Fela was the pioneer of Afrobeat, a musical genre solely associated with Nigerian music. He was a prolific song writer with over 70 albums to his name. As a political dissent, he did not cower from speaking his mind against oppressive authorities, unafraid to call them out, as well as those in the Nigerian society who he felt were stuck in the western system and way of life. His works raised awareness to the decolonization mindsets of black people and the Western domination of Africa.
Fela Kuti was born in Abeokuta, Ogun State Nigeria, into an upper-middle class family. His father was Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister and school principal and his mother was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a renowned feminist-activist with a prominent voice in the anti-colonial movement and fighting for women’s rights in Nigeria, which earned her the nickname “The mother of Africa”. His two brothers, Beko and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti are established medical doctors in Nigeria. In 1958, Fela was sent to London to study medicine after completing his secondary education in Abeokuta Grammar School, Abeokuta. However, with an interest in music, Fela decided to study classical music instead and enrolled at Trinity College of Music in 1959. He played different musical instruments including the piano, trumpet, drums and the saxophone. In 1960, Fela married Remilekun Taylor, his first wife who bore him three children.
In 1961, Fela formed a band Koola Lobitos that played a novel type of musical combination of jazz and highlife with interactive vocals which he coined as Afrobeat. Upon his return to Nigeria in 1963, Fela worked as a radio producer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1968, Fela went to Ghana and during that time, planned a 10 month US tour which took place the following year. While in the US, he was influenced politically by the Black Panther party as he was discovering the black power movement. His US tour was not wholly successful because his promoter had failed to provide sufficient legal documents for all the group members and legal actions were taken against them. Despite this, he successfully recorded songs and renamed his group Nigeria 70, which was later renamed Africa 70 after his return to Nigeria.
Alongside important members of the group were Tony Allen and Fred Lawal, who together performed live shows at a nightclub which Fela named “Afro-spot” in Yaba. His most classic songs; Water No Get Enemy, Lady, Palava and a host of others were hits due in part to his unique interactive style of music sung mostly in Pidgin English and Yoruba. His live appearances garnered a growing audience all over and beyond Lagos as the pioneer of Afrobeat.
Fela began incorporating traditional religious beliefs in his work after he relocated afro-spot to Surulere and renamed it “African shrine”. Marijuana smoking and a supposed resurrection by a Cameroonian priest lent to the activities at the shrine, crowning Fela as the high priest.
Through his music, Fela became the voice of the people, directly addressing the problems the government afflicted on her citizens. Zombie, an album directed towards the federal government of Nigeria, actively spoke about the political injustice of the military governing regime. Angered by his direct attack on them, the government violently sought revenge by attacking Fela and his household. He was imprisoned, his recording studio, “Kalakuta Republic” was burnt down and his musical instruments were seized. Nevertheless, imprisonment did not deter Fela from expressing his dissatisfaction with the government. One of his most popular songs ITT, which stands for “International Thief Thief” was a direct criticism of the federal government. Fela even went ahead to create his own political party which he called “Movement of the People” (MOP).
Later Life and Death
Fela passed away on August 2, 1997 at the age of 58. Before his death, it was rumored that he suffered from an ailment for which he refused treatment and that his religious beliefs may have led him to disregard the efficacy of western medicine. However, his brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, announced that Fela died from AIDS related complications. About a million people attended his funeral procession which started at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at his Kalakuta residence in Ikeja, Lagos.
Fela was and is still loved by the people. He is as a legend beyond the music arena and his legacy continues to be celebrated. Fela found inspiration from James Brown, subsequently influencing James Brown as well as many other notable musicians both locally and internationally. Brown’s bassist Bootsy Collins recalls telling Brown of their visit to Fela’s club; “We were telling them they’re the funkiest cats we had ever heard in our life. I mean, this is James Brown band, but we were totally wiped out!” Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer also claimed that David Mathews was sent by Brown to emulate and learn from Fela’s hand and leg movements as he performed. Gilberto Gil, a musician and former Brazilian Minister of Culture says meeting Fela changed his life, “I felt like I was a tree replanted and able to flourish.” English musician and composer, Brian Eno, once said he owned more albums by Fela than any other artist. Great musicians like Miles Davis, American jazz trumpeter and composer, also acknowledged Fela Kuti as a ‘life transforming artist’.
The musical Fela! directed by Bill T. Jones has been one of the most successful shows on Broadway. It is based on the music and lyrics of Fela Kuti and portrays his life during the days he fought the government and tried to prevent Nigerian military forces from closing down his legendary nightclub, The Shrine. Seen by over a million people, the musical has been endorsed by stars such as Jay Z and others all over the world.
- “Fela Kuti”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 15 June. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fela_Kuti>.
- Peter Culshaw. “The Big Fela”. Special Editorial. The Guardian (US Edition). 15 August. 2004. Print. Online version. <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/aug/15/worldmusic>.
- Peter Culshaw. ed. “Fela Kuti: Africa’s Bob Marley – or an African Handel?” British Broadcasting Corporation. 18 August. 2004. Web. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140818-fela-kuti-africas-bob-marley>.
- “Fela Kuti Biography”. Biography.com. A&E Television Networks LLC. Web. 16 June. 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/fela-kuti-21215355>.
- Janet Planet. “Fela Anikulapo Kuti”. The African Music Encyclopedia. 1998. Web. <http://africanmusic.org/artists/felakuti.html>.
- John Dougan. “Fela Kuti”. All Music. Rhythm One Group. 2016. Web. <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/fela-kuti-mn0000138833/biography>.
- The Influence: Legends’ Thoughts on Fela Kuti. Web. <http://www.okayafrica.com/video/fela-kuti-afrobeat-legend-interviews>.