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What Fela Kuti Teaches Us About the Media’s Response to Charlie Hebdo and Black Lives

By Stephanie Shonekan | In These Times

I was not surprised when the world mourned the murder of 17 people in France and ignored 2,000 murders in Baga, Nigeria, the same week. To be fair, the Charlie Hebdo shootings came out of the blue while the Baga massacre was just another episode in a six-year long campaign by fundamentalist Islamic group Boko Haram, which has killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands in their mission to eradicate Western-style education.

When Western media and the global public finally noticed, the belated attention felt like a plate of leftovers—cold, stale and unpalatable. For those who are constantly affected by these events, being treated as an afterthought was yet another indication of whom the West values. The 2,000 dead bodies that lay strewn and ignored along the streets of Baga evoked images of the body of Mike Brown as it lay on the streets of Ferguson while four hours ticked by. This is why the #BlackLivesMatter movement is so critical: Again and again, the world shows us that black lives matter least, whether those black lives—and deaths—occur in Africa or in the Diaspora.

At times like this, I turn to the immortal words of the late, great, Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo Kuti over any present-day punditry from politicians, academics or ideologues. Independent, irreverent and Afrocentric, this Nigerian musical genius, who dominated world music from the 1960s till his death in 1997, used his formidable platform to critique this “craze world” and expose the hegemonic forces behind underdevelopment and poverty.

Consider the “world leaders” who marched in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims. Needless to say, these leaders were absent from marches in Nigeria. But why should we expect leaders to suddenly value African lives? In his classic “Beasts of No Nation” (1989), Fela points to tragedies like the fatal military clampdown of student protests in Soweto, South Africa and in Zaria and Ife in Nigeria, and the callous response of P.W. Botha, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He flips the script of dehumanization, asserting that Western leaders are themselves “beasts”: “How will animals know that slave trade is over?” Considering Fela’s lyrics and the history he references, we may well call into question the humanity of the world leaders who marched in Paris and ignored Baga.

How should we process the fact that even the leadership of Nigeria paid more attention to Charlie than Baga? While President Goodluck Jonathan issued a strong statement about Charlie just a day after the attacks, it was almost two weeks before he said anything about Baga. Fela described this psyche in the song “Colonial Mentality” (1977): “The white man told you that you are a colonial man/ you were a slave man/ They have released you now/But you have not released yourself.” In other words, one may attain political independence while mentally shackled to colonialism. As Fela would assert, a post-colonial independent Nigeria should demonstrate its commitment to its own people first.

January 11, 2015 march in Paris, France (Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com)

Finally, it is important to address what Baga and Charlie do share. Both tragedies were perpetrated by radical Islamic fundamentalists motivated by violations of their faith. As commentators shuffle and tiptoe around difficult discussions about religion, Fela’s song “Shuffering and Shmiling” (1977) allows for a balanced critique of both Islam and Christianity. He challenges Africans who populate churches and mosques for following blindly. While radical Islam is in the limelight right now, let us not forget that Christianity has a history of religious violence, and that slavery and colonialism were justified by Christianity. I value my own Christian faith, but I listen closely as Fela questions the rabid devotion that causes the fervent to enslave, kill and dehumanize.

Without a serious critique of religious extremism—and of the power dynamics that ensure indigenous cultures remain subservient to imported ones—we become what Fela refers to as “zombies,” those who do not think “unless they are told what to think.” When we challenge the worldview that privileges certain groups, we become more than beasts, able to value all humans equally. So, instead of issuing competing proclamations of “JeSuisCharlie” and “IamBaga,” perhaps we should simply say, “I am Human”—and mean it.

Fela’s lyrics have been translated from pidgin English.


Stephanie Shonekan is the Contributing Editor of Arts, Music and Pop Culture for Praxis Center. Originally published in In These Times, reprinted with permission.