Fela Anikulapo Kuti (15 October 1938 – 2 August 1997), also professionally known as Fela Kuti, or simply Fela, was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, human rights activist, and political maverick. He has been called “superstar, singer, musician, Panafricanist, polygamist, mystic, legend.” During the height of his popularity, he was often hailed as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers.”
Early life and career
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria into an upper-middle-class family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement; his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. His brothers, Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, both medical doctors, are well known in Nigeria. Fela is a first cousin to the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He attended Abeokuta Grammar School. Later he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola). In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars.
In 1967, he went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat. In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States where they spent 10 months in Los Angeles. While there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The experience would heavily influence his music and political views. He renamed the band Nigeria ’70. Soon afterwards, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his band were in the US without work permits. The band immediately performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.
After Fela and his band returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed The Afrika ’70, as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for the many people connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. (According to Lindsay Barrett, the name “Kalakuta” derived from the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta dungeon in India.) Fela set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and then the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated at personalized Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honour of his nation’s ancestral faith. He also changed his name to Anikulapo (meaning “He who carries death in his pouch”, with the interpretation: “I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”). He stopped using the hyphenated surname “Ransome” because it was a slave name.
Fela’s music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. In fact, he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous. As popular as Fela’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was also very unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic were frequent. During 1972, Ginger Baker recorded Stratavarious with Fela appearing alongside Bobby Tench. Around this time, Kuti became even more involved in the Yoruba religion.
In 1977, Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the album Zombie, a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother (whose house was located opposite the commune) was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, and to write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier”, referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.
Fela and his band then took residence in Crossroads Hotel, as the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune. In 1978, Fela married 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers. The marriage served not only to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic but also to protect Fela, and his wives, from false claims from authorities that Fela was kidnapping the women. Later, he was to adopt a rotation system of keeping only 12 simultaneous wives. The year was also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which riots broke out during the song “Zombie”, which led to Fela being banned from entering Ghana. The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Fela’s musicians deserted him, due to rumours that Fela was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
Despite the massive setbacks, Fela was determined to come back. He formed his own political party, which he called Movement of the People (MOP), in order to “clean up society like a mop”. Apart from being a mass political party, MOP preached “Nkrumahism” and “Africanism.” In 1979, he put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections for more than a decade, but his candidature was refused. At this time, Fela created a new band called Egypt ’80 reflecting the fact that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African and must be claimed as such. As Fela states in an interview, “Stressing the point that I have to make Africans aware of the fact that Egyptian civilization belongs to the African. So that was the reason why I changed the name of my band to Egypt 80.” Fela continued to record albums and tour the country. He further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT Corporation vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed entitled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”.
1980s and beyond
In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari’s government, of which Kuti was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a charge of currency smuggling which Amnesty International and others denounced as politically motivated. Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience, and his case was also taken up by other human rights groups. After 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release he divorced his 12 remaining wives, saying that “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness”.
Once again, Fela continued to release albums with Egypt ’80, made a number of successful tours of the United States and Europe and also continued to be politically active. In 1986, Fela performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of the Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope concert, sharing the bill with Bono, Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers. In 1989, Fela and Egypt ’80 released the anti-apartheid Beasts of No Nation that depicts on its cover U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African State President Pieter Willem Botha, that title of the composition, as Barrett notes, having evolved out of a statement by Botha: “This uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us.”
Fela’s album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually he stopped releasing albums altogether. In 1993, he and four members of the Afrika ’70 organization were arrested for murder. The battle against military corruption in Nigeria was taking its toll, especially during the rise of Sani Abacha. Rumours were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.
On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, announced his younger brother’s death a day earlier from complications related to AIDS. However, there has been no definitive proof that Kuti died from complications related to HIV/AIDS, and much skepticism surrounds this alleged cause of death and the sources that have popularized this claim. For example, it is widely claimed that Fela suffered and may have possibly died from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which is a symptom of HIV/AIDS infection. However, there are no known photos of Kuti with telltale lesions; moreover, Kuti was honored with a lying-in-state in which his remains were encased in a five-sided glass coffin for full public viewing. More than one million people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound. The New Afrika Shrine has opened since Fela’s death in a different section of Lagos under the supervision of his son Femi.
