Music Is Still the Weapon

Posted January 6, 2010

Categories: Art, Articles

On February 18, 1977, a thousand Nigerian soldiers surrounded the Kalakuta Republic and burned it to the ground.

As republics go, Kalakuta wasn’t very large. Only 100 or so people lived there. But the immensely popular musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had created this compound, in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, as a joyful and democratic space in an otherwise corrupt and dictatorial country. The sovereignty of Fela’s republic was always under threat. And even though the invaders threw his mother from the second floor on that day in 1977, and even though the soldiers cracked his skull, and even though the government jailed him for trying to defend himself, Fela continued to fight back. He used his Afrobeat music and biting lyrics as his weapon.

“Too much sweets will give you rotten teeth,” Fela declares in the new musical that recreates Kalakuta on Broadway. “Too much Nigeria will give you broken heads, burned houses, dead students.” Fela had about as much of Nigeria as any one person can handle, yet he remained powerfully attracted to the country that his mother had devoted so much of her life to liberating from colonial rule. He put out more than 70 records, toured the world, and shared the stage with other famous musicians. But he always came back to Nigeria, where he hoped one day to become president.

The Broadway show, which is a powerful cocktail of music and dance and politics, doesn’t provide much detail about the rotten state of Nigeria. It is, after all, a musical. And Fela’s songs, though sharp and critical, tend toward general, even allegorical, indictments. The song “Zombie,” for instance, doesn’t mention Nigerian soldiers by name but rather critiques their well-known reputation to follow whatever orders they are given. Fela’s protests are multi-barbed, and can be easily applied at home and abroad. At one point in the Broadway show, during the song “International Thief Thief,” dancers hold up signs accusing not only villains of the Nigerian drama like Shell, but also more universal targets like Halliburton and the International Monetary Fund.

Given the squalor of Nigeria, it’s hard to believe that the country is now the world’s eighth-largest exporter of oil. “Nigeria earned more than $400 billion from oil in recent decades,” writes Peter Maass in his new book Crude World, “yet nine out of 10 citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday. Its per-capita GDP is one-fifth of South Africa’s.” This comparison is particularly painful, and explains Fela’s comment in the excellent documentary Fela: Music Is the Weapon that even then, during the apartheid era, “the situation here is worse than in South Africa.”

There were actually two Kalakuta Republics. Fela got the name for his little Monaco of music from the time he spent in prison, when he discovered that the prisoners nicknamed his jail the “Kalakuta Republic.” In Swahili, “kalakuta” means “rascal.” As Fela explains, “If rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be ‘rascally’ with them.”

The Nigerian poet Chris Abani also uses music as a weapon: the music of poetry. His collection of poems, entitled Kalakuta Republic — named for the prison where he too spent so many days — includes the powerful “Ode to Joy,” about a young boy of 14 whom the police torture to death when he refuses to finger an innocent man. The poem concludes:

an act insignificant
in the face of this child’s courage
we sang:

Oje wai wai,
Moje oje wai, wai.

they went
on a
killing rampage


even canisters of tear-gas,
fired close up or
directly into mouths, will
take the back
your head off
and many men
died singing,
that night.

Notes caught,
as blows bloodied mouths
clotting into silence.

Chris Abani headlined the Split This Rock poetry festival last week here in Washington, DC. It was a mighty gathering of word-warriors from around the world. The festival began during the dreary days of the Bush administration, a group of the most tone-deaf, word-challenged, and brutish politicians as we’ve ever had to endure in this country. We live in more enlightened times, perhaps, when the “Black President” that Fela sang about has come to occupy the White House. But we continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. We continue to enrich the Pentagon beyond its most extravagant dreams. And we continue to freeze all other government endeavors because of our deficit (in creative thinking).

For a few days, however, the poets of Split This Rock created their own Kalakuta Republic here in Washington: a refuge for those who believe that art can transform our world. It is, for the moment at least, a republic as small as Fela’s was. The United States “continues to turn up individuals making works of art,” writes essayist Lewis Lapham in TomDispatch, “but they traffic in a medium of exchange on which the society doesn’t place a high priority.” Still, the sounds and the words produced in Fela’s Kalakuta continue to resonate in our own republic of letters — on Broadway, in Chris Abani’s poetry, and in political music from Springsteen to M.I.A.

