The subject of the sprawling exhibit about to open at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is just one person. But it's one person who made a hell of a lot of noise. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti only lived to be 58, but in that time, the Nigerian musician and activist released more than 70 albums, stirred up an international political movement, married 28 women, developed a commune for his followers, and spent a good portion of his time getting arrested, beaten, and banished from his homeland. All this from a boy born into a respectable middle-class family in 1938 and sent to London in the late '50s to become a doctor.
Fela studied music, rather than medicine, in London, and after a visit to the United States in 1969, where he mingled with Black Panthers and the fast-growing movement behind Malcolm X, the already politically aware trumpet player changed his groove forever. He returned to Nigeria incensed by its political and economic corruption, and transformed himself from a showman to an unstoppable force in government criticism. The lyrics to his songs -- the music influenced by John Coltrane, James Brown, and African beats -- were fiercely defiant of colonialism and the Nigerian regime, which responded by burning down his living quarters, raping his wives (most of whom were performers in his band), and fatally injuring his mother.
"Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti" remembers this legend (who died in 1997 from AIDS-related illnesses) through the work of 30 contemporary artists, all of whom are somehow influenced, affected, or even appalled by the late Afrocentric musical genius. The pieces are far-ranging, and include a new zodiac system that reads as an Afro-tantric sexual guide illustrating 12 different positions (Fela was not known for his prudishness); a user-friendly sound capsule, inside which one can hear Fela's tunes layered atop the ambient noises of African cities; guns sculpted from materials like crack vials and brass instruments collected from the streets of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; and a sculpture of a nude woman, her legs opening and closing and the word "AIDS" printed on her forehead.
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The exhibit, created by Brooklyn-based freelance curator Trevor Schoonmaker, also contains a music room filled with songs that both influenced and developed out of the Fela-invented East-West Afrobeat rhythm. It took Schoonmaker four years to cull this collection, which debuted last July at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. "There are a lot of musicians who are politically motivated and try to speak out for those who are disadvantaged," said the 33-year-old curator in a phone interview, "but Fela didn't just speak out against corruption; he paid the price for it. He suffered brutality and beatings, and he continued to do so year after year. And on top of all that, his music was just phenomenal."