Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born on 15 October 1938, & died on 2 August 1997. He’s professionally known as Fela Kuti or Fela. He was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and human rights activist. At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers.”
Age: 58 years old
Years Active: 1958 – 1997
He was born to Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, the modern-day capital of Ogun State in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, then a city in the British Colony of Nigeria, into an upper-middle-class family. His mother, Chief 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. He is the first cousin to the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 1963, he moved back to the newly independent Federation of 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.
1980’s & 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 best in us.” 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. Rumors were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.
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, he married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).
The musical style of him is called Afrobeat, a style he largely created, which is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian highlife, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan”. Tony Allen ( Fela’s drummer of twenty years) was instrumental in the creation of Afrobeat. He once 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.
He’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. His 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 his music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. His 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. His main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet, electric guitar, and took the occasional drum solo. He refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa. 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. He attempted to make a movie but lost all the materials to the fire that was set to his house by the military government in power. He thought that art, and thus his own music, should have political meaning.
As his musical career developed, so too did his political influence throughout the world. In turn, 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. In an interview found in Hank Bordowitz’s Noise of the World, Fela 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.”
His music and a strong sense of sharing humanist and activist ideas grew from the environment he was in. In interview footage found in Faces of Africa on CGTN Africa, he speaks of comparison between English love songs and his own music: “Yes, if you are in England the music can be an instrument of enjoyment. You can sing about love, you can sing about whom you are going to bed next. But in my own environment, my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system on our people. So there is no music enjoyment. There is nothing like love. There is something like a struggle for people’s existence.”
He was a political giant in Africa from the 1970s 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 did not come without consequence. He was arrested on over 200 different occasions and spent time in jail, 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, he 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 behavior; 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 canceled, first by Daily Times then by Punch. Many 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, he 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. American Black Power movement also influenced Fela’s political views; he supported Pan-Africanism and socialism and called for a united, democratic African republic. Examples of the famous African leaders he supported during his lifetime include Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso.
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 associated with 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.
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-Broadwaybiographically 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 rumored to be in production 2010, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, but has not eventuated.