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The Lijadu Sisters Reclaim Their Catalog

In 1976, the identical twins Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu released Danger, the first of four albums of inspired Afropop the two would record as the Lijadu Sisters. Danger, originally released on the Lagos-based label Afrodisia, is a sinuous and otherworldly take on the remarkable hybrid of Yoruban beats and raw Western funk that dominated Lagos at the time. And the album’s title track, the spirited 63-year-olds tell me when I visit the Polo Grounds Towers apartment they share, is a dangerous song.

To meet the sisters Lijadu is to realize that twins do not come any more entwined than this single-minded, identically dressed set of interlaced voices and bodies. They move together as if they’d been choreographed as they explain that “Danger” superimposes thoughts about a “mad hatter” lover over the state of Nigerian politics at the time. Taiwo: “People were protesting all over the world.”

Kehinde: “Like now.”

Taiwo: “The military and civilian government were equally corrupt. But when the military took over . . .”

Kehinde: “. . . we wanted the civilians to come back. And when they came back . . .”

Together: “Oh, no!” They begin to sing, and their voices are, as always, in unison. “What have you done with your office of power, brother? Oh, what have you done, sister?”

Surrounded by a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling thicket of mementos, the sisters angrily accuse Afrodisia’s parent company, Decca, of exploitation and outright thievery. (Knitting Factory Records, which reissued Danger this month, will release the rest of the Lijadus’ star-making oeuvre in 2012.) Decca sold 50,000 copies of Danger in three months, Kehinde says, but the company paid them only once for royalties from all four albums. They never saw a single statement of account, she claims, then accuses Afrodisia of forging the sisters’ signatures when it licensed their music to the Soul Jazz label.

“They’ve been stealing from us,” Kehinde says. “We’ve been feeding their families. Look where we live. Is this where we belong? But we’re doing fine. They want to see us in squalor? Believe me, this is not squalor.”

Born in the northern Nigerian city of Jos and christened Louisa and Rosaline, the Lijadus moved to Lagos at age two, and the city taught them resilience. Beatings for curfew violations were common during the Nigerian Civil War, at least when soldiers didn’t recognize their traveling companion and second cousin, Fela Kuti. Once successful, they toured the world with Cream drummer Ginger Baker’s Afrorock group Salt; they made their first trip to the United States with King Sunny Adé’s band in 1980. They moved to Brooklyn, Taiwo says, in order to research the herbal medicine techniques they were interested in pursuing professionally.

In 1996, Kehinde was holding a friend’s baby and walking down the hallway of the sisters’ Brooklyn apartment when she slipped on a patch of soapy water. The fall broke her pelvis and damaged her spine. Kehinde is now on the mend (“I’m dancing again”), and the pair moved to the Polo Grounds two years ago.

Both Danger and Sunshine (1978) were produced by the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Julius Adeniyi “Biddy” Wright, whose mother happened to be childhood friends with the sisters’ mother. Biddy, who died in 2000 when a generator blew up in his face, brought laid-back futuristic funk to the project. “The minute he touched that guitar, we said, ‘Yeah, that’s the person,'” Kehinde says. Where the Lijadu Sisters’ other two albums are more percussive (in the Yoruban waka style) and sung in West African languages, Danger and Sunshine are dark, languid, and socially conscious. “Cashing In” denounces government corruption. And the album’s saturnine closer, “Lord Have Mercy,” describes children starving to death in the street.

One of Danger‘s highlights, “Life’s Gone Down Low” was inspired by an international sense of economic malaise. Yet it contains an optimistic refrain, a somewhat haunting call for collective action: “But it’s not too late for me and you if we hurry.” Much to the twins’ displeasure, the rapper Nas appropriated “Life’s Gone Down Low” as the bedrock for a similarly titled track on The Prophecy Vol. 2 (The Beginning of N). “He took our song!” they exclaim in unison.

