Opinion: “Protest” Dress Lives On – By Sylvester Asoya
Afrobeat maestro, Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s symbolic and provocative protest dress was an important part of his life and struggles. The strong message the legend’s dress conveys remains evergreen
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afro beat creator was expressive, courageous, unimpeded and deeply creative. Like some popular and influential persons known for their acts of artistic rebellion, Fela used his unique clothing to give visual expression to his art and with it, spoke eloquently on issues of equity, fairness, human rights and responsibilities of government to its citizens. His clothes also enhanced his creativity and greatly affected how many people, particularly his fans, saw him. Fela was one man whose choices and dresses represented his radical and non-conformist views on music, his country, social movement, egalitarianism, decolonization, politics and culture.
Artistes, activists and protesters across the globe have used clothes to influence people and drive change from time immemorial. Even in this time and age, fashion remains an important tool and a strong medium with the capacity to communicate and mobilize citizens in different parts of the world.
Indeed, Fela’s clothes and accessories were powerful; they were also his essential part. In fact, they were like his revolutionary songs and his patriotism, activism, communalism and the other things he did that defined his career and life.
Many have described this extraordinary musician as a radical fashion icon but Fela was more than that for many reasons, especially for the fact that his dresses spoke loudly. Actually, his clothes were out of this world, and this is worth paying attention to. They were simple African prints but they were also colourful, tight-fitting, pocketless, attention-grabbing, immeasurable and bizarre
Lemi Ghariokwu is a designer and Afro-beat artist who designed Fela’s record sleeves. For many years, he worked with the musician and contributed significantly to Fala’s art, revolution and social awakening. According to Ghariokwu, Fela was extraordinarily creative. And he believes the artiste took that unusual creativity beyond his composition and amazing stage presence, to his fashion that remains unique and unbeatable to this day. “Fela consistently protested against the norm in society until his last days. That was his character, and his clothes were part of that protest. For me, I agree with Fela completely on Pan-Africanism. I am also rebellious like him but my rebellion is quiet. Anyone who is rebellious can protest with anything, including clothes. But Fela was a creative genius and this is noteworthy. He created a music genre, designed his clothes, made some of his costumes and designed his shoes”.
However, Fela did not create his remarkable clothes unaided. He had a special tailor in Lagos who was also part of his creative space. Together, they worked tirelessly to achieve what eventually became a clothing brand that revealed the artiste’s political, cultural and social identity. Today, Fela’s dress is a strange phenomenon and currently of interest to his fans, collectors, designers and researchers.
But Fela was also conscious of the fact that miseducation had greatly affected a good number of Africans at home and even in the Diaspora. Many people, including educated Africans looked to the West for direction, and Fela was so incensed by that. This, Ghariokwu believes, drove his dress sense and Pan-African ideology that radically challenged and questioned anything European.
But Fela did not also fail to communicate across, loudly, and effectively too, the inherent drama that came with his bizarre clothes and the colours of his wardrobe. According to Ghariokwu, whatever outfit he wore, had matching colour of pant or underwear any time anywhere. He was truly an expert in perfect matching colour combination for his clothes and pants, and it was important for him.
Halim Mohammed, veteran journalist and a friend of Fela goes one step further with the musician’s protest clothes and what may have motivated him. “Fela believed in made in Africa goods, this was the concept behind his clothing. Any dress Fela wore was to his design specifications. As a matter of fact, long before Nigerians started designing clothes and shoes, Fela already had tailors and designers who made his clothes and shoes. Anytime his clothes were made, the same material was used in designing his shoes. So, he appeared from top to bottom in the same stuff, always. Of course, both his shirts and tight-fitting pants had intricate African designs. Is it not ironic that these fitted shirts and trousers are now in vogue in the world?”.
However, one thing is clear, Fela’s protest dresses will remain topical and a point of contention for many years to come because of the man and his weird ways. Clearly, no one can deny Fela his power and influence as a defiant artiste who was a torn in the flesh of inept governments in Nigeria. His hold on young people and progressive elements in the society emboldened him to speak, even when it was inauspicious. Charles Okogene, former Saturday Editor of Independent Newspapers and a good friend of the Afro beat legend recalls how Fela once called on the federal government to adopt tight and pocketless uniforms for officers and men of the Nigeria police as a way to stem the tide of systemic corruption in the force.
Those who lived and worked closely with Fela in Kalakuta Republic, have a more wide-ranging and intimate views of the musician’s dress and his strange ways. One such persons is Ndubuisi Okwechime, a scholar who is currently a researcher on Fela. Okwechime remembers his unique sense of fashion, his clothes and his tailor at Ojuelegba. He speaks of Kalan, the in-house designer from Cameroun who made his clothes and lived with him in Kalakuta. He also discusses his cobbler from Zaria and his special interest on clothing matters. He remembers Fela’s cute and comfortable fashion even for a busy man who worked round the clock. “Fela’s trousers were body fitting, making them free for stage movements. He walked with a gait that he accentuated with tight-fitting apparel. No musician before or after him, dressed like him”.
Anyone who wishes to see, research and read more about the musician’s protest clothes and style can actually visit his museum in Ikeja, Lagos where his clothes, shoes and other accessories are on display.
Fela’s fashion statement will linger, not necessarily because it is combative and unique but because it was a critical part of his ideology and essence as a conscious musician who fought for justice, social order and good governance with everything he had, including his clothes.
This article was first published in alice, the in-flight journal of Air Peace.