Politics may be about power, but music is power. Besides making one tap a toe, it can spread information, coalesce a community and speak such truth about an issue, a group or common but unjust sensibilities that those who hold political power sometimes feel threatened by musicians and their work.
Such was the case with Nigerian composer and musician Fela Kuti. Known simply as Fela, he pioneered what has come to be known as Afrobeat, was loud with his derision of the corrupt military regime of Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, and engineered his own unique approach to music and to life.
Fela and his music are celebrated in the Broadway hit FELA!, which UApresents is hosting this weekend for three performances. Shepherded in its development by acclaimed American choreographer Bill T. Jones, the show began an off-Broadway run in 2008 and landed on Broadway in late 2009, winning three Tony awards (out of 11 nominations) the next year.
Adesola Osakalumi joined the ensemble when the show moved to Broadway and understudied the role of Fela. Now in the national tour, the dancer-actor-singer-choreographer from the Bronx portrays the celebrated figure. Fela's work might have been little known outside Nigeria, or to those unversed in the development of Afrobeat music, but Osakalumi was quite familiar with the controversial musician.
"My family owned a record label called Makossa Records and they were the first label to introduce and distribute Fela's music in America. So I've been exposed to Fela's music for quite a long time. My father and uncles had the opportunity to meet and do business with Fela, so for me he wasn't a new discovery.
"I met him once in passing when he was in New York doing some business, and I do remember his energy being very strong and I remember thinking, yes, that's Fela, that's the music."
Osakalumi says the current touring group consists of "26 or 28 cast and band members," with sets and costumes filling two trucks. "We're a lean, mean Afrobeat machine," he says with a laugh.
There has been criticism that the book for the musical fails to cover some of the more controversial aspects of Fela, especially his personal life. But Osakalumi says it's not really meant to be an exploration of the entirety of Fela's life.
"Fela was such a complicated, unique individual. This play could easily have been 40 hours. And from my understanding, there were certain versions of the off-Broadway version which were more than three hours. There are a lot of edits that have been made, just due to musical theater brevity.
"The concept of the show is very clear, and that is it's Fela's performance on his last night in Lagos prior to his leaving as a result of his having been harassed and beaten by the government authorities. And within this concert he takes us back through his life in this last night.
"I think what people need to remember is that this is not a typical musical theater production. It's not as linear as most of what we are accustomed to, and we break the fourth wall constantly. It's just a different type of show. And it's not just that we break the fourth wall, but the manner in which we do so. The audience is implored, scolded, cajoled to be active participants in the story, which is very much a part of the black tradition. Whether it's black American, West Indian or African, it's very much participatory, shout, call and response. One of the first things I do is say to the audience, 'Say, yay, yeah.' Sometimes the response is strong, sometimes it's a little more hesitant, but according to that response, I have the license to prod a bit: 'You can talk. Don't be afraid. It's not that kind of show.' So immediately we want to pull the audience into that mind-frame. Your feelings, your emotions, your shouts, your yelling are integral to the show and won't be a distraction."
So doesn't that make it a different show every night?
"Absolutely, yes. Some nights people are right there with us, screaming, yelling, hooting and hollering, and other nights, folks are just a little more reserved. But either way I feel like we have taken the audience on that journey with us."
The Broadway cast traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, to perform the show, and it's an experience none of them is likely to forget.
"To have the opportunity to perform in Fela's hometown, and to be onstage and have the crowd finish the verses of the songs—because these folks were familiar with his music—that was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The response, the love, the adulation that Fela received—we were the secondary recipients of the love, but this love and outpouring of affection was for Fela. And that was amazing."
Osakalumi initially made his name in the world of hip-hop, and as a member of the GhettOriginals Production Dance Company created the off-Broadway production Jam on the Groove, which has toured the world. He choreographed the movie School of Rock, with Jack Black, and appeared in the recent revival of Equus on Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe and the late Richard Griffiths.
But it's clear that Osakalumi is passionate about his current role.
"Fela's music was about corruption and about injustice and about people having the right to live better lives. And he was harassed, beaten, thrown into jail many times. His mother died of injuries when in his compound. She was thrown from a second-story window. He endured many tribulations and was vocal about his beliefs. When he passed away there were over a million people at his funeral. That tells you the impact that he has had."