In a typical encounter between a black African and a black American, the black African knows more about the black American's world than the black American knows about the black African's. This has a lot to do with the fact that most Americans (white or black) know little about what happens outside of their country. But it's also because the United States exports a massive amount of culture and imports very little. As a consequence, a person in, say, Singapore consumes his/her local culture along with the culture that Americans consume almost exclusively. The US has become the universal—the rest, a puzzle of particulars.
When we talk about American cultural dominance, the discussion instinctively turns to brands like Nike, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola, and the image industrial complex called Hollywood. But blacks in Africa and countries with large black populations cannot imagine any discussion of American cultural dominance that fails to mention black American music, the music of the world. It is heard everywhere and imitated by everyone.
At this moment, the most famous pop star on earth is a Korean who raps (Psy). Also at this moment, the most famous Seattle musician is a white man who raps (Macklemore). And if you look at the top 10 grossing concert tours of all time, you will find that three were by a band that drew directly from the deep wells of black American blues and soul (the Rolling Stones) and two were by a woman who got her start singing bland black pop tunes (Madonna). The image of the world is a white face (Hollywood), but the voice of the world is black (Motown).
If the late Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, then the late Nigerian Fela Kuti was the King of Afropop. (Kuti died in 1997 from AIDS-related complications.) Short like James Baldwin, erotically sassy like Freddie Mercury, and musically brilliant like Charles Mingus, Kuti invented Afrobeat, essentially a response to the irresistible rhythms of black American funk. Kuti's music was influenced by black Americans and so were his politics, a fact explored in the Broadway hit Fela! I have not seen Fela! live because it hadn't opened by press time, but I watched several of its song/dance sequences on video, the most fascinating of which reimagines the moment Fela meets a black activist named Sandra Smith (she later changed her surname to Izsadore) at the Citadel d'Haiti, a Hollywood joint owned by Bernie Hamilton, who secured a permanent place in America's memory by playing the black police captain in the 1970s TV show Starsky and Hutch. Kuti, who was raised in Africa, educated in the UK, and living in the US illegally at the time (1969) with his band, regularly performed at the Citadel. "It was a crazy time," he (played by Sahr Ngaujah) says in Fela! "It was a time you could walk into a club and meet someone who could turn your world upside down, like Sandra Izsadore." When Izsadore saw him perform at the Citadel, she fell in love on the spot and immediately began transforming him from a pure hedonist into a political activist. This is the scene:
Kuti: Hey baby, let's go to bed.
Izsadore: Hold on. You have a skewed sense of Marxist historical imperative.
Izsadore: Fela, it's love and struggle, we have to be strong. Black power will make us strong.
Kuti: You black people in America, you act like this black power business draws inspiration from Africa.
Izsadore: Of course it does.
Kuti: In Lagos, we are even ashamed to walk around in national dress.
Izsadore: We have to be willing to die for what we believe in. Fela! Listen to me! Even if your mommy and daddy can't, let them go.
Kuti: Hey baby, enough politics.
Izsadore: Fela, you are not listening. You don't understand. I grew up ashamed of my color. I was lost in the wilderness of North America with no knowledge, no pride.
Kuti: Why are you Americans so hung up on the color of skin. Africans are black and we don't go beating ourselves up about it.
Izsadore: Because in Africa, everyone is black. And you have thrown off your white oppressors.
Kuti: Only to be replaced by a bunch of black crooks!
Izsadore: You ignorant African!
Kuti: You naive American!
Silence falls on the two for a moment, and then they burst into laughter to diffuse the tension. But there is so much in this exchange that can help us prepare for the full impact of Fela! when it arrives in Seattle. The first: Izsadore, as so many critics have pointed out, is one of the two important female influences in the show. (The other being Kuti's mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a teacher and political activist who was killed by Nigerian soldiers in 1977—she was thrown out of a window and eventually died from the injuries.) This is interesting because it places a strong feminist message in the middle of a story about a man who ran his huge band/community like a chief, a man who also famously married lord knows how many women (27? 30? 37?).
But the contradiction of a feminist theme in Fela! is not at all ridiculous. It reminds one that feminism is not a simple and direct discourse; it has many complications and unexpected sources. For example, it is often said that for many Muslim women in the United States and France, wearing a hijab, supposedly the very symbol of male oppression (women must cover their bodies, men do not), can represent a rejection of the values and standards of a society that goes on and on about women's rights and yet economically exploits Arab and African countries for energy resources. Similarly, Fela's marriage to a large group of women was a major middle finger to the tastes and aspirations of powerful black African Christians who exploited the poor of Lagos.
Fela! is directed by black American choreographer Bill T. Jones, which means it will be nearly impossible for it not to be a black American reading of a black African who, like so many black Africans of his time, was heavily influenced by one of the most dominant cultural forms in the world—black American popular music.