The musical style of Felá is called Afrobeat, a style he largely created, which is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian highlife, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan”. The importance of the input of Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer of twenty years) in the creation of Afrobeat cannot be overstated. Fela once famously stated that “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”.
Afrobeat is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A riff-based “endless groove” is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted West African-style guitar and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song. Commonly, interlocking melodic riffs and rhythms are introduced one by one, building the groove bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer. The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs and main melodic themes.
Fela’s band was notable for featuring two baritone saxophones, whereas most groups were using only one of this instrument. This is a common technique in African and African-influenced musical styles and can be seen in funk and hip hop. Fela’s bands at times even performed with two bassists at the same time both playing interlocking melodies and rhythms. There were always two or more guitarists. The electric West African style guitar in Afrobeat bands are paramount, but are used to give basic structure, playing a repeating chordal/melodic statement, riff or groove.
Some elements often present in Fela’s music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. Fela’s songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reached 20 or even 30 minutes, while some unreleased tracks would last up to 45 minutes when performed live. This was one of many reasons that his music never reached a substantial degree of popularity outside Africa. His LP records frequently had one 30-minute track per side. Typically there is an instrumental “introduction” jam part of the song, perhaps 10–15 minutes long, before Fela starts singing the “main” part of the song, featuring his lyrics and singing, in which the song continues for another 10–15 minutes. Therefore, on some recordings one may see his songs divided into two parts, Part 1 (instrumental) followed by the rest, Part 2.
His songs were mostly sung in Nigerian pidgin English, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. Fela’s main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet, electric guitar, and took the occasional drum solo. Fela refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa.
Fela was known for his showmanship, and his concerts were often quite outlandish and wild. He referred to his stage act as the “Underground” Spiritual Game. Fela attempted making a movie but lost all the materials to the fire that was set to his house by the military government in power. Kuti thought that art, and thus his own music, should have political meaning.
It is of note that as Fela’s musical career developed, so too did his political influence, not only in his home country of Nigeria, not just throughout Africa, but throughout the world. As his political influence grew, the religious aspect of his musical approach grew. Fela was a part of an Afro-Centric consciousness movement that was founded on and delivered through his music. Fela, in an interview found in Hank Bordowitz’s Noise of the World states: “Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.”
West Africa has been a cultural crossroad for musical development. The most widespread and influential music was guitar-based genres including “palmwine” music, which swept the region during the 1920s and 1930s. Palmwine was most often heard at informal gatherings among the urban lower classes. The musicians would accompany themselves with guitars, beer bottles for percussion or kerosene cans. The singers were often fairly political and touched on contemporary issues. The other popular genre was “highlife,” which was more associated with the upper classes and social elite. Performed at important events such as weddings, funerals, and holidays, highlife ensembles combined European band instruments and harmonic structures with distinctly African practices such as praise singing. Highlife’s appeal was broadened by its origins in Ghana, the first African nation to gain independence in 1957. Under the leadership of the prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s political and cultural influence was strong throughout the region during the postcolonial period.
With a population of 150 million people, Nigeria was the most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa, gaining its independence in 1960. Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, while dominated by the Yoruba people, is in many ways a postmodern collage of different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures. The city’s origins lie in the illicit slave trade. Built on a sandy island, its many creeks afforded hiding places for slave traders after the French (1791) and British (1807) outlawed the slave trade. Lagos became an important incubator for urban popular musics as the Kru mariners, as well as Ghanaians, Cameroonians, and others brought palm wine and highlife, which blended with Yoruba traditions, especially jújù.
