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Why Chinua Achebe Won’t Sell Out For 50 Cent, ‘Not Even For A Billion Dollars’Why Chinua Achebe Won’t Sell Out For 50 Cent, ‘Not Even For A Billion Dollars’
Not everything has a price, as mogul rapper Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson with misguided and over simplified views on philanthropy in Africa will have just found out. He was in a fierce court battle for using the title of one of the greatest literary works in the world – Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s seminal Things Fall Apart – as the title of his latest movie venture. The Achebe Foundation was not having it, and has now won the court case against Mr Cent. Clearly not used to no for an answer, 50′s camp counter-offered Mr Achebe’s foundation a cool million (dollar, dollar bills y’all). But Achebe was unflappable: “the novel with the said title was initially produced in 1958 (that is 17 years before rapper 50 Cent was born), listed as the mostly read book in modern African literature, and won’t be sold for even 1 Billion Dollars” (quoted from Broadway Ghana)
Our literature is not for sale, our heritage is not for sale, is what Mr Achebe has just told Africans. It’s not just about lofty idealism, and if you are aware of the legend that is Mr Achebe (as most African matriculants are) this makes sense. The book has all the elements of a tragedy, and culture-specific characterizations. It cannot pass as the title for a 50 Cent (and yes, this will be the ironic interpolation to this story based on his name) movie.
In the family drama, 50 plays a cancer-stricken American football player and lost 60 pounds for the role, worlds apart, in terms of content, from Mr Achebe’s world-renowned book. To have let the movie stand with that particular title would have been to dilute what in many ways is a book that is a foundational pillar of modern African literature. We have no idea whether 50 Cent has actually read Achebe’s book but his showbiz persona represents everything that the book forewarns: the clash of cultures, where a man “ignores the feminine side of life, and over-emphasizes the masculine” according to retired African Literature professor and my dad Prof Felix Mnthali. His whole misogynistic gangsta rap image is in direct contrast to what the novel warns Africans of. One could argue that he is also a product of the Europeanisation of the African, with all its materialism, sexism and amnesia of what black men were, could be and are. He is lauded in this weakened state, because it suits the colonial gaze, or that of those descended from empire.
Fiddy flows about ‘niggas’ and ‘gangstas’ and this is so anti the whole milieu of Achebe. Not to say that most of us haven’t bobbed our heads to a Fiddy track. But with his Gadaffi-reminiscent female outriders in front of his G-Unit truck in one video, celebrating the gangsta lifestyle, materialism, sexism et ceterain others, there is not much doubt that Achebe wouldn’t have taken Fiddy’s offer straight to the bank.
At the time of writing, Fiddy’s movie is now re-titled All Things Fall Apart. I wonder if this was really a victory for literature and that potential movie audience who hear about this controversy will actually go out and seek the book. Mnthali, a contemporary of Achebe’s, says, “The novel is worth defending. It showed the world that Africa was not one mass of warring tribes, it has different cultures, and you can trace the people’s progression in this one group from the cradle to the grave.” This same novel has been translated into numerous languages worldwide. Igbo is probably the most widely-travelled African language in this sense.
Legally, it is not enough to say there must be copyright issues. We have not read the judgment itself, which would tell us everything we would need to know. Copyright would therefore belong to the domain of keeping a script clear of clutter from other interests, and not ‘passing off’ one work for another. In that sense, not diluting, diverting or mistaking content of one work for another. I believe this is where Chinua and 50Cent clashed.
Achebe could almost be accused of favouritism in that his Foundation has never brought a case against Philly Hip-hop group The Roots, whose 1999 album is called Things Fall Apart and is famously named for his book. Similarly, his homegirl Nigerian/German singer Nneka’s break-through album No Longer At Ease borrows from Achebe’s book of this name. Nneka’s political stance against corruption is no secret and in this instance is an extended reference to the subject matter of the novel. So then maybe this is more about the association than favouritism. Fiddy is into making money (and into having sex) and will sell that rough image for anyone’s consumption, whereas Nneka and The Roots with their ‘conscious’ sensibilities appear more congruent to brand Achebe.
It’s also worth considering that the African literary giant uses a line from a WB Yeats poem as the title for Things Fall Apart and a TS Eliot line from a poem as the title for No Longer At Ease. In truth, literature feeds upon itself. It is like the horizon or a circular disc in the sky, we sometimes cannot say where it begins and ends, but its builders stand on the shoulders of its original architects. For music that references great literary works, few have done so successfully (Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights anyone?) so you better come correct. Maybe music gets an easier pass, actually. However, a musician making the transition to acting is different. In both writing the script and acting in the movie of the same name as a world classic of literature, with no actual ties to that story, you have an obligation to be true to the story that came first, especially when it is a story that is this important.
Watch the trailer for All Things Fall Apart below: