olitically speaking, contemporary Africa is a disaster area, simultaneously pulling itself together and tearing itself apart as it tries to deal with the pernicious long-term effects of colonialism. Culturally, it is one of the most vivacious and progressive places on earth, generating art, music, films and literature of matchless inventiveness and passion.
Trying to catch this vitality in a museum show is next to impossible, though "The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994," seen last year at P.S. 1, came pretty close. So, in a far more circumscribed way, does "Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti" at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo.
"The Short Century" surveyed the modern history of an entire continent. "Black President" focuses on a single person, the musician and activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-97), whose reputation extends far beyond Africa itself. Once heard, the Afrobeat sound he pioneered is unforgettable, though hard to describe: a mix of the African pop style called highlife with Coltranesque jazz, James Brown funk, Caribbean salsa and Yoruba percussion, all spun around jabbing, biting lyrics that target social evils and project a vision of a united, rejuvenated Africa.
Nor is Fela, as he was known, easy to grasp as a personality. He was born to a well-placed Nigerian family: his father was a Protestant minister, his mother an agitator for women's rights. Initially little concerned with politics, he studied music in London and formed his first band there. In 1963, three years after Nigeria's liberation from British rule, he returned home, hoping to introduce American-style jazz to a local audience. What he found was an audience enthralled by American soul music and wanting more of the same.
In 1969, he traveled to the United States to see for himself what was up. The trip changed his life. He encountered the full force of the Black Power movement, as embodied in the Black Panthers, whose raised-fist salute he adopted, along with the counterculture's laid-back attitude toward sex and drugs. Both Afrobeat and Fela's revolutionist persona date from that visit.
Through recorded and live performances of his scrupulously arranged compositions, he initiated a fearless, some might say foolhardy, assault on a corrupt Nigerian government and on neo-colonial powers abroad. And his private life, which was intensely public, only compounded the provocation.
He consumed spectacular amounts of illegal drugs and, in a single ceremony, married 27 women, whom he called his queens, many of them dancers and singers in his band. He established a political party, Movement of the People, and ran for high office as the "black president." He created his own performing space, the Afrika Shrine, and lived in a residential commune, which he named the Kalakuta Republic, declaring it a separatist state, independent of Nigerian rule.
These nose-thumbing gestures were punished harshly. In 1977, government soldiers torched Kalakuta and raped several of Fela's wives; his mother, whom he adored, died of injuries sustained in the raid. He was repeatedly jailed for minor offenses, once for 18 months. Despite the abuse, or maybe because of it, his anti-establishment diatribes grew more vehement, and his support of the disenfranchised — the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, rebels and societal misfits of all kinds — assumed global dimensions.
By the end of the 1980's, his own life began to unravel from within. His social thinking, never coherent, grew increasingly retrograde and grandiose, sexist and paranoid. His polygamous domestic life turned chaotic; drugs took their toll. In 1987, he developed the first symptoms of AIDS, though he refused to acknowledge that he had the disease even as it killed him. In the end, he sank into inscrutable isolation; more than a million people attended his funeral.