to go back to where you belong, stay with your people. Let your people see you, let your people see, as much as you want to be a leader, you can’t be a leader out of the country – you have to be there.
And that seemed like it was a huge struggle for him…
It was. I mean he really wanted to leave Nigeria. There’s only so much nonsense you can take from anybody, I mean really. And so, you get to the end- to the point where it’s ‘ok, you want me to leave, I’ll just go…’
But when you have that emotional pull tapping you on the shoulder to say, “Please, remember what I told you, do not abandon your people now. You’ve come too far. You’ve come this far by faith. Stick with it.”
And look at him now. He died August 1997 and he’s huge. His opinions, thoughts are relevant today.
Indeed. Fela Kuti’s music voices the fight and injustices in Nigeria during the 1960s. Though his contributions to the music world were grand, it was through the music that he sparked leadership and lives on today.
If you haven’t seen Fela!, it is an absolute must-see. The production runs through April 15th at the Oriental Theater.