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Glenn Close Recounts Humanity’s Crimes Against the Planet in Home

Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home is an urgent jeremiad decrying man’s plundering of the earth’s natural resources. Or so anyone who paid attention only to the film’s audio track would be led to believe. As mournful strings set the tone, narrator Glenn Close delivers a withering, if repetitive, account of humanity’s crimes against the planet, a list that includes factory farming, deforestation, and the building of megalopolises that require an ever-increasing supply of energy to power. But while Close’s testimony is sufficiently terrifying, moving toward an apocalyptic vision of climate-change catastrophe, the urgency of her tone is belied by the placidity of the film’s visuals. Capturing the earth’s rural and urban landscapes in a series of overhead shots taken across 54 countries, Arthus-Bertrand shoots everything with the same slightly bland, meticulously pretty kino-eye. The result is a leveling impulse that refuses to make an aesthetic distinction between uncontaminated nature (a hot spring turned a near-psychedelic aqua by its algae content), devastated landscapes (soil-eroded hills in Madagascar that look like raw meat), and the negative results of humankind’s actions on impoverished populations (aerial shots of teeming Lagos). With everything glimpsed at a comfortable overhead distance, our planet becomes so much eye candy for the Nat Geo set.

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Two New Afrobeat Compilations

An elder gentleman from Lagos broke it down for me once. “Fela is a religion,” he said with reverence. “Some people went to church. We went to Fela.” Unlike the Chinese guy I met on the same trip who equated Mao to Jesus, Afrobeat was dogma a whiteboy could get with—ask anyone in a “Music Is a Weapon” tee. While the reigning viewpoint remains of that monotheistic sort, Soundway’s two-disc set, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6, and its follow-up, Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound of the Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79, suggest that in the halcyon first half of that decade (after the end of the Nigerian civil war), there was once a pantheon.

Not that set-compiler Miles Cleret aimed for anything so lofty. Instead, a dearth of classic Nigerian music in the new century (aside from Fela Kuti’s ubiquitous, monolithic Afrobeat and King Sunny Ade’s Juju) warranted “a snapshot of some of the thousands of forgotten recordings . . . These were years of new-found optimism and self-belief . . . Nigeria’s name becoming synonymous with corruption, overcrowding, and embezzlement were yet to come.” Making no attempt to be either willfully obscure or all-encompassing (and when it comes to the sprawl of Lagos, how could you?), Modern Highlife simply captures the sound of joy, and the sound of a nightlife flush with newfound oil revenues. Sung either in Edo, Ibo, Igbo, Isoko, Kalabari, Kwale, pidgin English, or Yoruba, the music itself is similarly a melting pot. A fan of adventurous American music from that same era might glean Funkadelic, Santana, or soul jazz—while others will hear how the young bands were both paying respect to the recently deceased Jim Rex Lawson’s brand of highlife while also digging Fela’s new style—but the ecstatic is evident at nearly every turnaround. Never-remembered acts abound with the most resplendent names: How could groups named the Funkees, Popular Cooper & His All Beats Band, or Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba fail to excite? (As a writer, I particularly appreciate an Afrobeat band called Semicolon.)

At a single disc, Disco Funk Special inevitably winds up overshadowed. Coming from the latter half of the decade, as corruption and political squalor crashed that high of oil wealth, such joy is tempered. It doesn’t help that the music continually tips its hand to (and never quite gets out from under) its American funk inspirations. A horn-hammering inspirational update of “God Bless the Child” to “You’ve Gotta Help Yourself” smacks of forced positivism, just like when you listen to Christian rock stations. (That might just be my ability to understand pidgin English better than Igbo, though.) Only Asiko Rock Group’s homage to “Lagos City” flashes both the ebullient and insidious aspects of their hometown: With its flanged cymbals and robo-menace, it seemingly anticipates the Bar-Kays’ stone-cold tablet “Holy Ghost.”

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Squatter Writes

Maroko, one of the many teeming slums of Lagos, Nigeria (a “pus-ridden eyesore on de face of de nation’s capital,” in local parlance), hardly seems the place to produce an Elvis impersonator. Yet in Chris Abani’s irresistible, kaleidoscopic novel, the shantytowns around Lagos are full of wonders—and festering dangers. In 1983, Elvis Oke, 16, is a street performer attuned to the inner vibrations of the ghetto. “He let his mind drift as he stared at the city, half slum, half paradise,” Abani writes. “How could a place be so ugly and violent yet beautiful at the same time?”

Elvis, who’s grown up in a nearby village under the dual sway of Igbo tradition and Western pop culture, finds in Lagos a maelstrom of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Escaping the abuses of his palm-wine-drinking father, he immerses himself in westerns and overblown Bollywood epics; his shoulder sack, meanwhile, is never without a worn collection of paperbacks—everything from Dostoyevsky to Soyinka, Achebe, and the pulp fiction titles of Onitsha Market Literature. Above all, Elvis’s world is engulfed in music, an ever present soundtrack of highlife, reggae, and jazz. Maroko itself seems to sing under his feet: “The plank walkways, which criss-crossed three-quarters of the slum, rang out like xylophones as a variety of shoes hurrying over them struck diverse notes.”

