Tag Archives: politics

Weaponized Music

Fela oversees rehearsal (Photo by Janet Griffith)

1. I have been listening to Fela Kuti. His pidgin, his music. What little I know about him, I read on Wikipedia–which is to say: I know very little about Fela Kuti. I know very little about Africa. Less about Nigeria.

2. Photos and videos suggest that Fela did not care for pants–at the same time, he seemed to prefer pageantry. Fela was a rock star, a big voice and a bigger show. If people gathered at his concerts for the show, why did they join his commune? When is music a weapon? In Fela’s Nigeria, I suspect that persona was the weapon. Fela, the show, was too much for his opponents.

3. When is music a weapon? 1990: The U.S. military’s boom-box blockade of the Vatican embassy in Noriega’s Panama. Did Van Halen see any profits?

4. Fela’s offense, to compare soldiers to zombies. Fela would not take orders:

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
Africa 70, Zombie (1977)

5. In Babylon silence was a weapon, but the silence gave voice to the Psalm:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:8-9, KJV)

6. Fela was an excess. He would have been a terrible head of state; he was a better, self-proclaimed “Chief Priest”. He preached a corrective, an antidote, prophecy. He might tear down, but could he build?

7. Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) stirred the political passions of Belgium’s (French) revolution:

Amour sacré de la patrie,
Rends-nous l’audace et la fierté;
A mon pays je dois la vie;
Il me devra sa liberté.

8. Fela imported Black Power from America. When black America was busy looking for its royal African heritage, Fela gathered a harem of queens and adopted the role. Bold, tough and brazen: what white culture feared. Music became a weapon because it was a boast. Fela taunted Nigeria’s guns; they torched his place and killed his mother. Dead mothers are a weapon too.

9. When Milosevic silenced the news, Belgrade’s radio stations played a loop of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.

10. Cult of (doubtfully benevolent) personality. Fela returns to America as a story. Cultured, tamed, marketed. Che Guevara on a t-shirt; Fela Kuti on the soundtrack. His sons have inherited the show. Femi and Seun preach a similar message, but the beatings Fela won seem less likely to be given to his sons. Much could change, but has Nigeria imported “culture” from America. People are a weapon, better keep them entertained.

11. Pidgin brokin perfect, Abi?

12. “Strange Fruit” fed the outrage, but “We Shall Overcome” sustained the movement.

13. Music doesn’t kill people; people kill people.

14. I do not trust the song anymore than I trust the poem. Most times it would be better to tie a millstone to the tongue.

The American Contagion: Matthew Arnold and the Milton Window

For the past week I have been reading and re-reading Matthew Arnold’s final public address, “Milton” (1888). That following April the critic died of heart disease–an attack ensued upon leaping over a small fence to visit an American grandchild (Trilling 27). Hardly mentioning Milton, and doing so without much elaboration, the address was delivered to dedicate a newly installed window in St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. The window, which I will likely never see, includes representations of the poet as a child, the poet visiting Galileo, and Milton (in his blindness) dictating to his daughter. The window was installed as a gift (solicited by Archdeacon Farrar of Westminster) from George William Childs, a wealthy, childless, co-owner of the Philadelphia Ledger.

Although stuck on the essay, I’ve never cared much for Matthew Arnold. Perhaps I have been uncharitable. Without Arnold’s notions of “Literature” as a subject of study (as a power to strengthen the moral character of its students, to make them better citizens, shining devotees of a secular ideal, a high mindedness; and proponents of the “grand style”) would we have English departments at our universities? Would I have had the professors and the books I have admired? Nonetheless, Arnold was a snob–and worse, a sort of upper-middle class elitist. In his dedication of the Milton window he boasts of his nationalism and croons over the British empire; this, despite the fact that he opens with a warning against the spread of a so-called “Anglo-Saxon contagion”–a malady which threatens to “overpower all nations”.

What was this “contagion”? Not the empire and not the bourgeoisie, but rather a popular aesthetic, a populist fervor for the “common”. As Arnold saw it, folks were too quick to identify and declare genius when in fact they were merely witnessing a small accomplishment. Perhaps the book, poem, painting, symphony, play, or stained-glass window in question demonstrated some mastery, some craft, but was it truly “excellent”? Did it exemplify the “grand style” at the heart of Arnold’s vision of a literate, empathetic, morally educated culture?

The “contagion”, in other words, was a kind of aesthetic grade inflation. Grade inflation might take hold anywhere, but clearly, Arnold saw the States as the principle vector for the spread of this virus. Ultimately, the “Anglo-Saxon contagion” was an American disease–one that would best be cured with some highbrow English culture. The cure could be found among those who could better taste and proclaim Milton’s style (the “grand style”) in Paradise Lost without giving two hoots for the religious and political message of the poem.

Arnold, therefore, distances himself from Milton’s admirers. Partly, as Boocker demonstrates, Arnold cultivates this distance to avoid Milton’s Puritanism and (lingering 150 years after the Restoration) Cromwellian associations. Boocker observes that a “fissure” followed, one in which readers had one opinion of the poet and another of the man. I suspect that many readers preserve this divide today. It seems to me, at the very least, one must have some notion of sin and grace as personal realities if one hopes to experience the poem as anything more than a clever rendition of an antiquated mythology. Appreciative readers who rejecting Milton’s basic religious foundations must adopt the fissure or else endorse, whole hog, the Blakean notion that the devil is the true hero of the poem.

Boocker is right, Arnold needed the fissure to buffer himself from the low-church Milton of the Interregnum. But the divide also insulates Arnold from another irritant, Milton’s American readers. These readers included the wealthy George Childs, perhaps, but also the leading American poets of Arnold’s day. One of these, John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a few lines of verse which were (and are?) displayed with the window:

The new world honors him whose lofty plea
For England’s freedom made her own more sure,
Whose song, immortal as its theme, shall be
Their common freehold while both worlds endure.

Thus, Whittier (unwittingly, perhaps) asks all who admire the window in St. Margaret’s to endorse his vision of Milton as a proponent not only of 17th century English “liberty”, but of American independence. Whittier’s verse goes so far as to suggest that all that is free in Arnold’s country is Milton’s freedom and by association, America’s freedom … the “common freehold” of the two countries. Facing such propaganda, though fed on the spoon of American philanthropic generosity, I can understand how Arnold would chafe and even swell with pride for his elitist empire. I don’t envy Arnold’s task at this dedication, but how odd that Milton is at once the occasion for the spread of the American contagion and the antidote against it. Ultimately, Arnold’s devotion to a “grand style”, an aesthetic standard that floats beyond the reach of religious sectarianism and political agendas, failed when he (echoing and sparring with Whittier) concluded:

Milton … and his hearers on both sides of the Atlantic, are English, and will remain English …. The English race overspreads the world, and at the same time the ideal of an excellence the most high and the most rare abides a possession with it for ever.


Arnold, Matthew. 1892. Essays in criticism: second series. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. Google Books.

Arnold, Matthew, and Lionel Trilling. 1949. The portable Matthew Arnold. New York: Viking Press. Internet Archive.

Boocker, David. 1994. A fissure in the Milton window? Arnold’s 1888 address. In Spokesperson Milton: voices in contemporary criticism, ed. C. W. Durham and K. P. McColgan, 126-137. Susquehanna UP. Google Books.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “Milton”. The Works of Whittier, Volume IV (of VII). Personal Poems. Project Gutenberg.