The Freedom to be Me


Freedom: what is it, and how does it link to happiness.


Freedom is often equated with the absence of restrictions. But that is a reductionist view of it. And apart from the fact that such 'absolute' freedom is impossible, freedom itself of necessity entails the unimpeded taking on of restrictions. Fela, again, adequately illustrates this point. Matthew Kukah stresses that "had [Fela] wanted, he could have been living a far more dignified and meaningful life in the chic neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But he chose to live and die [in Nigeria]. That indeed was a sacrifice especially at a time when many young men are anxious to run at the sound of a burst balloon."

Freedom is not the absence of restrictions. The very fact of having made a choice by the exercise of my free will means that I have thereby precluded some other alternative but mutually exclusive options. Expectedly, I would be "restricted" with regard to the excluded options. Thus, an employee would be restricted by his contract with his employer, and a husband by his love for his wife. But not because of this does the husband claim to have been denied his freedom. Nor does the employee view his obligation to arrive at work before 8am as an infringement or denial of his freedom, either.

Similarly, it would not be accurate to equate freedom with independence. Every person is dependent on things, big and small and it cannot but be so, as we live in a material world and are ourselves corporeal. Yet, as we shall see, these things can make me more or less human, in so far as they, indeed, can make me more or less free.


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Freedom and Truth



Here I must break, though, and sound a note of warning. A conviction of purpose would not necessarily imply verity. It could just as well arise from a stubborn attachment to personal or myopic views even in the light of negating facts and arguments. The "freedom" arising from such a stance would not be freedom strictly speaking, because it would not be based on an accurate depiction of events as they are, but on false notions, which can never be a sustainable premise for whatever conclusions follow.

It is difficult to say in Fela's case how far his persuasions were absolute convictions, and to what extent they were born of a stubborn rigidity. Whereas it would not be difficult to conceive of a Fela whose intractability and forthrightness in issues of civil rights and liberties was real and validly upheld, it would be surprising -for example - if his disdain for orthodox medicine (an extrapolation of his contempt of all things "western" and "imperialist") was sustained by a genuine belief that such western practices were of no use to the “black man”. Somebody put it like this: "You are not less of [an African] for accepting the latest medical techniques.”

In other words, freedom, to be put to proper use, must be in conformity with the truth.

Social Conventions

Fela, as noted, aptly illustrates how freedom implies self-motivation towards a goal, even though his scheme did not allow for the need of this process to be founded on a correct understanding of reality. However, to over-indulge the point of freedom being that conscious self-determined action, would lead to impressions similar to those which Emmanuel-Ayira draws of Fela: "What marked him out was his intelligence and originality,” she observed. “You need intelligence to assuredly go left when everyone else is going right. This, he did all the time and reserved no apologies for his choices. If society defined decency as everyone covering their nakedness, Fela decides that underpants is it. When everyone is afraid of death, Fela says "I will never die"... Fela would draw his own definitions and run his life and his Republic by them. The Fela lifestyle put convention in unconventionalism. Fela," Emmanuel-Ayira continues, "is the stuff that the developing world needs - people who challenge conventional wisdom. People who disdain and despise the bandwagon... For part of the reason for our station in life as a nation is that we lack independent vision. We do what everyone else is doing which seems to be succeeding. The Fela in anyone, if well channeled, will cause him or her to invent and create and not imitate and copy." She concludes that "Fela was liberated in the true sense of the word; independent. He borrowed no definition but rather gave everything his own definition. And to him, his definitions were supreme."

Let’s quickly say here, that to follow "conventional wisdom" or to go the opposite way, would both require the adoption of a concrete mode of behavior to which one subjects oneself. The person makes a compromising choice either way. A choice made as a non-conformist gesture would not necessarily terminate in a better scheme of things in accordance with one's philosophy or ideal. Driving in the opposite direction to a one-way street or refusing to abide by legitimate rules governing a particular community or association, could influence the overall outcome only calamitously.

Paradoxically, it would seem that Fela recognized this, as there was a court of sorts in Kalakuta that meted out punishments, varying in degree, to transgressors and offenders. A former resident explained it in these words: "We maintained self-discipline based on our individual background and mutual respect for each other. But the regular Fela household had a court to listen to cases presided by Fela. Punishment ranged from G.B. (general beating) where the culprit is beaten sore, to a sentence at Kalakusun - a cell in Kalakuta. Not the type of cell where one is under lock and key but a situation of deprivation from normal day's events by secluding the culprit in one section of the house without food or water."

It does appear, therefore, that contrary to his exhibited beliefs and assertions, Fela realized that rules or conventions are not pointless. To go left when everyone else is going right could be the proper thing to do in one case, and quite the contrary in another. Being non-conformist for the sake of it would point to mere self-assertion, which would be a shallow rendering of one's freedom, it would precisely be a stultification of the real sublime concept of freedom. Social conventions are not meaningless, they ensure an orderly and harmonious existence among persons.

Freedom vs Commitments