Elvis’s treacherous journey to manhood takes him far from Maroko. His education begins in the depths of the squatter village known as Bridge City, where he befriends the King of the Beggars, a dreadlocked mystic still suffering from the wounds of the Biafran War. Later, he’ll be drawn into a sinister mission in the interior with Redemption, his well-connected guide through the Nigerian underworld, before finally escaping to the promised land of the original Elvis, “de place where dreams come true.” Abani, who himself has survived a terrifying tale of jail and torture in Nigeria, has written an exhilarating novel, all the more astonishing for its hard-won grace and, yes, redemption.

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Part 2: A Tale of Two Brothers

Additional articles in this series.

LAGOS, NIGERIA—This is not an easy country, but Lagos, Nigeria’s teeming megacity, is almost fantastical in its difficulties. Rarely do 24 hours pass without a blackout, and power outages lasting weeks are common. Officially, NEPA stands for National Electric Power Authority, but everyone jokes that it stands for Never Expect Power Anytime, so those who can afford it own a diesel generator. But that’s not a guarantee, because even though Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, mismanagement causes frequent fuel shortages: One AIDS researcher lost 3000 refrigerated blood samples when a power outage and a fuel shortage coincided.

Running water? Even wealthy Lagosians often lack it; they pay for trucks to fill up large tanks. Doctors wash their hands with water from buckets. Calling the police is virtually impossible, because even if your phone is working the one in the police station probably isn’t. Military dictatorships have plundered Nigeria for most of the 39 years since the country wrested its independence from Britain, and a favorite scam of “the military boys,” as they are called, was to transfer government contract money into private Swiss bank accounts and pay off cronies to sign forms stating that, yes, the work had been completed even though anyone with eyes could see that nothing at all had been done. Directors of private companies often award contracts to the highest briber, and many Lagos buildings feature signs warning, “This house not for sale” because con men sell homes they don’t own.

What can be relied on in Lagos? The heat. The pollution. The epic traffic jams called “go-slows” that trap millions of commuters for hours, most of them sweltering inside crowded minivan taxis. And Fela.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the international music star who married 27 women in one day and who usually appeared on stage with nothing but his sax, the skimpiest briefs, and a joint that, as one writer put it, was the size of a small African nation-Fela championed African culture over all things white and he fearlessly excoriated the military governments that were ransacking Nigeria. Foolishly, the state boosted his standing by giving him the dissident’s ultimate seal of credibility: jail time. During this year’s democratic elections, which brought former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo back into power, Fela’s song “Soldier Go, Soldier Come” could be heard everywhere, accusing Obasanjo and the rest of the military boys of operating a revolving door to power.

But during the election, that song was never heard live, because Fela died in 1997 of a disease he claimed didn’t exist, and certainly not in Africa: AIDS. No matter that Fela’s older brother, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, had served as the country’s health minister and launched Nigeria’s much-lauded early AIDS program. About the only concession Fela made to white medicine was to let Olikoye stitch up his head after the police had gashed it. There was hardly an illness African herbs couldn’t cure, Fela maintained, and he dismissed condoms as unnatural, unpleasurable, and a white plot to reduce the black birthrate. He believed, says Olikoye, that “all doctors were fabricating AIDS, including myself.”

By the time Fela allowed himself to be taken to a hospital, he was so far gone he never heard the test results confirming that he was infected with HIV. A few days later, deep in a coma, he choked on his own vomit and died.

Then began the fight for Fela’s death-and, in a way, for Nigeria’s life. Astoundingly popular, Fela carried the potential to do for AIDS in Nigeria what Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, and Arthur Ashe accomplished in America.

Fela’s most ardent fans-such as the legions of out-of-school, unemployed “area boys” who deal, steal, and occasionally riot to get a little cash-are often the groups most vulnerable to HIV. They are also the most alienated from society and authority, including doctors. Many area boys refuse to believe Fela died of AIDS, and their response reveals the complex forms that AIDS denial takes in urban Africa.

It also illuminates an impending holocaust. Nigeria’s most recent national statistics, issued in 1996, estimate that almost one in 20 adults are infected. That’s already perilously high, especially since Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, home to one in every seven Africans. What if Nigeria’s HIV prevalence rises to the level of some East and Southern African countries, where more than a quarter of adults are HIV-positive? Then, warns veteran Nigerian AIDS activist Pearl Nwashili, “what we have seen in the rest of Africa will be child’s play.”

