The Triangle isn’t just for North Carolinians. People come here in droves for one reason or another, be it school, jobs or some cultural pocket where they fit. Still, it’s surprising to hear that the Nigerian entertainment journalist who helped Fela Kuti return to triumph after his arrest in 1984 lives in Wendell with his two kids and wife. Or that he’s finally decided to expand on his entertainment past and open Zanziba, a much-needed African nightclub in North Raleigh.
But, tonight, Azuka Jebose Molokwu is behind the wheel of a taxi, shuttling a customer from Raleigh to Roanoke Rapids. Three decades ago, Molokwu was fresh out of journalism school in Lagos, the sprawling Nigerian capital. He found a job behind the entertainment desk at The Punch, then Nigeria’s bible for the showbiz industry, and became something of a national celebrity. He was only 23, young, energetic and vibrant. His column became the voice of the burgeoning Nigerian music community, and Molokwu got close to its leaders, among them King Sunny Ade, Sonny Okosun and reggae artist Majek Fashek. His closest ally, though, was maverick Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Tonight, as Molokwu drives down a dark highway on a winter’s night, these names become characters in magical folktales.
“Fela was really like a father to me,” he says. “I went to school down the street from where he lived and admired him because he was not afraid to talk to the government. Every time I left school I would go see him. When his house burned down in 1977, I left my class to go see.”
When the Nigerian military government arrested Kuti in 1983, Molokwu covered it for The Punch. No one was allowed to see Kuti in prisonexcept Molokwu. He pushed through the crowds, using some of his notoriety as a local writer, and made it to Kuti. Writing in The Punch, Molokwu revealed that Kuti was being treated harshly in prison. In response, the Nigerian government moved the national hero from his hard-labor jail to a more minimum-security unit.
Years later, Molokwu traveled to America with Kuti, who was playing the “Free James Brown” concert at the Apollo in 1989. Molokwu decided he would return to America for an education, likely in journalism. He left Nigeria, settling briefly in New York and Maryland before arriving in Raleigh in 1990.
“I hadn’t seen Kuti since moving here, and, in 1989 in New York, he told me he was having constant headaches,” Molokwu remembers. Kuti came to North Carolina years later, and Molokwu noticed the Afrobeat pioneer’s health was continually deteriorating: Kuti was gaunt and had rashes all over his body.
“He didn’t go to hospitals. He depended on African traditional treatments,” says Molokwu. He told his friends back in Lagos to have Kuti checked for AIDS, but they wouldn’t: The syndrome was a huge stigma in some African cultures, and Kuti even denied the disease’s existence, though he died from it 1997.
But, a decade later, Molokwu admits that Fela’s spirit continues to guide him. His e-mail address, after all, reflects one of Kuti’s best known songs, “Water No Get Enemy.” It’s a song about resilience. Molokwu was injured in an accident in 1999 while living in the Triangle. He fought hard to keep he and his family above water, working constantly as a cab driver and even a car salesman. But now, he’s ready to return to the entertainment industry.
“Sunny Ade encouraged me to start my company Instant Media Communications to represent African musicians for African audiences,” he says of his new artist management and promotion company, where he promotes African musicians in their local markets. He was just named the international coordinator for the Nigerian Music Awards in May, in Abuta, Nigeria, and WSHAthe radio station at Shaw Universitygave Molokwu a job in securing financial support for the station’s programming. He hopes to be hosting a radio show there soon. But Molokwu admits that his primary business focus will be Zanziba, the space he’s opening at 1625 Capital Blvd. in Raleigh.
“Raleigh has never had a club where people could come to enjoy the humanistic angles of African life; most people still think of poverty and hunger,” says Molokwu, who became involved with the club after his cousin asked him for assistance because of his experience in the music industry. He says he hopes to have a place for people to come and learn about his people and to have a place for African and Caribbean transplants to network and have what he calls a “comfort zone.”
Molokwu says Zanziba will start out with live music every other weekend, and he hopes to add an unplugged blues night once a week and book reggae and African musicians when they start touring this summer. “African musicians are used to the summertime, unlike us,” he says with a big chuckle.
Essentially, Molokwu hopes to create his own pocket of African culture in the capital city, even when more mainstream business ventures are closing or being nudged out. It’s a bit of Fela Kuti’s maverick spirit still at work through a transplanted disciple.
Zanziba opens Friday, March 16 at 1625 Capital Blvd. in Raleigh.