Attention: open in a new window. PrintEmail

A new twist fo Fela's "ITT" (International Thief Thief)?

 

By Tajudeen Olutoyin

 

Having already generated millions of dollars in the US and Europe, the much-touted, three Tony Award winner (2010) Broadway musical, FELA!, has now gone to Nigeria for performances at the Expo Center, Eko Hotel, and the Shrine night club (April 14-28), in Lagos.  But unknown perhaps to most Nigerians who will see the play, is the controversy now being aired in US courts over whether or not the storyline of the play was stolen from its original author.

 

The problem with the multi-million production came when Fela biographer Carlos Moore - an internationally renowned and well respected Afro-Cuban writer and scholar based in Brazil - filed a lawsuit in federal court New York, accusing the producers of misappropriating his seminal work, Fela: This Bitch of a Life.  The producers of “Fela!” are already facing legal worries from a recent lawsuit filed by New York photographer, Marylyn Nance, claiming one of her images was used without permission as a backdrop in the show. Nance is seeking damages for copyright infringement (www.theshrine.podomatic.com).

 

First published in England and France in 1982, with Fela´s official blessing and encouragement, Moore´s biography has stood for thirty years as the most authentic expression of Fela´s own views and actions. Out of print for more than two decades, the book was republished in the US in 2009 and in Nigeria, in 2010, by Abuja-based, Cassava Republic Press. The FELA! play is the brainchild of US business tycoon, Stephen Hendel, founder and managing director of Hess Energy Trading Company, an international commodities trading company with alleged ties to multinationals involved in the extraction of Niger Delta oil.

 

 

According to Moore´s lawsuit, “Entire portions were simply copied from (his) book and inserted into the script of the musical.”  In his complaint, he also revealed that in 2007, Mr. Hendel offered him $4,000 for the rights to the biography about Fela, but rejected the sum as being demeaning.  However, according to the lawsuit, the play's producer Mr Hendel and its director, Bill T. Jones, still went on to create the Broadway musical FELA!, without Moore´s knowledge or consent.  In statements to the media, Mr Hendel has retorted that Moore had praised the play in an interview published on YouTube and/or the FELA! Website and  that the musical has helped to sell his book.

 

In a legal analysis of the case, posted online on November 29, 2010 (http://networkedblogs.com/baghF), the US-based, Nigerian entertainment lawyer, Ms Uduak, dismissed the producer´s argument.  “In simple analogy,” she said, “just because you steal my pot of food and dish me a plate to eat, doesn’t erase the fact that you stole from me. Stealing is stealing, is stealing.”  The attorney went on to underline that, “from Moore’s view and justifiably so, if indeed Fela! stole his work, Fela! should not be raking in thousands/millions while he sits there and takes it, irrespective of whether he was “supportive.” Being “supportive” does not mean I can’t sue you if indeed steal from me.”

 

Ms Uduak predicted that the legal battle would be decided around the legal notion known as “derivative work”. She says: “Assuming Fela! did not copy a substantial amount of Moore’s work, then you have a derivative work that does not enjoy copyright protection since the ideas and facts used as excerpts from Moore’s book are not protected and therefore free for Fela! to use. If the work is classified as Derivative Work, what happens?  Fela! needed to have received permission as alleged by Moore to use Moore’s work. Since Fela! didn’t, it is time to pay up!”

 

A six-month investigative Quest....

 

 

 

A well-documented piece by the US investigative journalist, Tenisio Seanima,  published by the Nigerian daily, The Sun (“Are ‘FELA!’ Musical Producers Headed for Trouble?,” October 11, 2010), presents a fascinating  account of the origins of the feud.

 

The journalist, who described himself as “a diehard” Fela fan, wrote of his initial excitement to see the life of the legend depicted in a magnificent show. “And yet something didn’t seem quite right,” he said, “since ‘Fela!,’ the musical, pays no credit in its playbill to its most likely source, Fela: This Bitch Of A Life, the only biography authorized by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.” Surprised by the playbill’s omission, he said, he decided to re-read Moore’s book: “I found the similarities to be uncanny. With each turn of the page, I discovered significant overlap between the development of Kuti’s character in the book and in the Broadway musical.”

 

The journalist said he did a quick Internet search, that confirmed he was not alone in assuming the producers’ debt to Moore. Adriane, a blogger at MTV, wrote: “Choreographer Bill T. Jones directed and co-wrote the musical with Jim Lewis, who based the scenes on the biography by Dr. Carlos Moore.” On the Afrofunk Music Forum, reviewer David McDavitt said: “Written by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones, the story relies heavily upon the best source on Fela: the transcribed interviews by Carlos Moore, Fela: This Bitch Of A Life.”

 

Seanima also recalled that the New York Times journalist Felicia Lee reported that Moore had met with Jones and the play’s cast and that “much of [the performers’] information about Fela and his queens came from ‘Fela: This Bitch of a Life,’ a biography by Carlos Moore, an ethnologist and political scientist who knew Fela.” [Seventy-one pages of Moore’s book are composed of individual interviews with fourteen of Fela’s former wives; the chapter is titled “My Queens.”] 

 

The journalist said he decided to explore the matter further, “talking with anyone who had seen the play and read the 1982 biography,” and was stunned that “most were in agreement that “Fela!” seemed to owe a debt to Moore’s book.” He quotes Marva Allen, owner of Harlem’s Hue-man Bookstore & Café, who put it most succinctly: “I thought the entire musical was based on Dr. Carlos Moore’s book.”

 

Others, he said,  were more specific. Both Earl Davis, the former director of the Institute of African-American Affairs at New York University, and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, author and president of the New York-based Caribbean Cultural Center & African Diaspora Institute, “noted the inclusion of Kuti’s deceased mother as a character in the Broadway musical.” Davis remarked: “Clearly, there is a close relation between how the play depicts Fela’s relationship with his mother and what is contained in Moore’s biography.”

