He dedicated himself to challenging authority in his music and his life, denouncing injustice and repression, boosting African identity and the plight of the poor, leading the Nigerian government to arrest him, often with brutal beatings, 200 times. In Lagos he built a communal compound/recording studio he called The Kalakuta Republic, where he lived with his band and the back-up singers and dancers he called his “queens” — marrying 27 of them. His tours were epic, with scores of musicians filling airplanes and buses with marijuana smoke on their way to shows that lasted for hours. Although his success could have let him live abroad, he remained in Nigeria — even after the infamous 1977 incident when government forces invaded and burned his compound, beating and raping the inhabitants, and murdering Fela’s mother by throwing her out a window.
Fela! tells this story through flashbacks and musical sequences, set at an imaginary concert at his famous club, The Shrine. The cast moves out into the audience, and exhorts them to participate. The show is known for getting people on their feet. Like Fela himself, and like Parliament Funkadelic leader George Clinton’s exhortation to “move your ass and your mind will follow,” Fela!’s creators sought to engage hips and related emotions first, and intellect second.
“I wanted us to make something hugely captivating, a sensual experience,” Hendel says. “Something that would make people change.”
For Jones, who is African-American and gay and has endured controversies over his own work, dance is a naturally potent way to draw people into potentially challenging areas. The show debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and went to Broadway in 2009, as President Obama was elected — a charged moment echoed in Fela’s repeated call to “make me your black president!” Exuberant music and dance sequences make his blunt sexuality, confrontational politics and Yoruba spiritual beliefs more seductive and comprehensible to Western audiences.
“We had to find a way to cook it down to a popular entertainment where people didn’t want to be preached to, where they’d be willing to learn but they want to do it in a way where their butts were moving,” Jones says. “When the music is powerful enough and the right people are in the room amazing things happen and amazing transgression is possible. That’s what we were doing, but using Fela as a teacher.”
The lessons got through. Fela! drew a stream of celebrities in New York, including Madonna, Prince, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. Several, including Questlove of The Roots, and Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, signed on as producers and backers.
“Fela is now part of the American cultural conversation,” Hendel says.
The touring cast includes former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore, the feisty Black Panther who changed Fela’s politics during their affair.
Williams says the real Isadore gave her insight into the couple’s fiery relationship. “She will say ‘I had those dynamics of I hate you today, I want to tear your shirt off the next.’ ” But Williams, who will appear at a charity event for a South Florida anti-bullying group this week, says she has also drawn political inspiration from the show.