The recently released Netlifx spy thriller "Heart of Stone" showcases a song by celebrated Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. The song, Zombie, has a deep significance for the people of Nigeria.
Fela Kuti released the album with his band, Afrika 70
Netflix has just dropped its latest spy action thriller Heart of Stone headlined by Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, and which marks the Hollywood debut of Indian movie star Aliya Bhatt. In one of the scenes of the film, where Gadot and Bhatt, antagonists turned allies in the film, are being whisked away, after being stranded in an African desert, in a van by a woman.
There is a song being played in the van which has deep historical and geopolitical significance. As the characters drive in a car, they hear Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s Zombie.
Released in 1976, this song was the definition of Nigerian resistance during the civil war of the 1960s. Nigeria was deep into a conflict that had complex historical, political, and ethnic dynamics. It was during this time that Fela Kuti’s album ‘Zombie’ was released which was precisely a commentary on the then situation of human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the warring sides. In one of the songs of the album, the artist likened the Nigerian army to ‘Zombies’ who are just mindlessly following the orders of their superiors and murdering people as they go about it.
Zombie no go go, unless you tell 'em to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell 'em to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell 'em to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell 'em to think
These lyrics reveal the psychological stronghold that the leadership had on the people of the army that were ready to massacre innocent civilians at the height o the civil war.
What was this conflict that has such a vital significance for the African nation?
The war is often also called the Biafra War as it was fought in the context of the separatist movement for the creation of a new state of Biafra out of Nigeria. The people asking for a separation from the state of Nigeria belonged to the Igbo ethnic community.
It was after the post-independence period in Nigeria that the ethnic tensions between the communities of Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba groups deepened and the colonial legacies made matters worse. Soon after independence, Nigeria also saw two military coups which led to political stability and a lack of sustainable leadership in the country. Apart from this, The divide between the northern and southern regions, as well as the disparities among these ethnic groups, created a volatile atmosphere. The Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria led by Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu started demanding secession from the rest of Nigeria soon after independence. The unequal allocation of resources to the region as compared to the rest of the country and the resulting power struggle between Colonel Ojukwu and the leaders of the other ethnic group led to a precarious situation in the southeastern region. It was in 1967 that Colonel Ojukwu declared Biafra to be an independent state, this claim was rejected by the central government which sparked immediate tensions and unrest. The lack of basic necessities and access to resources such as food and water claimed many lives in the region, pushing others from the Igbo community to wage a fatal war against the central leadership.
The military coups following independence, the power struggle with the army and the Biafra War led Nigeria to be in a perpetual state of conflict and crisis. In 1970, Biafra surrendered its demand for a separate state and the war died down. Even after years of post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts, the traces of the war cannot be wiped out from the collective memory of the Nigerians.
The Nigerian civil war reportedly claimed the lives of about 500,000 to 3,000,000, the estimates vary as per different sources. Fela Kuti’s Zombie was referencing the mindless cruelty imposed upon by the Nigerian army on the civilians based on the orders of the central government.
Fela Kuti himself fell prey to the atrocities of the army after the release of his album. It is claimed that he was brutally tortured along with his family as the central government attempted to silence the impact made by his song. The Kalakua Republic, the commune that Fela Kuti had established was attacked by the central government and even his family was not spared. Reports suggest that Kuti’s aged mother was thrown from the building, she succumbed to her injuries soon after. This was an orchestrated attack to destroy the legacy of Fela Kuti and his work but he went on to write two more songs “Coffin for the Head of the State” and “Unknown Soldier” to mark his protest against the actions of the ruling establishment.
His work has proved that art is a powerful medium of resistance, often driving revolutions and breaking down structures. The people of Nigeria resonated strongly with the meaning of the song and soon after it garnered international attention, it became a symbol of indiscriminate oppression of the state against its own people.
This civil war was an important chapter in Nigerian history brought to life again by this popular fiction film Heart of Stone. The subtle placement of the song not only freshens up the memories of the conflict but also points to a larger picture depicting the use of the army and military forces as tools to subjugate the people by ruling establishments. Throughout history, this has been a recurrent theme in societies riddled with protracted conflicts and civil unrest.