Fela Kuti - Biography
By Robert Leaver
As powerful and transcendent as the music of Fela Kuti was, it is often overshadowed by the complex grandiosity of his own life. A political radical who preached a pro-democratic and socialist African agenda, a convict, an exile, a womanizer, founder of the Movement of the People political party…Fela Kuti was all these things yet his legacy will always stand as that of a revolutionary. Often compared to his western counterpart, Bob Marley (as their careers are eerily similar) Fela mobilized Nigeria’s vast impoverished population into a political machine with an exceptionally loud voice. Musically, he revolutionized traditional African music (and the world’s perception of it) by singlehandedly creating Afrobeat, a modern fusion of western funk and jazz with the West African highlife tradition, then used it as his political platform. As a staunch sexist and unapologetic polygamist with a penchant for highly delusional narcissism, Fela, the man, was a difficult personality at best. Yet he was also revered by millions across the globe as a near deity. In essence, Fela Kuti transcended his own numerous faults by taking a dangerous yet immovable stance against tyranny in an increasingly authoritarian post-colonial Africa. Over a decade after his death, the spirit of Fela is still viewed by Nigerians, most Africans, and music lovers in general as immortal. Today, his name is still synonymous with the unstoppable voice of the people. As long as there is injustice in Africa (or anywhere for that matter), the music of Fela Kuti will be there to illicit revolutionary change by the people and for the people.
Fela Kuti, born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938, is perhaps the most internationally recognized African musician of all time. He came from a prominent family in Nigeria where his father was a Protestant minister and school principal while his mother was a labor organizer and women’s rights advocate. In 1958, Kuti was sent to the U.K. by his parents to study medicine but shirked his preordained career as a doctor in favor of studying music at London’s Trinity College. While still a student he formed the popular club band Koola Lobitos in 1961. Upon returning to Nigeria in 1963, he reconfigured his band, which consisted of large rhythm and brass sections, and continued to incorporate elements of African-American music into the framework of West Africa’s popular highlife music.
Known to most simply as Fela, he took his band to the United States in 1969, settled into regular gigs in Los Angeles, and immersed himself in the cultural and political revolutions then sweeping the United States. During this time he met Black Panther member Sandra Smith, aka Sandra Isidore, who exposed him to the revolutionary ideology of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. Looking forward to the promise of the 70’s and asserting his proud roots Fela changed the band’s name to Africa 70 and began incorporating a funk aesthetic heavily influenced by James Brown. The weekly gigs in L.A. came to an abrupt end when immigration authorities shut down the band for performing without work permits and ordered them to leave the country. On the verge of deportation, Kuti & Africa 70 entered the studio for a last minute recording session, later released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions (1994 Sterns).
He returned to the bustling, crowded city of Lagos, Nigeria and established The Shrine, a compound with a free medical clinic, a nightclub, recording studio, and homes for him and his extended family of musicians and girlfriends. Fela also embraced his Afrocentrism by changing his middle name, Ransome, which carried strong slave connotations, to Anikulapo, meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”. Having set Lagos afire with his new Afrobeat sound, Fela returned to London in 1971 to perform and record with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, although his original drummer Tony Allen (a co-founder of Afrobeat) continued to serve Africa 70 throughout the decade before moving on to an influential solo career.
Fela recorded and toured prolifically during the 70’s with his band growing to more than twenty strong, featuring electric bass, keyboard, trap drums, conga, shekere, and other minor percussion instruments along with a chorus of numerous women dancer/singers and Fela contributing solos on saxophone and keyboards. Songs were almost always over 10 minutes and the endless groove, not unlike soul music, was fundamental to the Afrobeat sound. Accompanied by some of the most talented musicians in Nigeria, Africa 70 was like a train locked in high gear taking its passengers to a frenzied nirvana where freedom of expression was the golden rule. Influential socio-political tracks from this era include “Shakara,” which ridicules a braggart, “You No Die…Unless,” a modern urban commentary, and the philosophical “Water No Get Enemy.” Pidgin English is the dominant language of the lower class masses of Lagos, and although he was well educated Fela chose to sing mostly in pidgin as heard on the classic track “Gentleman” in which Fela proudly states, “I know be gentleman like that! / I be Africa man original”.