Wrestling with Accountability

We’re still dealing with the garbage left over from the previous administration. And as Foreign Policy In Focus contributor John Prados writes in The CIA’s Lawyer Problem, the leftovers over at the CIA really stink. While media attention has focused on the role of administration lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the CIA’s role in condoning torture has been largely ignored.

“Agency attorneys today are neither protecting its real interests nor improving its effectiveness,” he writes. “The lawyers’ actions — and the lack of them — have been disastrous. Congress is moving toward appropriating money to provide CIA officers with legal liability insurance. It would do better to investigate the conduct of the agency’s legal staff.”

FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes also addresses the issue of accountability in his analysis of the White House position on the Armenian genocide resolution. “The Obama administration, citing its relations with Turkey, has pledged to block the passage in the full House of Representatives of a resolution passed this past Thursday by the Foreign Relations Committee acknowledging the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire of a 1.5 million Armenians,” he writes in Obama and the Denial of Genocide. “Even though the Obama administration previously refused to acknowledge and even worked to suppress well-documented evidence of recent war crimes by Israel, another key Middle Eastern ally, few believed that the administration would go as far as to effectively deny genocide.”

Then there’s the more contemporary case of genocide in Sudan. The country is facing a likely split as the southern part holds a referendum on independence at the beginning of 2011. “For the moment, measures must be taken to make the looming 2011 divorce as peaceful as possible. This means putting pressure on the government of Sudan to implement the 2005 peace agreement and cease arming militias in the south and Darfur.” writes FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt in Sudan’s Divorce Proceedings. “In the long term, the United States must continue to use its leverage to ensure that the government of Sudan is held accountable for its actions in Darfur.”

It’s the Economy…

There hasn’t been much news of late about the Green Movement protests in Iran. But as FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan writes in The Iranian Tsunami, there is much ferment going on below the media radar.

“Largely unseen and rarely reported on,” he writes, “are thousands of strikes, slow-downs and sit-ins by workers challenging the erosion of trade union rights and the government’s drive to privatize the economy. Tehran’s economic policies will impoverish tens of millions of people — and they aren’t passively accepting the situation.”

Over in Asia, meanwhile, China has been waxing enthusiastic about the biggest free trade area in the world that it has established with Southeast Asia. But FPIF columnist Walden Bello is a great deal more skeptical.

“The propaganda mills, especially in Beijing, have been trumpeting the FTA as bringing ‘mutual benefits’ to China and ASEAN,” he writes in China Lassoes Its Neighbors. “In contrast, there has been an absence of triumphal rhetoric from ASEAN. In 2002, the year the agreement was signed, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hailed the emergence of a ‘formidable regional grouping’ that would rival the United States and the European Union. ASEAN’s leaders, it seems, have probably begun to realize the consequences of what they agreed to: that in this FTA, most of the advantages will probably flow to China.”

Good News on Nukes?

Could it be that NATO is more progressive than Obama? So it seems.

“Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway have called on NATO to review its nuclear policy and remove all U.S. nuclear weapons currently on European soil under NATO’s ‘nuclear sharing’ policy,” FPIF contributor Alice Slater writes in NATO Goes Anti-Nuclear? “The NATO five put NATO’s nuclear policy on the agenda for an April strategy meeting in Estonia. They have neither been dissuaded by Obama’s cautionary note that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world ‘will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime,’ nor discouraged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mistaken qualification of Obama’s remarks when she said that ‘we might not achieve the ambition of a world without nuclear weapons in our lifetime or successive lifetimes’ (emphasis added).”

Finally, we have a Postcard from…Bangkok about the wars between Red and Yellow. Last month, the Thai Supreme Court ruled against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and stripped him of a portion of his considerable assets. “The Yellow Shirts, often described as supporters of the monarchy and local elites, are celebrating the court’s verdict,” writes Andre Vltchek. “Red Shirts loyal to the former prime minister vowed to hold rallies beginning March 12 in Bangkok and the provinces. Both sides have held violent actions, with the Yellow Shirts famously seizing the main international airport outside Bangkok in 2008 and the Red Shirts disrupting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit last year.”

And I’ll leave you with one last quote, from the novelist Paulo Coelho, which brings us back to where we started: art. “What gives us a lot of hope is that, in a moment when all bridges are collapsing — economic bridges, political bridges — when it seems that people don’t understand each other, at least they understand the story,” he says in a recent Foreign Policy interview. At least they understand the music. At least they understand the ballet. So art, somehow, is one of the few bridges left intact in a moment where we still need communication between different cultures.

FPIF, March 16, 2010

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