Though Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat has influenced the world of music many times over, some generations may be more familiar with the Afrobeat undertones of Paul Simon or classic hip-hop than others. Sahr Ngaujah, once again embodying Fela Kuti for Fela! The Concert as he did for Fela! on Broadway, has been a large part of the musical icon’s resurgence in popularity. He realizes the magnitude of the man he’s portrayed on tour and on stage, but doesn’t pretend to understand it. Instead, he sees it as the natural progression of an art form.
Sahr Ngaujah’s involvement in Fela’s “revival” also led to the creation of documentary film Finding Fela, a chronicle of the life and times of Fela Kuti. Below is an excerpt of an interview Sahr gave to Creative Loafing on becoming Fela, bringing new audiences into the Afrobeat sphere, and what it’s meant for the world of music at large. The full interview can be found here.
How does it feel to have played such a big role in bringing Fela to life for a new generation?
Kind of fascinating, really. When we started it, of course Fela is popular all over the world, but popular with a select few. And when we were making the piece, one of our challenges was to figure out how to create something that would be satisfying for people who know and love Fela and respect him, but also make something that is accessible to people who have never heard of Afrobeat or have any connection whatsoever to not just Fela but Africa for that matter.
It was a very challenging process figuring all of that out. And when we opened the show, we weren’t sure if we actually hit it or not. But over time we began to see that it was resonating. So in that way it was very satisfying and really beautiful.
How did this role change or challenge you, as a man and as a performer?
On all of those different points, there are very long conversations that can be had. But it’s abstract. Even just playing on Broadway, which I’d never done before — prior to Fela it was something that I wasn’t erally interested in. I was more into avant-garde than the Broadway formula, so to speak. So working on Fela, a piece that ended up gong to Broadway with a bit of an unorthodox form, was really interesting. It really gave me a deeper appreciation of the Broadway world than I had at that time in my life.
Spiritually, as a man, there’s so much to be said about it. Ultimately, confronting a challenge of any sort can have the possibility of bringing out the best in a person. And playing Fela, not just on Broadway but all over the world, definitely pushed me to go deep inside myself and bring out the best I had to offer.
The thing that Tupac and Fela kind of have in common is that they were both considered countercultural figures for the time, right? Do you think Fela [on Broadway] was easier for audiences to swallow because so much more time has passed [than Tupac]? What do you think made these diverse audiences embrace Fela so?
I think on the one hand Fela’s music, though very specific [being that] is was a form of music he created, was the type of music that could have resonance with many different types of people.
In the documentary Finding Fela, there’s a comment about what Fela said when some record execs asked him to cut his tunes to three minutes. He said, “If you listen to Beethoven or Rachmaninoff or Mozart, you don’t ask them to cut their tunes. The composition is the composition.” To put Fela into a pop context, if he would’ve cut his tunes, they would probably know Fela in America as well as they know Bob Marley.
Now with Tupac, his music has a global appeal. But it’s not world music [like Fela’s]; it’s hip-hop. And I think it’s easier to push world music across demographics than it is hip-hop. With hip-hop, I think people appreciate it or they don’t. And in America, that’s part of the reality. In terms of people coming to se the show, the way the show was made was very innovative. And the form matched the innovation of Fela’s music.
We can call Fela the most important modern composer in modern history from Africa. Not just because of what he was talking about. He danced that line also between virtue and treachery, depending on who you are and how you look at his content, but as a composer he completely innovated African music in a way that still is resonating in Africa and all over the world.
See Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti in Fela! The Concert this weekend, March 26th at 8pm.