Life and history of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost. Kuti was arrested 200 times and endured numerous beatings, but continued to write political lyrics, producing 50 albums before he died on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria.
During the height of his popularity, he was often hailed as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers.
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, Ogun State, 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. Fela is a first cousin to the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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, 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 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, he went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat. 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. Soon afterwards, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his band were in the US without work permits. The band immediately performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.
Activism and Music
In 1963, Kuti formed a band called Koola Lobitos. He would later change the band’s name to Afrika 70, and again to Egypt 80. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered and popularized his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Afrobeat is a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music. In addition to their distinctive mixed-genre style, Kuti’s songs were considered unique in comparison to more commercially popular songs due to their length—ranging anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour long. Kuti sang in a combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Kuti’s rebellious song lyrics established him as political dissident. As a result, Afrobeat has come to be associated with making political, social and cultural statements about greed and corruption. One of Kuti’s songs, “Zombie,” questions Nigerian soldiers’ blind obedience to carrying out orders. Another, “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” seeks to empower the disenfranchised masses to rise up against the government.
In 1989, three years after touring the United States, Kuti released an album called Beasts of No Nation. The album cover portrays world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (among others) as cartoon vampires baring bloody fangs.
Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost to Kuti, who was arrested by the Nigerian government 200 times, and was subject to numerous beatings that left him with lifelong scars. Rather than abandon his cause, however, Kuti used these experiences as inspiration to write more lyrics. He produced roughly 50 albums over the course of his musical career, including songs for Les Negresses under the pseudonym Sodi in 1992.
The 1980s Era
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 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. Rumours were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.
Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. Roughly 1 million people attended his funeral procession, which began at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at Kuti’s home, Kalakuta, in Ikeja, Nigeria, where he was laid to rest in the front yard.
He Lives After Death
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-Broadway biographically 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.
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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 rumoured to be in production 2010, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, but has not eventuated.
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