One Day Go Be One Day follows the footsteps of Nigeria’s most political musical icon, in the words of his family and UK musician ObongjayarCarhartt WIP
So much has been written about Nigerian afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. Best known as a tempestuous musician, he was all at once a spiritual leader, socialist saviour, and a hedonistic firebrand who was as committed to his weed as he was his 27 wives. To explore his impressive multiplicity, Dazed, NTS, and Carhartt WIP united to make a soul-baring short film about the most pivotal point of Fela’s life: the aftermath of his mother’s death.
With Akinola Davies Jr (AKA Crack Stevens) at the helm, we went on a road trip to Lagos and its surrounding towns, with London-based Nigerian musician Obongjayar in tow, to soundtrack and narrate the story of the man whose fame has almost turned him to folklore in his West African hometown. Through the words of his friends and family we retraced Fela’s footsteps; we revisited the tumultuous period between 1977 and 1981 and visited some places of significance that are attached to his legacy and influence.
If Fela had just an ounce of the charisma of the people who were close to him, then it’s clear to see why his magnetism prevails. Lemi Ghariokwu, Fela’s album cover artist, still has a childlike optimism, and is constantly excitable, even at 64 years old. He recounted how he would watch Fela as he performed four times a week. “Tuesday night he called Ladies Night, ladies were free. Your dad used to come!” he laughed, pointing to Crack Stevens. Femi Kuti, Fela’s eldest son, has a fearsome energy that commands respect, and told us simply: “I’m not as trusting as my father, I don’t trust even you”. And, an evening with Seun Kuti, his youngest, was scarringly frank, open, and occasionally peppered with laughter and insults, particularly about Obongjayar’s hometown Calabar. “Don’t your people eat dogs?” he asked.
But, once we began talking about this dark period of Fela’s life, the mood sombred. “Sometimes we (Kutis) internalise it, the violence we’ve experienced… the injustices,” says the voice of Seun at the beginning of the film. The late 70s set Fela’s fame, and infamy, in concrete. Off the back of his divisive record “Zombie”, a song that took aim at the Nigerian army, he upset the political elite so much that they struck back with a vengeance. Soldiers stormed his grounds that he named Kalakuta Republic, a commune-cum-performance space, throwing his mother of out of a window. She died from sustained injuries the following year. The evocatively named “Sorrow Tears & Blood”, released in 1977, details the chaos of an army raid at his home as he sings: “everybody scatter scatter”.
Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a fearless woman whose political campaigning for women’s rights was radical for a Nigerian woman born at the turn of the century. She was the first woman to drive a car in the country, was the granddaughter of a returned slave, and fought passionately for Nigeria’s independence from the British. She is one of two women credited with emboldening him politically (the other being an American Black Panther, Sandra Smith). To lose his mother through the scorn attracted by his infamy with the state changed Fela forever.
What followed next can only be described as chaos, as Fela became obsessed with trying to connect with her, to find answers and relieve his trauma. As Lemi put it: “the death of his mum too really broke him”. He delivered a coffin rumoured to have his mother inside to the president’s house, and then made a song about it (“Coffin for the Head of State”), before launching a failed attempt to run for president. Searching for religion, he threw himself into West African mysticism – a practice that honours the ancestors – which was when he claimed speak to his dead mother, spending days in trances. All of this turmoil was undoubtedly impacted by his penchant for a homemade potent concoction of marijuana and gin named Felagoro. Lemi explained to Dazed how the impact of the tar-like drug made this period of time particularly excessive: “(When I tried it) he put a tip on a spoon, just the tip, and I saw my body die. I felt like I was meditating and levitating all at once.”
During this time, Fela also held a mass wedding at the Parisona Hotel – partly to give all 27 of his wives the legal rights afforded to wives in Nigeria, but also to fill up his well-organised sex rota for the week, which pencilled in multiple wives a day. While his son Femi spoke of the endearing mayhem of it all, and how he would skip school to go party at Kalakuta, there are also some memories that he barely ever speaks of. Being a child in a drug-fuelled, hypersexual spiritual commune had its disturbing moments. “I've sworn to myself, it’s something I don’t want to discuss ever. I probably will take it to my grave,” he said. In speaking to Fela’s closest confidants, we unearthed a side to the musician which was more vulnerable, as the claustrophobia of his fame and the rumours that surround it are still felt even now by those left behind.
Somewhere between the bleating horns of the cars clogging up the hot Lagosian streets, an archaic slave port, Osogbo, a majestic bamboo forest with red clay earth and a sacred river, and the shrine dedicated to his memory, the spirit of Fela came alive during the making of this film. Even the accents of Nigerian-born Crack Stevens and Obongjayar began to shift towards the local dialect. Each night, the south London musician pieced together the words to his monologue in between puffs of smoke. On a day of shooting on the mainland, like Fela, we found ourselves fleeing – except this time it was from area boys (informal security guards who ask for money in return for protection), rather than an oppressive government.
The longer you follow Fela’s path, the more it feels like the madness and mysticism of him is all around. As the words of Obongjayar punctuate the film: “Corruption, betrayal… he who is free, mortality cannot constrain”. In so many ways, the spirit of Fela lives on.
Director, Akinola Davies Jr, cinematography Joel Honeywell, writers Eniola Dawodu, Moya DeYoung, Obongjayar & Akinola Davies, director’s assistant Moya Deyoung, interviews Kemi Alemoru & Akinola Davies Jr, editor DFran, colourist Ben Rogers, edit Assistant Kathryn Bessant, post producer Callum Johnston, graphic designer Rory Gleeson, sound Design DFran, score Obongjayar, score produced by Obongjayar, score co-produced by Miles James, audio Mi Owen Pratt
Executive Producer (Dazed), Thomas Gorton, executive producer (NTS), Sean AcAuliffe, Femi Adeyemi, Tabitha Thorlu-Bangura, Chantal Adams, executive Producer (Carhartt WIP):Michael Leuffen, Philipp Maiburg, producer Nyah Clarke, production company Fatherland Media, line Producer Wale Davies, assistant Producer Iye Hassan, runner Precious Ukaegbu, location Manager Iye Hassan, locations scouts Iye Hassan & Wale Davies, primary Researchers, Moya DeYoung & Akinola Davies Jr, costume Designer Eniola Dawadu, makeup Gift Okpa Francis
Little Fela: Khalid Shofu
Fela's Mother: Bukola Alimi
Other Women: Shakirat Gbadamosi, Bunmi Apatira, Esther Daramola, Amina Sani Sule
Big Fela: Yinka Yomi Joseph
Fela's Men: Morgan Samuel, Dankano Aliyu, Quadri Oluwasina, Ibrahim Ilerika
Fela Girls: Faith Lee, Tolani Adesanya
Masquerade 1: Morgan Samuel
Masquerade 2: Dankano Aliyu
Masquerade 3: Quadri Oluwasina