As in highlife, jújù groups typically play for important social functions, often hired by the social and economic elite. Here they are expected to perform the traditional role of offering praises to their hosts both vocally and articulated by the sonically prominent talking drum or dundun. The social status of musicians as beggars is reinforced by the practice of “spraying” in which the hosts and their guests reward the musicians by pressing money to their foreheads. In the 1930s, as the “rhumba” craze (actually Cuban son montuno) swept much of the United States and Europe, highlife, palmwine, and jújù began to assimilate Caribbean rhythms, percussion instruments, and harmonic and formal structures. Calypso and other genres from English-speaking islands also became part of the mix. Latin and Caribbean influence in West Africa came not only through the African colonies’ and Caribbean colonies’ common tether to the European powers (particularly London), but through the important communities of repatriated former slaves and their descendants.
Lagos’ importance as a center for music grew as Decca, EMI, and other record companies established recording studios in the city as they expanded their operations in Africa (Veal, 2000, 79). In the years after World War II the modern sound of jújù featuring electric instruments, especially guitars, was popularized by such artists as Tunde Nightingale, I. K. Dairo, Ebenezer Obey, and King Sunny Adé. The 1960s brought an influx of American soul music such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, James Brown and others. The postcolonial market was ripe for a new broadly popular music, one that appealed to different ethnicities and social classes, that internally was emblematic of African-ness but presented a modern face to the world. As an ambitious young musician, Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti was determined to create a genre to satisfy this demand. But his route to this innovation first led him to two important international black Atlantic destinations: London and the United States.
Political views and activism
Fela Kuti was a political giant in Africa from the 70s until his death. Kuti criticized the corruption of Nigerian government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people. Corruption was one of the worst, if not the worst, political problem facing Africa in the 70s and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries of the time. The Nigerian government was responsible for election rigging and coups that ultimately worsened poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, and political instability, which further promoted corruption and thuggery. Fela’s protest songs covered themes inspired by the realities of corruption and socio-economic inequality in Africa. Fela Kuti’s political statements could be heard throughout Africa.
Kuti’s open vocalization of the violent and oppressive regime controlling Nigeria didn’t come without consequence. He was arrested on over 200 different occasions, including his longest stint of 20 months after his arrest in 1984. On top of the jail time, the corrupt government would send soldiers to beat Kuti, his family and friends, and destroy wherever he lived and whatever instruments or recordings he had.
In the 1970s, Kuti began to run outspoken political columns in the advertising space of daily and weekly newspapers such as The Daily Times and The Punch, bypassing editorial censorship in Nigeria’s predominantly state controlled media. Published throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the title “Chief Priest Say”, these columns were extensions of Kuti’s famous Yabi Sessions—consciousness-raising word-sound rituals, with himself as chief priest, conducted at his Lagos nightclub. Organized around a militantly Afrocentric rendering of history and the essence of black beauty, “Chief Priest Say” focused on the role of cultural hegemony in the continuing subjugation of Africans. Kuti addressed a number of topics, from explosive denunciations of the Nigerian Government’s criminal behaviour; Islam and Christianity’s exploitative nature, and evil multinational corporations; to deconstructions of Western medicine, Black Muslims, sex, pollution, and poverty. “Chief Priest Say” was cancelled, first by Daily Times then by Punch. The reason given was non-payment, but many commentators have speculated that the papers’ editors were increasingly pressured to stop publication, including by violence.
Kuti was outspoken; his songs spoke his inner thoughts. His rise in popularity throughout the 1970s signaled a change in the relation between music as an art form and Nigerian socio-political discourse. In 1984 Anikulapo harshly criticized and insulted the then authoritarian president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. One of his popular songs, “Beast Of No Nation”, refers to Buhari as an animal in a madman’s body; in Nigerian Pidgin: “No be outside Buhari dey ee, na krase man be dat, animal in krase man skin ii“. Kuti strongly believed in Africa and always preached peace among Africans. He thought the most important way for Africans to fight European cultural imperialism was to support traditional African religions and lifestyles. The American Black Power movement also influenced Fela’s political views; he supported Pan-Africanism and socialism, and called for a united, democratic African republic.Some of the famous African leaders he supported during his lifetime include Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Kuti was a candid supporter of human rights, and many of his songs are direct attacks against dictatorships, specifically the militaristic governments of Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also a social commentator, and he criticized his fellow Africans (especially the upper class) for betraying traditional African culture.