 

Vega also noted “overlapping stories regarding Kuti’s relationship with his mother,” citing the story about Fela “being reborn as the child that originally died, because it was named Hildegart.”

 

The “Afa Ojo” Mystery

 

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence unearthed by the journalist - something that may very well constitute a blatant example of copyright infringement – concerns two unquestionably fictional chapters Moore composed (and had his poet-wife write),  called “Afa Ojo.” For reasons that neither Hendel or Jones have thus far cared to comment on, that fictional character surfaced as a key element in FELA!, the musical.  

 

Seanima revealed that the original 1982 edition of Fela: This Bitch of a Life—available at the time only in Europe, in both English and French—included two chapters that were excluded from the 2009 American edition. Those chapters, titled “Afa Ojo, and commonly known as the “Black Pages,” he says, “concern a visit by Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, from the spirit world to dissuade her son from committing suicide and encourage him to continue with his activist work.” Seanima explained that “Fela!, the Broadway musical, “employs a strikingly similar conceit to explain Kuti’s development as a revolutionary.”

 

The journalist related that in the musical, Funmilayo’s character is depicted as an “Orisha” (in Yoruba spiritual culture, a personified attribute of God) whose name is Afa Ojo (She Who Commands Rain). He added: “The spirit visits Kuti and delivers the message that he must stay in Nigeria and continue to fight for the people.” The journalist concluded that those elements bear  “an uncanny similarity with Moore´s “Black Pages.”

 

Many viewers of the musical who also have read the unabridged version of Moore´s book (now obtainable in English only through the Nigerian Cassava Press edition), have reported views that are similar to Seanima´s. 

 

The Producer explains himself....

 

Digging ever deeper to unravel what appeared to be an unlikely string of “coincidental” resemblances between Moore´s biography and the FELA! musical,  Seanima confronted the producer with his findings in a June 24, 2010, interview on the Atlanta-based radio station WRFG.  “Since the ghost mother character and her relationship to Kuti is so key to the musical,” he explained, “I decided to ask “Fela!” producer Stephen Hendel about it.”  Hendel responded: “When we were putting the theater piece together, we were…trying to figure out what were the key relationships in his life and the key relationship we could depict on stage… We settled on his relationship with his mother.”

 

The journalist said he pressed for more details, specifically with regards to Moore’s book, to which Hendel answered: “We went from…a workshop in 2007 to the off-Broadway production in 2008, [and] we settled on using his search for his mother in the spirit world as… one of the key moments of the show. When Carlos Moore came and met with us… he said that ‘The thing I am really impressed with, and I congratulate you [on], is how accurately you got his relationship with his mother’—which is something that we did not know and which we sort of intuitively arrived at.”

 

However, a few days after Mr Hendel´s “intuitively arrived at” statement, Moore presented a sharply conflicting version during a lively public dialogue at the National Black Arts Festival  in Atlanta. Conversing with Malaika Adero, vice president of Atria Books and a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, he said that the unabridged edition of his book opens and closes with the “story of a spirit speaking to her son, ...  and the son speaking to the mother... At the end… the son is talking about… killing himself and it’s the mother who comes and tells him, ‘No, you are not supposed to commit suicide.’ So that is how the book ends. I thought an American public would not relate to this…so we took it out.”

 

Moore contended that it was that mother and son spiritual dialogue that “actually triggered something… Those people who, you know—Bill T. Jones, or whoever—who were thinking about the play. It was the [Afa Ojo] soliloquy that really triggered off this whole thing, because the play actually is woven around this whole thing of this…dead mother who is speaking to the son and convincing him.” To which Ms Adero remarked: “I’m holding onto my first-edition copy with dear life because it does have the Black Pages, as they are referred to, with the soliloquy, which I recognized in the Broadway play.” 

 

 

Seanima also noted that Mary L. Turk, an Atlanta-based social worker at the event, had this to offer: “The spiritual connection of Fela to his mother and his people were definitely in Carlos Moore’s book. Fela’s coming back to life from being a previous child who died, is also mentioned in the musical. A chapter called ‘Abiku (The Twice-Born)’ mentions this story in Moore’s book. Last, in the play, each individual wife is highlighted in a similar fashion as how they are previewed in the book.” Turk said she only realized Moore hadn’t been credited as a source when she read the show’s playbill.

 

The Atlanta event also featured cast members Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Kuti in the musical, and Saycon Sengbloh, who plays Sandra Iszadore, Kuti’s muse. Both acknowledged the influence of Moore’s book on their work. “We did a series of workshops that would last two to three months at a time over a four-year period before we opened it off-Broadway,” said Ngaujah, and  added, “I read Carlos’ book.”

 

Is Broadway Coopting Fela?

 

Since his lawsuit went public, Moore – who has a long track record of advocating for international black causes -has maintained his silence. But speaking to South Africa´s Mail & Guardian reporter, Percy Zvomuya (“Fela's fella comes out fighting,” November 23, 2010), he said he felt that the producers didn't think he would challenge them in court because of the large sums of money required to sue.  “How can you take on Hollywood or Broadway? They didn't think I would have the resources to challenge, but then they didn't count on the solidarity of the black community in the United States." He credits “influential people in the African-American community” for a backing that opened the doors to top-notch attorneys to plead his case.

Moore told the South African reporter that he regarded his own experience as “part of a trend -- the West ripping off of the arts from the developing world …” When Hollywood appropriates developing-world icons, Moore says, “they deodorise them, taking away their capacity for revolution. "

 

In the final analysis, the irony of Fela's "ITT" may be found in that the same international traders who reap the benefits of the Niger Delta's resources, are the ones who also steal ideas and coopt authentic African rebels?