Arts, Culture & Media

Broadway musical meets Afrobeat royalty in 'Fela!'

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Sahr Ngaujah and the company of "Fela!" (photo: ©Monique Carboni)

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Story by Marco Werman, PRI's "The World"

Broadways’ musical subjects have been as varied as Thomas Jefferson, Jesus Christ and P.T. Barnum. And so why not a musical about Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti? Well, for starters, Fela is nowhere near as well known as those other guys.

But reviews for "Fela!" have been enthusiastic, and shows are selling out. So apparently those in the know, and those who aren't, want an Afrobeat history experience on Broadway.

The musical, which explores Fela Kuti's controversial life as an artist, political activist and revolutionary musician, has some serious star power behind it, including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

The idea of the show is simple: The audience is transported back to an evening in the mid-seventies at Fela’s nightclub, the Shrine, in Lagos. It’s uncanny how the actual fever at the Shrine is recreated. The large weight of that illusion is carried on the shoulder of Sahr Ngaujah, the actor who takes on the lead role of Fela Kuti. 

Ngaujah was born in the United States to an American mother and a Sierra Leonean father. He first learned of Fela when he was around six or seven years old. His father, a DJ in Atlanta who played at African house parties and clubs, made it a point to impress on Ngaujah, Fela's importance as a composer.

"At the time we really just talked about the music," said Ngaujah. "But there was one day 'ITT' was on, you know, 'International Thief-Thief.'  And then he explained to me how Fela kind of brought these two meanings together, and layered the meanings. I was probably just seven years old, and it really just blew me away. It had a really big impression on me."

When he heard about "Fela!" Ngaujah was thrilled about the title role.

"Of course I was really excited because Fela is such an icon. I’ve been aware of his music all my life, but of course there’s so many details to his life that I had no clue about. So then I began to start doing deeper research. The more I looked, the more excited I became."

For Ngaujah, taking on the role of a musical political activist wasn't a huge stretch. He had already written and directed a theater piece called "Conversations with Ice," which played in Amsterdam. The piece was about diamonds, Sierra Leone’s child soldiers and the connections between "bling" and the hip-hop world.

Fela's children, Shayman, Yenny and Kunlei, came to see "Fela!" and met with Ngaujah after the show. The experience, he says, was "weird and wonderful."

"I guess at the end of the day for me, it just made me feel good that [Shayman] was happy with the work. And the same with Yenny and Kunlei who came out for opening night."

People who adore Fela have flocked to the show, and the many more who don’t know of him have also come to experience the life of the Afrobeat legend on Broadway.

Ngaujah says the best part for him is being able to convey Fela's courage and originality. "I think now is an important time for people to have any sort of image or figure to associate with that idea, especially if it’s one who is projecting that idea over a fresh beat."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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