The African culture he believed in also included men having many wives (polygyny). The Kalakuta Republic was formed in part as a polygamist colony. In defense of polygyny he said: “A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and fucks around. He should bring the women in the house, man, to live with him, and stop running around the streets!” Some characterize his views towards women as misogynist, and typically cite as evidence songs like “Mattress”. In a more complex example, he mocks the aspiration of African women to European standards of ladyhood while extolling the values of the market woman in his song “Lady”. In accordance with his beliefs, Fela Kuti married multiple women at the same time in 1978.
Fela Kuti was also an outspoken critic of America. At a meeting during his 1981 Amsterdam tour, he “complained about the psychological warfare that American organizations like ITT and the CIA waged against developing nations in terms of language” He did not see why the terms ‘Third World, “undeveloped” or even worse, “Non-aligned countries” should be used, as they all implied inferiority.”
Revival and legacy
Since Fela’s death in 1997, there has been a revival of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another re-release of his catalog controlled by Universal Music, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically based shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who carry the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.
In 1999, Universal Music France, under the aegis of Francis Kertekian, remastered the 45 albums that it controlled, and released them on 26 compact discs. These titles were licensed to countries of the world, except Nigeria and Japan, where Fela’s music was controlled by other companies. In 2005, Universal Music USA licensed all of its world-music titles to the UK-based label Wrasse Records, which repackaged the same 26 CDs for distribution in the USA (replacing the MCA-issued titles there) and the UK. In 2009, Universal created a new deal for the USA with Knitting Factory Records and for Europe with PIAS, which included the release of the Fela! Broadway cast album. In 2013, FKO Ltd, the entity that owned the rights of all of Fela’s compositions, was acquired by BMG Rights Management.
In 2003, an exhibition in the New Museum for Contemporary Art, New York, titled The Black President Exhibition, debuted and featured concerts, symposia, films, and the works of 39 international artists.
Thomas McCarthy’s 2008 film The Visitor depicted a disconnected professor (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins) who wanted to play the djembe. He learns from a young Syrian (Haaz Sleiman) who tells the professor he will never truly understand African music unless he listens to Fela. The film features clips of Fela’s “Open and Close” and “Je’nwi Temi (Don’t Gag Me)”.
In 2008, an off-Broadway production of Fela Kuti’s life entitled Fela!, inspired by Carlos Moore’s 1982 book Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life, began with a collaborative workshop between the Afrobeat band Antibalas and Tony award-winner Bill T. Jones. The show was a massive success, selling out shows during its run, and garnering much critical acclaim. On 22 November 2009, Fela! began a run on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Jim Lewis helped co-write the play (along with Bill T. Jones), and obtained producer backing from Jay-Z and Will Smith, among others. On 4 May 2010, Fela! was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Bill T. Jones, Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Sahr Ngaujah, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White. In 2011 the London production of Fela! was made into a film. On 11 June 2012, it was announced that FELA! would return to Broadway for 32 performances.
On 18 August 2009, award-winning DJ J.Period released a free mixtape to the general public via his website that was a collaboration with Somali-born hip-hop artist K’naan paying tribute to Fela, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, entitled The Messengers.
In October 2009, Knitting Factory Records began the process of re-releasing the 45 titles that Universal Music controls, starting with yet another re-release of the compilation The Best of the Black President in the USA. The rest were expected to be released in 2010.
Fela Son of Kuti: The Fall of Kalakuta is a stage play written by Onyekaba Cornel Best in 2010. It has had successful acclaims in 2010 as part of that year’s Felabration celebration and returned in 2014 at the National Theatre and Freedom Park in Lagos. The play deals with events in a hideout a day after the fall of Kalakuta.
Fela Kuti is remembered as an influential icon who was brave enough to boldly voice his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music. An annual festival “Felabration” held each year to celebrate the life of this music legend and his birthday.
The full-length documentary film Finding Fela, directed by Alex Gibney, received its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
In addition, a movie by Focus Features, directed by Steve McQueen and written by Biyi Bandele, about the life of Fela Kuti was rumoured to be in production 2010, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, but has not eventuated.