Backstage at Felabration with Yagazie Emezi

By Rose Miyonga

Backstage at Felabration 2015. Photography: Yagazie Emezi

Nearly two decades since his death, the legacy of Afrobeat pioneer and human rights activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti (born Olufela Ransome-Kuti) is only growing with the years. The British Library exhibition on West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song paid homage to him last winter as one of Nigeria’s most prominent and prolific cultural figures. There is a rising cult interest in African funk music, a genre within which he is a crucial voice and his life and musicality echo in the contemporary hybrid of protest and music that is the annual Afropunk festival, a counter-cultural platform for asserting black identity and social activism, which took place in London for the first time on September 24th.

But closer to his Fela’s own hometown, the arts and music festival Felabration brings hundreds of local and international musicians, performers and artists to the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos to celebrate the life and work of the multi-instrumentalist, composer, maverick and activist. Started in 1998, the year after Fela’s death, by his daughter, Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti, the festival aims both to celebrate his artistic and cultural contribution to Nigeria and keep his legacy alive. The festival ended this Saturday and to commemorate we are excited to share the work of Nigerian documentary photographer, Yagazie Emezi, who attended Felabration in 2015 and photographed the backstage experience. The result was a stunning series of photographs, which she has kindly agreed to share with us.2015-12-29-at-11-04-34-am-768x500

When did you first become aware of Fela Kuti? What are some of your first memories?

I actually didn’t know of Fela while growing up in Nigeria. I’m sure his music surrounded me at certain points, but I would never have been able to pick it out as a child.  My earliest memories of Fela are blurry, but I am sure I was already in university in the States by then. His sounds came in through a friend’s computer and from there, I went on to find out more about him on my own.

Why did you want to document Felabration 2015?

I was drawn to the crowd that the celebration attracts. It was just one of those events that I had heard everyone talking about so the hype drew me in.

How do you feel Fela’s legacy lives on?

More than anything, Fela lives on in his children. Seun and Femi still perform on stage regularly and the energy and spirit never stops.

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You chose to photograph behind the scenes of the event. What inspired this?

I had a friend who was performing at Felabration which is a big deal so I offered to capture her on stage. I’ve been to Shrine on its quiet days and was always curious about what was behind all the doors. 

What did the back-rooms feel like on the night?

Most rooms are packed with performers. One room is for Femi Kuti’s family and friends. The others are for performers and dancers. Everyone was excited, but you could tell the experienced artists from the first-timers. There was smoke in the air, people were relaxed, lovers mixing with friends, supporters blending in with performers, everything was positive and encouraging.

IMG_2921The photos you produced and so beautiful and intimate. How did you manage to get such candid images?

The spirit of Felabration is that of openness and acceptance, you’re in a safe space when you’re in Shrine. Holding a camera is a common sight and people are very receptive.

Will you be a part of Felabration again this year?

If I manage to snag some special access passes, I will definitely do my best! Some good photographs are created in the less accessible spaces!

Felabration 2016 wrapped up Saturday and we are already looking forward to next year. Check out this years’s performances on Instagram and follow the event on Twitter

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Check out our feature on Yagazie Emezi and her many creative outlets here (among them photography, cartoon, documentary and straight-talking YouTube videos). Follow her adventures on Instagram  and Twitter. You can also watch her antics on Youtube!

Follow Rose on Twitter and on Instagram

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