Fela Kuti, born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was a Nigerian musician, radio producer, multi-instrumentalist, political radical and outlaw. He is best known for being the eccentric father of the Afrobeat genre. Most famously known for his politically charged cries against oppression and corruption in works like ‘Zombie’, ‘Water No Get Enemy’ and ‘Beast of no Nation’, Fela used music as his weapon of choice against military rule and the general subjugation of the poor and underrepresented of Nigeria, and across the world.
Coming from an upper middle class family in Abeokuta, Fela was introduced to music and political rhetoric at a young age. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a prominent anti- colonial women’s rights activist, a stance which was juxtaposed to Fela’s own views regarding patriarchy. His father was a pastor, school principle and talented pianist. After sending Fela to London in 1958 where they intended he study medicine, Fela enrolled in Trinity College of Music instead where he first formed his band Koola Lobitos. A move that would lead to the seamless fusion of jazz, funk and highlife that was dubbed ‘Afrobeat’. It is widely accepted that Fela’s true political awakening occurred following a trip to Los Angeles in 1969 where while touring for 8 months. He was introduced to ideas of Black Nationalism, Afrocentricism, the teachings of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Here he recorded ’69 Los Angeles Sessions’, and upon returning to Nigeria proceeded to drop what he referred to as his slave name ‘Ransome’, in favour of ‘Anikulapo’. He also founded his infamous commune Kalakuta Republic and his nightclub, Shrine. His band, who had become Nigeria ’70 in LA, now became Africa ’70 (later to become Egypt ’80). Fela had now become a bonafide star who consistently criticised Nigerian military rule. This lead to his arrest on over 200 occasions and ultimately to the death of his mother, who was thrown out of a window during a 1,000 strong military attack on his Kalakuta commune in 1977. Fela himself suffered a fractured skull and all his instruments and master tapes were destroyed. Fela’s response to this attack? Not only writing ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Unknown Soldier’, but he delivered his mother’s coffin to the residence of Nigerian army general and later president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in protest.
So over two decades after his death, the question remains, what does Fela mean to young Africans today?
When asked about her thoughts, Ify, 24 stated, “Fela makes me feel joy. As soon as that talking drum beat hits my ears I can’t help but to dance, even when I’m in the car, which makes me a danger on the road!” She goes on to say that Fela reminds her of home as her father would listen to his music, but always used to say that “only people who smoked ‘Indian hemp’ listened to this type of music” and then would proceeded to turn it off! This is indicative of Fela’s controversial nature as a whole, though his music and message was revered by many; his lifestyle raised many eyebrows adding to his rebellious status. Tevin, 26, who by contrast is originally Ghanaian, mentioned that though he listened to Fela growing up he wasn’t necessarily privy to everything he was about. He had a vague knowledge of his activism but that was the extent of it. Tara, 24, expressed that she didn’t really start listening to Fela until she was in secondary school (high school) as his music wasn’t really played around her. But she always knew who he was due to her own Nigerian roots. “I think someone created a CD for me and a song by his son Femi Kuti was on it and I really liked it. So I thought, let me start listening to the dad.” Her initial thoughts? “That his songs were very long, and why do I have to wait 3 minutes before he starts singing?!” But as time went on she understood the fact that, “Fela’s original afrobeat is so different to what we call [Afrobeats] today…and I just wasn’t used to hearing individual instruments, which I loved”. To Omotara’s point, it’s only recently we’ve started seeing large artists such as Burna Boy beginning to adopt the original Afrobeat sound. With his smash hit ‘Ye’ sampling Fela and the Afrika 70’s 1977 song, ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’.
Hearing from everyday African millennials who have danced to Fela from childhood; those who have listened to their uncles argue passionately about African politics at the end of family gatherings, (Guinness in hand). Or even the Africans who have heard his name through the grapevine, but are yet to be formally introduced to the man himself, show that Fela’s impact has been far reaching. A 2011 news article described him as ‘Che Guevara and Bob Marley rolled into one person’; however such comparisons do Fela no justice. Fela Kuti was a force of nature who literally danced to the beat of his own drum; vehemently rejected social norms, and waged war against the establishment; pioneering an art form which has brought Africa to the centre stage of the music scene in the process.
Are you into Fela Kuti inspired vibes? Check out our Burna Boy by GhanaMade playlist and feel the themes of legend in the new era of Afrobeats!