Curious and curiouser: Fela Kuti on stage at Glastonbury in 1984. Photo: master_xpo/Flickr
Show Hide image

For years, I wondered what Fela Kuti had really done to that man on stage

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

It is safe to say that when I saw some guys digging a grave outside the venue, even I twigged this was not to be the usual gig.

I’d had word that Fela Kuti was going to be doing something special. In a tiny club. The place was difficult to find, somewhere in a dark alley in Hampstead.

I had just been to see Fela in Brixton. It was a mighty thing. If you have 27 wives, as he did then, it’s already a lot of people on stage. If you have Tony Allen driving the machine it’s full-on freakpower.

While I was at the bar, Fela’s juju man had cut his own tongue out.

“God, what is he doing?”

“They’re Nigerian,” said the barman, as though this was to be expected. Another guy beckoned me over. He was with the band, he claimed, and he asked if I wanted to see more of this kind of thing. Obviously I gave him my number. It’s not an offer you get every day.

Then some dumb music journo dared to suggest in a review that the man had not actually cut his tongue out.

This irked Fela, to say the least. He did not like to be disrespected. This was a man who had changed his middle name from Ransome, which he said was a slave name, to Anikulapo, which means “he who carries death in his pouch”; who’d seen his mother thrown out of a window and killed by the military. Fela had delivered his mother’s coffin to the generals’ barracks in Lagos and written a song called “Coffin for Head of State”.

So the Black President did not take a bad review lightly.

To question the integrity of Professor Hindu, his spiritual guide, a man who knew all of the past and all of the future, was not a wise move. This was why I had come to see a demonstration of the Professor’s power.

“Would you like some mushrooms?” said my new friend. Why not? As if things were not strange enough. Fela held court at a table in the middle of the tiny club. Some poor guy had volunteered to be killed and resurrected.

What happened next was odd, lots of stupid card tricks and amateur magic with pocket watches. Then the volunteer was on stage, the Professor slit his throat, and he was carried outside and buried.

What disturbed me most were the card tricks. Why? And being in Belsize Park. It was so posh. We were told that the dead man would be raised up two days later and we could go back for that.

I’d seen enough, and for many years afterwards I wondered about it.

Thankfully, I ran into the legendary writer Vivien Goldman some years back. Not only had she been there, but she’d gone back to see the dead man raised. He’d jumped out of the grave in a suit all covered in earth and propositioned her. “Being buried alive makes you horny,” he exclaimed. That makes sense, when you think about it. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.