By the early 70’s, Fela Kuti’s popularity had begun to spread as Afrobeat gained a foothold in London’s large Nigerian and Ghanaian immigrant communities. Meanwhile, back in Lagos, Fela had become a voice for the dispossessed and his massive popularity combined with a vocal disdain for the Nigerian authorities set him on a collision course with the government. In 1974 he built a fence around his compound and declared it an independent state called the Kalakuta Republic. Later that year, police raided the Kalakuta compound and attempted to plant an illegal joint as evidence for Fela’s arrents. Savvy to the plan, Fela swallowed the planted cannabis and the police sent him to jail to wait for it to pass through his system. Fela managed to switch the stool on his captors and then in a sublime act of rubbing salt into the wound he wrote the massively popular song “Expensive Shit”. In 1977, Fela debuted “Zombie” at the prestigious FESTAC (Festival for Black Arts and Culture) hosted in Lagos. A direct verbal assault on the Nigerian government, the song and subsequent album of the same name, achieved worldwide renown. The Nigerian military however, were not impressed and responded by raiding Fela’s compound yet again, this time with over 1,000 soldiers, burning it to the ground, beating Fela and scores of his people, and throwing his elderly mother off a balcony causing fatal injuries. Against this backdrop songs like “Sorrow, Tears, & Blood” and “Colonial Mentality” took on a greater urgency.
Not without a bold penchant for public theater, Fela paraded his mother’s coffin by the military barracks in a massive funeral procession, a picture of which would appear on his subsequent recording, the pointed “Coffin for Head of State”. Aside from the overtly confrontational theme, the twenty-two minute plus song also contains sacrilegious overtones, equally mocking the Christian and Muslim faiths. In response to the official investigation, which blamed an unknown, lone soldier for all the destruction and carnage, Fela recorded the tune “Unknown Soldier.” Fela and his extended musical family subsequently took refuge in the Crossroads Hotel in Lagos and continued to perform. In 1978 he celebrated the one year anniversary of the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic by marrying twenty-seven women at once in a flamboyant ceremony. Fela and Africa 70 continued to cause political strife when they were jailed for two days and subsequently banned from Ghana when riots broke out after a concert in the city of Accra. Returning to Lagos with his musicians and wives like a musical band of gypsies the entire crew squatted for two months in the Decca Records offices.
Later that year Africa 70, at twenty-seven musicians strong, quit en masse after a performance at the Berlin Jazz Festival, upon discovery of Fela’s plans to use the proceeds from the festival to fund a presidential campaign in Nigeria. Undaunted, Fela returned to his hometown of Ikeja in 1978 to pursue his presidential aspirations, setting up a the political party, Movement of the People (MOP). Looking forward to the next decade he renamed his new band Egypt 80 and released the twenty-five minute epic I.T.T (International Thief Thief) in which he calls out powerful Nigerians officials by name for corruption. Although the 1979 elections were to return the country to civilian rule, Fela and his party were excluded from the ballot. His second presidential bid in 1983 also proved fruitless after police continually arrested, harassed, and beat him and his followers. His 1980 release Authority Stealing was released on his own Kalakuta imprint because other record companies were too scared to touch it. As the former military regime regained power Fela released the protest song “Army Arrangement” which led to his arrest in 1984 and 20 months in prison on trumped-up currency smuggling charges. Upon release, he divorced his remaining twelve wives and regrouped, touring Europe and America extensively with a massive band and entourage.
Fela and Egypt 80 produced a number of memorable tracks in the ‘80s including the would-be anthem “Black President,” “Original Sufferhead”, “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense,” “He Who No Know Go Know,” and “Mr. Follow Follow.” During this time, Fela allegedly refused to play a song again once it was recorded. As evidence of this and the dominance of his political life check Live from Amsterdam (1985 Capitol), recorded in 1983 which contains the tunes “M.O.P (Movement of the People): Political Statement Number 1,” “You Gimme Shit I Give You Shit,” and “Custom Checkpoint.” His tunes stretching out longer and longer to the point of one per LP side, he closed out the decade with the anti-apartheid album Beasts of No Nation (1989 Shanachie) whose cover depicts South African President P.W. Botha, U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and U.S. president Ronald Reagan as horned vampire beasts with mouths dripping blood.
Hampered by continual government harassment and the onset of illness, Fela’s releases slowed dramatically in the 90’s. The track “Confusion Break Bones” exemplified his continued defiance and disillusionment with Nigeria and all of post-colonial Africa. Fela was subsequently jailed again but was released shortly before his death from complications AIDS related complications on August 3, 1997. Fela’s funeral at the site of his beloved nightclub The Shine in Lagos was attended by more than a million people. By the end of the decade his son, Femi Kuti, carried on his father’s legacy by leading his own large Afrobeat ensemble and re-opened The Shrine in a different area of Lagos. Much of Fela Kuti’s catalogue has been re-mastered and released on CD in recent years and his influence is still heard in groups like Antibalas, who continue to stoke the fires of Afrobeat. More than a mere musician, Fela was an unstoppable cultural and political phenomenon that could never be silenced. Moreover, the genre he almost single-handedly created, Afrobeat, remains a vital worldwide musical force today.