Yet Nigeria’s efforts to fight AIDS remain mired in what Nwashili calls “apathy and denial.” Not even the blood supply is safe, because many of the country’s numerous private clinics transfuse unscreened blood. Monitoring them is virtually impossible, largely because the once vigorous National AIDS and STD Control Program has been limping along on 40 million naira a year, which is less than half a million U.S. dollars. And the country’s official rate of HIV is widely believed to be underestimated, partly because it was calculated with no data whatsoever from Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest metropolis, a cauldron of at least 8 million inhabitants that swells by almost a thousand newcomers every day.

Like so many of Africa’s megacities, Lagos is linked with the rest of the country through the extended families of these immigrants, and through the road, rail, sea, and air routes that converge here. Controlling AIDS in Lagos, therefore, is critical to controlling AIDS in Nigeria as a whole. But while only a united, all-out effort can contain Nigeria’s epidemic, the country remains gripped by a schizophrenic attitude toward AIDS, epitomized by brothers Olikoye and Fela: on the one hand, a face-the-facts pragmatism; on the other, a denial that is rooted in anti-white, pan-African ideology.

Resistance to the facts of Fela’s death reared up almost before his corpse had cooled. “Fela’s doctor came to me and said, ‘What should I write as the cause of death?’ ” Olikoye recalls. “And I said, ‘What did you find he died of?’ She said it would be too terrible to write it-AIDS is such a shame. So I asked her, ‘Are you going to forge a death certificate?’ ” The doctor relented.

The next day, flanked by most of Fela’s family, Olikoye staged a press conference, announced that AIDS had killed his brother, and delivered what Fela’s daughter Yeni calls “a serious lecture,” pointing out that almost 2 million Nigerians were already carrying the AIDS virus and that people needed to confront the crisis.

The announcement certainly jolted some people. There are prostitutes who say that more of their johns started wearing condoms after Olikoye’s announcement. But millions-including Fela’s youngest son, 16-year-old Seun-don’t believe HIV felled their hero. Hanging out in a crowded alley, area boy and staunch Fela fan Bob “Marlboro” Kuforiji says, in a typical comment, “It’s just propaganda to say Fela died of AIDS.” His logic: “Fela’s a very great man, so he couldn’t have died of AIDS.” Condoms? Marlboro doesn’t use them.

Virtually every big city has bands of street toughs, but area boys are a phenomenon unique to Lagos, where they have attained almost mythic status as urban nuisance and criminal menace. They riot to intimidate whole neighborhoods into paying them off, or just to loot. Politicians employ them to attack opponents or create a diversion — but ultimately the area boys answer to no one. This summer, in what the papers dubbed “jungle justice,” area boys fought turf battles against rival gangs and against citizen vigilante groups fed up with their crimes and with police impotence. More than 50 people were killed, often burned alive.

Victor Inem, a doctor at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, studied 113 area boys and, though few locals use the term, area girls. Twenty-eight percent tested HIV-positive, an infection rate second only to sex workers. And that was six years ago. There have been virtually no other studies of area boys, but today’s infection rate would almost certainly be higher, in part because the area boys act in ways that put themselves and others at risk. More than half of the women in Inem’s study had prostituted themselves. Both sexes engaged in “sessions,” drug binges that often included orgies. And one way they got cash for drugs and food was to sell their blood to private clinics-a practice that, according to AIDS workers and area boys alike, still continues.

“We saved millions of children with immunizations and child diarrhea treatment,” says Olikoye, “but we never did much to plan for their future. They have no jobs, no schooling. They are selling scraps on the street, and they are beyond the reach of anyone.”

Except Fela. He took scores of prostitutes and area boys off the streets, giving them a home in his commune, called Kalakuta Republic, and giving himself unmatched street credibility. But more than that, he transfigured their roiling frustration and sense of betrayal into art-their art. Fela’s cousin, Wole Soyinka, may have won the Nobel Prize, but Fela, singing in Pidgin, won the devotion of people at the butt of Nigeria’s tragic history.

Fela’s music linked high-level corruption to the everyday sufferings of Lagos life, from conditions in the city’s slums — where, he sang, “dey stay ten-ten in one room” and “sleep inside dustbin” — to the almost allegorical torments of the molue, the sweltering, overcrowded Lagos busses. “Every day my people dey inside bus, 49 sitting 99 standing, dem go pack themselves in like sardines, dem dey faint.” These lyrics evoke “images of the slave trade,” notes Babatope Babalobi, a member of Journalists Against AIDS who wrote his college thesis on Fela. Area boys say simply, “Fela was talking the truth.”

