Beyond any doubt, FESTAC was a major cultural event charged with political connotations.
It was a kind of a pan-African jamboree that sought to embody the ideas of the Négritude movement, assert a black identity and promote cultural integrity. According to Léopld Senghor and the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire – who developed Négritude with the Guianan Léon Damas in 1920s Paris – FESTAC played an essential role in reaffirming the nobility of the African culture in the era of decolonization and when the American city was struggling to overcome racial segregation.
The construction of an African identity was envisaged as a political stance and an answer to the biased and banal rhetoric of colonialism. At the same time, this imaginary artifact would lead to grand platitudes and folklore spectacles that carried no claims or revolutionary aspirations.
It’s hard to think of a better personification of the contradictions inherent in FESTAC than the iconic artist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a committed proponent of the Pan-Africanism who used his music to promote African integration and fight against neocolonialism and injustice. The founder of Afrobeat, who famously proclaimed “music is a weapon,” was both a voice of progressive social change–and often uncomfortably-honest socioeconomic critique–and a musical visionary.
Fela publicly boycotted FESTAC 77 and blatantly criticized the dictatorship of Olusegun Obasanjo for their corrupt dealings with foreign multi-national corporations (Shell, I.T.T., etc.).
In his own words… FESTAC! One big hustle, man! A rip-off! They tried getting me into it. They started out being nice to me and that sort of shit, man. First, I was invited to attend a Nigerian National Participating Committee meeting which was being held at Bagauda Lake Hotel in Kano. That was in ’76. It was Major-General IBM Haruna who’d called the meeting. Anyway, he started demagoguing, man, saying he was “open” to fresh ideas and that kind of thing. So I presented a nine-point programme to make the festival meaningful. The first point of my programme called for the participation of the people. Then I denounced the underhanded deali89ng going on; the way in which the cultures of Nigerian peoples were being treated trivially; and so forth. But Major-General Haruna rejected these proposals. It was then that I resigned.
I didn’t know that my resigning would cause so much shit. You see, the stage was being set for a very serious confrontation. But I didn’t know it. I had asked myself: “How is it possible that General Haruna, a military man, could be the chairman of a committee which dealt with cultural matters?” Haruna felt offended. The next thing he did was use the mass media to lambast me, saying Fela had refused to participate in the festival “because he wanted the government to purchase new equipment for him”. Now, you hear that shit, man? I wanted the government to buy equipment for my own motherfuckin’ use?
You see, what was worrying (president) Obasanjo was that by then I’d purchased a printing press. I’d started publishing a small-small newspaper, YAP. The name stood for Young African Pioneers, a youth organisation I had launched. The military had imposed a ban on political parties since it took over in ’66. So we were printing our own anti-government propaganda, man. Denouncing those corrupt, unprogressive politicians and military men to the people.
So FESTAC came for one month, January to February ’77. I didn’t go to that thing-o! I stayed at Shrine and made my counter-FESTAC there! All the big musicians and artists FESTAC brought in wanted to see me, man. For one whole month, man, every night, Shrine was packed with Blacks from all over the world. And since they wanted to know what was happening in Nigeria I told them. I used the stage at Shrine to denounce all of the shit and corruption of that government which had invited them. That one they never forgave-o!
(Carlos Moore – Fela: this bitch of a life)
FESTAC 77 was a major event that holds many stories yet to be unfolded. In one of them, Doxiadis intersected Fela. Doxiadis’ new town formed part of a developmental scheme that socially and politically negated the principles of the Black Arts Festival. Maybe this is the discord that still sounds in FESTAC Town.