Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore : Book Review by Glory Edozien
About the Book
Fela disturbs, shocks, inspires. His volcanic performances, trance-like music and defiant lifestyle have found him a huge worldwide following. But it also brought him appalling physical punishment, brutal confrontation with the military and police, official ostracism and media attack. Still, he swept to international fame on a wave of controversy, scandal and flamboyant in-your-face politics. But what was he really like, this man who could as easily arouse violent hostility from Africa’s ruling elites as unswerving loyalty from the underdogs of society?
Told largely in his own outspoken words, illustrated with over 50 photographs, This Bitch of a Life is the amazing story of Fela’s tumultuous existence – and, for the first time in print, his wives also speak out. This unique biography is a surprising, moving, breathtaking journey into the soul of a brave pan-africanist who confronted multiple forces of oppression with the force of an imperishable music.
In this book, Carols Moore opens us to the world of Fela, his upbringing, explosive personality, rebirth as an African musician and his deep regard for his African heritage. By all accounts Fela was not a man to be toyed with. His life which was besotted with challenges of varying depths from financial to seeking his identity as an African artist and the continuous harassment from the then ruling government was enough to make a mere man loose his marbles. Instead Fela’s defiant attitude and resilience showed why he won the heart of the masses and became a formidable personality in our county’s history.
The book, which is in most cases written in Fela’s own words, starts of with Fela’s life as a child, his relationship with his parents, his journey of self discovery in America, his continuous battles with the government and relationship with his wives. It is a riveting read, one that makes you understand the motivation behind the man.
Prior to reading the book, I knew little about Fela apart from what I had heard people say. Some rubbished his way of life, others hailed his music as a synonym for the plight of the average Nigerian. After reading the book, it became clear to me that Fela was different things to different people. To the average Nigerian he was a voice calling out in the wilderness, a voice which spoke the truth when everyone else turned away. To the government he was a torn in the flesh, a boil which would not go away, a broken cord that refused to be fixed. To those who loved his music he was an artist, a carrier of the African drum which beat earnestly with African rhythm and pride. To his wives, he was a man they loved. Someone they looked up to and shared an intangible experience with. To his mother, he was the son who resembled her in spirit, who had watched her all those years as she stood and fought for what she believed in, and would later grow up to mirror these attributes which he had unknowingly imbibed. To his friends, he was a rebel, an edgy musician who pursed his music with passion and sense of purpose. To me, Fela is possibly an unsung hero, Nigeria’s version of Rosa Parks, who refused to ‘stand’ for the inequality that is still prevalent in present day Nigeria.
What Glory Loved
I loved that the book was written largely in Fela’s own words. Usually most biographies are an interpretation of the author’s views, but in this case, we hear/read Fela speaking for himself. It makes the words jump right of the page and smack you in the face.
The book is also quite humorous in parts. In the first few pages of the book, Fela describes how his parents would beat him for the slightest indiscretion
“My mother was a motherf$$%%& she would beat you like a man. You know how? She’d say: “touch your toes. Bend down” and it was batabatabatabatabata….!” Pg 48
“At home my parents didn’t allow me to smoke. I wanted to smoke. I wanted to drink. They didn’t allow me to drink alcohol. I wanted to go with women. But they used to make me fear women and all those things…..I never used to smoke, drink or run round with girls. I was always wearing a suit and a tie and was very proper.” Pg 58
The Book also includes interviews with people who were Fela’s closest and dearest friends and a few of his wives. I found these interviews ingenious, as they added another layer of depth in understanding exactly who Fela was. One of such interviews was with JK, Fela’s close friend and onetime roommate. Here is a short excerpt from the interview
“Q: He didn’t smoke?
JK: Not even cigarettes. Let alone grass, even for f%$$ing. He was afraid to f&*k. ….for example, I’d say Fela do this woman. This girl will leave you if you don’t do her. Fela would answer oooohhhhh she go get pregnant-oh” Pg 66
The book also gives vivid descriptions and accounts of Fela’s tiresome and most times violent run-ins with soldiers
“The soldiers where everywhere, all in the yard, inside the house, in all the rooms and on the ground floor. They beat up some of the girls, raped some of them and did horrors to them, man….They beat up my brother Beko, who was trying to protect my mother. They fractured his leg, his arm. They beat him so bad he had to be taken to hospital…they grabbed my mother, and you know what they did to this seventy seven year old woman? They threw her out of the window of the first floor. And me? oh man, I could hear my own bones being broken by the blows! Then the whole Kalakuta republic (Fela’s home) went up in flames. The soldiers set fire to the house”. Pg 151
What I could have done without
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. So much so, that I think parts of it should become essential reading material for social studies/history students in secondary schools, (with the sexual bits taken out, off course). However, I felt there were some bits of the book that somewhat sensationalized Fela’s radical lifestyle. The introduction to the book, given by Dr Carlos Moore, is a bit too subservient for my taste and in my view doesn’t engage with the negative side effects of some of Fela’s excesses. We all know that Fela’s life is worth celebrating but we do injustice if we do not speak candidly of the ‘other’ publicized aspects of his life, the repercussions of which may have contributed to his untimely demise.
Now, that we’ve finished our own review of Fela’s authorized biography, what do you think? Did you read the book? Do you agree with our review or have completely different thoughts? Did find our review helpful? What are your own thoughts on the icon- Fela?