So it is a cruel irony that his downfall was caused by self-deception. The humor in his dismissal of condoms — “After I remove my trouser,” he was fond of saying, “why I got to wear trouser for prick?” — has become grotesque as the AIDS epidemic swells into one of the worst tragedies in Africa’s history. Fela was risking his own life, but he was also risking the lives of his partners, many of whom were the street girls he took into his home. Fela was often criticized for his views on women — “Woman got no other role than making the man happy,” he once said — but HIV armed his attitude with the potential to kill.

Indeed, life at Fela’s Kalakuta Republic was a safe-sex educator’s nightmare. The air was hazy with marijuana smoke, and hot-Nigerian street gin-flowed freely. Fela’s oldest son, Femi, remembers that “the whole compound was dirty,” and not one of the area boys who took shelter there “was doing anything constructive.”

Femi, who like his dad plays the sax and has a successful band of his own, Positive Force, swore off pot because, he explains, “I can’t do what my father did. I have to work more than play.” That work ethic, not to mention the notion of no more pot, has made him unpopular with the city toughs. And, Femi comes as close as a son can to blaming his father for colluding in the collective tragedy of the area boys: “They want me to act like my father to support the way they are ruining their lives.”

Fela did support the behaviors that help to spread HIV. But perhaps more damaging, he sanctioned an attitude that makes it extremely difficult to change those ways.

Dominating Ojuelegbao Lane in the Surulere district of Lagos is a cement apartment block, laundry hanging off the balconies, several windows broken. Below it cluster small cement shacks with corrugated iron roofs. Stagnant water sits in the open sewers, and chickens peck among the garbage, squawking and fluttering to avoid the running, all-but-naked children. Lounging shirtless in an alley, area boy Thomas “Boy-O-Boy” Edem, who used to live in Fela’s commune, insists he doesn’t steal. “That’s why I deal in this,” he says, holding up a plastic bag bulging with marijuana. His other revenue stream comes from the nearby bus stop. During the evening rush hour Boy-O-Boy darts through the chaos, collecting his dash,slang for a payoff. Like mafia protection money, the payment keeps the area boys from attacking the busses.

No one is exempt from such extortion, certainly not AIDS workers, who are perceived as being rich because they are funded by international donor agencies. Onemtein Amadi of the Nigerian Youth AIDS Programme (NYAP) recalls a soccer league, organized by her agency, in which the requirement for participation was taking an AIDS course and competing in halftime AIDS quizzes. Sixteen teams totaling more than 400 players signed up, but NYAP hadn’t settled with the area boys. “They would move onto the field and disrupt the match,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘If you don’t give us money and gin, the match won’t go on.’ ” NYAP ended up hiring the area boys as security guards, a job they relished.

This is the simplest form of what Amadi calls “the money syndrome,” a corrosive blend of cynicism and mistrust that comes from a culture where corruption is king and poverty forces hard deals. Elvira Obike, program officer for the Lagos chapter of The Society of Women against AIDS in Africa, estimates that “more than 70 percent of female university students engage in sex for money to pay school fees,” almost always with older sugar daddies. In a culture where so many are prostituting themselves, and where leaders steal millions and sometimes billions of dollars, everyone has an angle. And Fela stoked this cynicism.

While it was always clear what he was against, no one could say precisely what Fela was for. He was pure dissident. His brother Olikoye brought primary care to Nigeria’s poor, but Fela criticized him for serving in a military government. Fela’s rejection of virtually everything white — including Western medicine — was fundamentally reactionary, a wholesale backlash against white rule. It may have been fatal, but in urban Africa, it is a common response. In fact, it is one of colonialism’s legacies.

Fela did espouse notions of freedom and equality and African unity, but they were nebulous, little more than slogans. Meanwhile, he ruled his commune like a king, meting out harsh beatings to errant area boys and indulging his legendary appetite for marijuana and sex. Fela made it seem that all it took to be a revolutionary was to pursue one’s own gratification and blame the powers that be.

Such cynicism undermines AIDS education. As NYAP’s Edem Effiong explains, “people might not believe accurate information about AIDS, because they might not trust the source.” Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a source more credible than Olikoye, one of the very few government ministers who has retained a good reputation. It doesn’t matter. Marlboro is only one of many who thinks Olikoye was lying about the cause of Fela’s death. Asked why Olikoye would claim his own brother died of AIDS when he hadn’t, Marlboro replies, “Nigerians will do anything because of money, even sell our mother and father.” Olikoye was paid off, people say, by the World Bank or the Americans.

