Barack Obama and the Original First Black President

Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly.
The message of President Obama's speech in Africa was simple: Civil disorder is bad for business. But it's not about business as usual in a chaotic Africa--he spoke of good governance that broadens prosperity. The president gave his address in Ghana, praising the nation for its democratic institutions that conduct peaceful transitions of power through elections. He also called out to Ghana's youth and urged them to greater civic participation.

It was a message of hope and possibility. As the president spoke about the future of Africa and its need to move past corruption, an afrobeat groove played in the back of my mind. To me, criticizing corruption in Africa is synonymous with the music of the original Black President, Fela Ransome Kuti.

Fela made great music. His work just grooves--with a heavy dose of political consciousness. President Obama said in Ghana that "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions." Fela Ransome Kuti was an institution himself, using the power of music to speak truth to injustice.

I'm a relative latecomer to Fela. It was around 10 years ago when I became aware of the power of his music. I was haunting one of my favorite Seattle record stores, browsing through the used vinyl bins, and I came across a record called Zombie. The cover features a collage of Fela pointing his finger at the faces of daunting soldiers. I bought it and got hooked on the intricate groove. It's like James Brown, but with third-world grit. There's a recurring chorus: "zombie" pronounced with a hard O. The 12-and-a-half minute tune is a harsh criticism of the Nigerian military, saying the soldiers are mindless tools of a corrupt state.

President Obama mentioned colonial maps that made little sense. But he went on to say the West is not responsible for the party tribalism and patronage at the core of much post-colonial rule. Fela's music also acknowledged Western exploitation "ITT - International Thief Thief". And he taunted crooked post-colonial rulers by mocking political boundaries when he declared his compound a republic independent of Nigeria.

Zombie was released in 1978, and its popularity propelled Fela into the forefront as a political dissident. The corrupt military rulers of Nigeria became alarmed by the taunting jam. Soldiers attacked Fela's compound/republic, beating the men and raping the women. The army destroyed the place. They also pitched Fela's elderly mother from an upstairs window. She died shortly after from the injuries.

Fela and his crew then took his mother's casket and left her on the steps of the military barracks. This protest also inspired the powerful album Coffin For Head Of State. On this recording, Fela spreads the news regarding the regime's crime. "They killed my mama," he sings, but it's really a song about all the human suffering in Africa as a result of the corruption there--with support from abroad.

Fela went on to run for president of Nigeria, but the authorities wouldn't let him on the ballot.

In Ghana, President Obama had to mention AIDS in Africa, and this is where the story of Fela Ransome Kuti ends. He died in 1997 as a result of the disease.

President Obama spoke of the moment, a "time when the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections." He also said, "I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world." In his time, Fela communicated to the whole world through the medium of music. But even if you missed the message, you could still groove to a great beat.

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