Ian MacKaye on FELA KUTI
interviewed by Jay Babcock
This short article was originally published in Mean Magazine in 1999 as one of the many sidebar to the massive feature on Fela Kuti (see below for links to the other articles that comprised the feature). Mean’s publisher, Kashy Khaledi, wanted to have contemporary artists of a certain notoriety talk about their admiration for Fela, who we knew would be an unknown, slightly outre quantity for most of the magazine’s readership. These sidebar interviews would be a way in to digging Fela for some of the less-curious readers.
It was a good idea, and easily executed, as there were plenty of Fela admirers ready to testify—including Ian MacKaye, a founding member of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and the owner-operator of the Washington, DC-based Dischord Records (which is still in business).
I interviewed Ian by telephone in late summer ’99…
Q: When did you first come across Fela?
Ian Mackaye: I probably first heard him in the early ’80s. There was a deejay here in town that used to play him at shows. I was working at a record store starting in 1983 or ’84 and some of his records came through then, and I was attracted to them because they’re so completely primitive looking…a lot of them had no art at all, they were almost just like 12-inch things… Of course the songs were like 15-20 minutes long, but they were like punk records, so I was attracted to them on an aesthetic level. Then I started listening to them. I really had no idea who he was or what was going on…I thought the music was interesting. I listened to a lot of go-go music here in Washington, and there’s a lot of similarities. Also it had a really organic feel to it which I was always really drawn to.
Somewhere in the mid-’80s, I saw King Sunny Ade, who’s a bit of a lighter version [of African pop], and at least to my knowledge not nearly as politicized…And then I started getting real interested in Fela cuz I was like, ‘This other guy is into some very serious issues.” He seemed way more punk to me. So I had him on the brain. I just started picking up things here and there…I got the biography, Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life in London. And in the back of this book they have a discography, and IT BLEW MY MIND how many records he had done. I have seen a FRACTION of those in my life.
I think that anyone who reads that book would just know that this guy was coming from such a totally different place, and he was SO hardcore in what he was doing. I used to tell people that Fela is sort of like Frank Sinatra and Huey Newton rolled into one—he filled stadiums and at the same time was the most aggressively anti-government guy you can imagine. He had the dough and the power to actually really make a stir. He was an originator, an innovator, and he clearly brought a lot of people together in one form or another. He also had a lot of fuckin’ nerve—to leave your mother’s coffin at the gate of the palace…? [laughs in awe]
Q: It puts a lot of things in perspective, doesn’t it?
Mackaye: It definitely does. Some of the most publicly radical American musicians, their great acts of defiance are always these sort of paltry drinking offenses or sexual offenses, hese kinds of things where you’re like, [sarcastically] ‘Okay that’s really radical.’ Fela actually had a political agenda that he apparently was willing to really suffer for.
Fela! is now playing on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neil Theatre. Info: http://felaonbroadway.com/index.php
Here’s a review of the earlier off-Broadway production of Fela! from C & D’s column in Arthur No. 31 (Sept 2008).