It’s also common to hear blanket dismissals of Western medicine. A bus conductor, who loved Fela’s music and went to his funeral, is sure Feladidn’t die of AIDS “because the man took care of himself. He used traditional, tribal ways.” Does he believe AIDS is real? “I’m hearing this, but I don’t believe it.” A teenager, dressed in his school uniform, interjects to say he’s read a pamphlet saying that AIDS was invented by the Americans because they want to dominate the world.

Some people, including Fela’s daughter, think the government should have used her father’s death to launch an AIDS program. But others think that would have backfired. “If the government had tried using Fela, there would have been trouble,” says NYAP’s Effiong. She thinks it would only have hardened the refusal to believe that AIDS is real.

AIDS came very late to Nigeria. The first case was reported in 1986, four years after the disease was first identified in Africa, and even then, study after study showed the virus was not widespread. While this gave Nigeria time, it also played into the hands of those who denied the existence or gravity of AIDS, because almost nobody was dying. Even now, those who are reaching the last stages of the disease were infected six to 10 years ago, so they are relatively few-unlike malaria, a clear and present killer. So activists such as Nwashili of STOPAIDS have toiled at “trying to make people believe there is AIDS when there is no AIDS.”

There are signs of hope. Nigeria’s new president may have a checkered past, but he has almost tripled the AIDS Programme budget, committed his government to dealing with the epidemic —something his corrupt predecessors failed to do — and called in international assistance. Olikoye supported the new president’s election (even though his police raided Fela’s home in 1977 and inflicted injuries that killed their mother) because Obasanjo “has a wicked streak, which we need in Nigeria.” Olikoye is also leading an energetic advocacy effort. And at the Iddo motor park, a vast and crowded bustling truck stop, STOPAIDS peer educator Robert Eselojor is optimistic. “Now the drivers aren’t taking women, or they are using condoms.”

But that’s not how the younger guys hanging out at the motor park tell it. To the hearty laughter of everyone around, a burly driver says he doesn’t wear condoms because “if I put it on, my prick can’t rise.” Another man in the group blames AIDS on “irresponsible girls” and waves his arm in the direction of the brothels. “The only risk is around them,” he insists. “A responsible woman cannot get AIDS.”

At the base of the Carter Bridge in the crowded, crime-ridden Idumota area, a group of women hawks petty merchandise-cigarettes, soap, fruit. Do their partners use condoms? They just laugh. “My husband,” says one, “can’t use a condom because he’s not a eunuch.” Do their husbands have girlfriends on the side? “Two that I know of,” answers the first. “My husband is very religious so he has none,” says a third woman, wearing a headscarf. “But,” she adds, “my boyfriend has had up to 30 other girls.”

At the pink-painted Royal Crown Hotel, a sex worker who gives her name as Tina, says many johns offer extra money for unsheathed sex. Trained as a peer educator by the Lagos chapter of the Society of Women against AIDS in Africa, Tina insists she doesn’t accept those offers. But, she adds, “I can’t lie. Some of the girls, especially the younger ones, if they see 1000 naira, they can’t leave it.” So how many sex workers use a condom every time? Among the older ones, estimates Tina, six out of 10. But among the younger ones, only two or three out of 10.

Fela wouldn’t have solved Nigeria’s AIDS problem. But like the Congo’s wildly popular Franco Luambo or Uganda’s Philly Lutaya, both of whom recorded songs warning about AIDS shortly before the disease killed them, Fela could have made every Nigerian feel that they knew someone with HIV, thus bypassing the process of waiting for the death toll to scare people into taking precautions. As it is, Olikoye believes his brother symbolizes Nigeria’s denial and, he says, “I don’t know how we will get over the barrier of convincing people that HIV is real.”

Over in the Lagos slum of Makoko, where fishing people have constructed a watery shantytown on stilts, 21-year-old Frank Ogbonnaya says he’s slept with four women over the last year, and while he maintains that he usually uses condoms with his casual partners, he never uses them with his steady girlfriend. AIDS, he says, just isn’t a big concern. Does he know anyone with the disease? “I don’t know anyone,” he replies, “unless you count Fela. And I don’t believe Fela died of AIDS.” ❖

Research assistance: Reetpaul Rana, Jason Schwartzberg