Biographies

Fela Kuti Biography’ All You Need To Know About Afrobeat Pioneer

Story Highlights

  • Fela Kuti Biography
  • Musical Influence
  • Activism

Africa Facts Zone presents the biography of Afrobeat Pioneer & Legend Fela Kuti. Byname of Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, also called Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, (born October 15, 1938, Abeokuta, Nigeria—died August 2, 1997, Lagos), also professionally known as Fela Kuti, or simply Fela, 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”.

Fela Kuti Biography' All You Need To Know About Afrobeat Pioneer

Fela Kuti Biography

Fela Kuti was born 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, were 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.
Fela Kuti Biography' All You Need To Know About Afrobeat Pioneer
Fela Kuti Biography' All You Need To Know About Afrobeat Pioneer
Fela’s Mother

Fela Kuti attended Abeokuta Grammar School. Later he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine. In London, his rebellious and artistic spirit came out, and he decided to study music instead of medicine at the Trinity College of Music, the trumpet being his preferred instrument.

 While there, the Afrobeat Pioneer 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 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.

In 1967, Fela Kuti went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat a combination of highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music.] 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.

After Fela and his band returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed The Afrika ’70, as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. The Afrobeat Pioneer 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 Kuti set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot, and later the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated at personalized Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honor 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, he later 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.

In 1977, Fela Kuti 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.

On this day in 1977, Fela was released on bail after 11 days in custody following the brutal Sacking of Kalakuta. Here he is, heavily scarred and with his leg in plaster, but his spirit was not broken! Fela could not be silenced and his legacy lives on today.

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, the then residence of the heads of state of various Military Governments in Nigeria,  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.

In 1978, The Afrobeat Pioneer & Legend 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 adopted a rotation system of keeping 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 rumors 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, Fela Kuti 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 idea that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African and must be claimed as such. The Afrobeat Pioneer stated 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.” 

In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari’s government, of which Fela 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, the Afrobeat Pioneer & Legend 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; the title of the composition, as Barrett noted, 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. Rumors were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.

Musical Influence

The musical style of Fela Kuti 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. Fela once stated that “there would be no Afrobeat, without Tony Allen”.

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.

Fela’s 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. Fela refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa.

Fela Kuti 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. 

As Fela’s 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 the Hank Bordowitz analysis Noise of the World, Fela stated: “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.”

Fela’s 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 spoke of a 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.” 

 

Activism

Fela Kuti was a political giant in Africa from the 1970s until his death. The Afrobeat Pioneer & Legend 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 political problems facing Africa in the 70s, if not the worst; and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries of the time.  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.

Fela with Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe!

Kuti’s open vocalization of the violent and oppressive regime controlling Nigeria did not come without consequence. Fela Kuti 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.

The African culture he believed in also included men having many wives (polygamy). 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 sleeps 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 a 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.

A fan vaults through the window of Fela Kuti’s home in Nigeria | National Geographic March 1979 | ph. Bruno Barbey

Fela Kuti: Death

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 Fela 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. More than one million people attended the funeral of the Afrobeat Pioneer & Legend 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.

Fela Kuti Children

Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children

Femi Kuti:

Yeni Kuti

Seun Kuti

Fela Kuti Famous Quotes

“Music is a spiritual thing, you don’t play with music.”

“Music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit.”

“I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”.

 

Source Credit: Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fela_Kuti

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