On August 2, 1997, the world lost an icon, possibly the greatest, most innovative and one of the most revered African musicians of all time. He would have been 80 this year.
During a time Africa was either struggling with effects of colonialism or conflicts from post-colonialism, she needed heroes to publicly canvass the views only a few had the power to canvass.
Post-colonialism, Nigeria was caught up in the volatile nature of governance from the Wild West, military coups and the Civil War.
It was against this backdrop that the son of a clergyman and feminist came up with a new sound that will shock Nigeria, make Africa vibrate and make the World shiver. The sounds of Afrobeat- sweaty, lusty, strong, jungle fever that spoke power to truth.
Asides making distinct music with a unique sound,a fusion of rebellious jazz with African percussion, Fela became the face of activism against the oppressive military governments of Nigeria.
Apart from bringing about a new sound to the mainstream, Fela brought a counter-culture, he introduced an anti-establishment that would challenge the conservative post-colonial Nigerian society.
What is counter culture?
Counter culture simply refers to a largely controlled or outlawed number of behaviours, but generally adopted by several people. An example within the Nigerian context is marijuana consumption.
Through all of Fela's changing personalities and alter egos, a quick glance Abàmì Edá during a stage performance offers insights into his embodiment of counter culture.
The reason is simple; Fela lived by his own rules and dictates of his conscience.
He never pretended, nor did he misrepresent facts. His honesty was why his messages permeated the Nigerian airwaves while he got western attention and became a target for many in the military governments.
This is notably exemplified by how he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine, but chose to study music at the Trinity College of Music.
His ideals were centered around his truth, he's famously quoted as saying "To be honest and truthful in all endeavours is an experience, not a regret."
In the 60s, spilling into the 70s, Nigerian counter culture took centre stage; alternative rock became a Southeastern Nigerian mainstay and rebellious sounds made High life and Nigerian folk music hide a bit in the bushes.
At the forefront of the rebellious 70s was Fela in a cause that transcended his entire life and legacy, influencing present day practices.
The counter culture in Fela's music
While Fela started with started off playing music across Nigerian night clubs, he was unknown. Randy Weston famously branded him "laughably overqualified and effete" for.
The problem was that he was playing Jazz music to a Nigerian audience, weary of colonialism and later, suffering the brunt of the military rule.
Upon frustration, Fela took his Koola Lobitos band to the US in 1969. But after he got entangled in the Civil rights movement as documented for New York Times by John Danton in 1977, Fela returned home to headline the Nigerian counter culture movement.
While subtle imitations of Afrobeat already existed in Ghana, Fela infused Nigerian Highlife music with what Trevor Schoonmaker, writing for Robert Sharp on March 3, 2005 called "Yoruba percussion and American funk - the hard guitar riffs - and Jazz into one infectious groove".
Currently, Nigerians keep scrambling for newer ways to make music and the audience are hungry for same.
The Nigerian altè movement prides itself on a fusion of soulful, emo grooves with African percussion. While they might not have channelled Fela intentionally, Fela lives in everybody.
The freedom with which Fela chronicled his lyrics, at his own pace and with his own style represents contemporary liberalism Nigerian millennial music makers hope to portray.
A watered down Afrobeat sound (and content) has been largely channeled by new school cats, most notably Wizkid and Burna Boy.
His legacy is what a lot of them aspire to. His influences are palpable in the sounds of D'banj,Wizkid, Burna Boy and others. They also do not deny such influences.
The beauty of it his style is that, with evolution, his style has birthed offsprings.
Even the tenets of his activism are being channeled, albeit to a lesser extent by contemporary acts.
Even the idea of channelling the beauty of womanhood and femininity to the overt attraction of adding motion to music can be traced back to Fela's stage dancers.
The counter culture in Fela's lifestyle and Pan-Africanism
Fela places premium on freedom and fearlessness. He famously said, "the secret to life is to not live in fear."
His quest for freedom and truth, affirming his statement that, "I must identity myself with Africa. Then I will have an Identity" led him to change the "Ransome" in his name to the more African "Anikulapo". He reportedly felt Ransome was a slave name.
As a theme to his life, Fela, the son of a seasoned Anglican Clergyman brandished Christianity as a product of colonial subjugation and embraced the Ifá religion.
This led Fela to marrying 27 wives on February 20, 1978 with 12 traditional Priests presided over the wedding.
Currently, Nigerians proudly claim the status of "Yoruba demon" and its overall influence on their lives to represent the pan-African truth Fela highlighted by marrying 27 wives in one day.
At the time Fela pulled the counter cultural, traditionalist swerve through his Pan-African living, he was highlighted as eccentric. These days, more Nigerians emulate the Fela truth.
While the lines remain unclear, the distrust for religion is palpable across the cyberspace amongst millennials who want to live untamed by the chains of norms. Fela was a pioneer of free living.
His legacy was the rude awakening to the current realities millennials aim to adopt. Arguably, millennials have channeled Fela the most.
The tenets Fela abided are arguably more relevant to this current generation, probably because documentation is easier due to the Internet and social media.
The influential counter culture in Fela's fashion and style
The Nigerian altè movement places premium on rebellious aesthetics. Before them, there was D'Banj who could wear singlets to video shoots or go shirtless on stage.
During Fela's rebrand to his alter ego, Abami Eda, he brought his entire Pan-African beliefs to the fore in his music and gimmick.
Fela began painting his face as that of his supporting acts. His focus on leaving more than anything else, without rules birthed his expression.
He was also slightly extreme, but equally unique with his donning of oversized underwear. The total history of his fashion choices and what they represented were a shift from the rather more elegant and measured tone of his time.
He was not wearing bootlegged pants or Afro hair. He was bringing attention to our faces. The inroads made by his gimmick and the attraction it got from the audience laid a blueprint.
His entire style and aura is being channeled by the entire Nigerian altè movement with the freedom and rebellious of their tone.
The counter culture in Fela's vanity
Fela had a thing for Marijuana. While weed consumption has always been an undertone to every Nigerian generation, it's legalization, though a bit far from reality has become an ongoing conversation.
The reason is simple; the growing generations are getting more liberal and weed is being perceived with far lesser disdain by the average 20-30 somethings.
It is arguably perceived more as a rite of passage, even without peer pressure.
Arguably, the most significant, Nigerian icon for weed consumption is Fela, though he was criticized for it during his time.
Aided by the legalization of weed in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Canada, and the support for decriminalisation of weed by ex Nigerian President, Chief , Fela's truth is about to become an ideal.
Earlier in the year, Chief Obasanjo told BBC News that, "it is essentially a cal for what we call decriminalisation. If a young man tries to experiment with a wrap of marijuana for instance and because of thy we put him in jail?"
The openness of Fela to weed consumption, and his quest to demystify it as a mystical plan that cannot be touched is slowly being actualized.
Fela is not just a cultural icon. He is a hero of counter culture.