The Man Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Ogun State on 15 October 1938, to a middle-class family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a famous front line activist in the anti-colonial movement and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a Protestant minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.
His musical talents and radical nature manifested early, so it was no surprise that Fela went to London in 1958 to study music at Trinity College of Music. While there he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a style of music that was a fusion of jazz with West African highlife. In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States. While there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Isadore) a partisan of the Black Panther Party which would heavily influence his music and political views. Indeed Fela experienced a political awakening that later reflected in a total transformation of his world view, his music and the place of Africa and the black man in history. His early years and his mother’s political activism had exposed him to some degree to the fight for political independence from colonialism, and especially memorable for the young Fela was being introduced by his mother to the late Kwame Nkrumah, the guiding light of Ghana’s independence and the leading advocate for Pan-Africanism and The Organisation of African Unity (O.A.U).
If this early exposure could be said to introduce Fela to politics, his nine (9) month sojourn in Los Angeles completed his political education and gave birth to the musical phenomenon and political maverick that changed the face of African music forever. In his own words “For the first time I heard things I had never heard before about Africa!” Fela told friends he learnt more about Africa in Los Angeles than he had learnt in Lagos and insisted that “The whole atmosphere of Black Revolution changed me, my consciousness, my thinking, my perception of things. I was educated” He later said in an interview “I was exposed to awareness. It started me thinking. I saw how everything worked there. I realized I had no country. I decided to come back and try to make my country African” These experiences in America made Fela more radical politically and his new awareness also reflected in his music which displayed a new aggression. Before he left Los Angeles, Afrobeat music was born. The first generally acclaimed afrobeat song which gave birth to the genre was ‘My Lady Frustration’ part of a recording available today on the compilation.
“The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions”
Fela and his band, renamed ‘Africa ‘70’ returned to Nigeria. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for many connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. Fela set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, named the Afro-Spot and then the Africa Shrine, where he performed regularly. Fela also changed his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning ‘he who carries death in his pocket”), stating that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name. The recordings continued, and the music became more politically motivated. Fela’s music became very popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. In fact, he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local language spoken are very diverse and numerous. As popular as Fela’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was also very unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic were frequent.
In 1977, Fela and the Afrika 70 released the hit 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 with the people and infuriated the government, setting of a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed if it were not 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 main army barrack in Lagos and write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier”, referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by Unknown Soldier.
Fela and his band then took residence in Crossroads Hotel as the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune. In 1978, Fela married 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers and singers to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. The year was also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which was riot 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 he lost a lot of his band members due to various issues.
Despite the massive setbacks, Fela was determined to come back. He formed his own political party, which he called Movement of the People. In 1979 he 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 and continued to record albums and tour the country. He further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute polemic titled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief).”
In 1984, he was again attacked by the Military government, who jailed him on a dubious charge of currency smuggling. His case was taken up by several human-rights groups, and after 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release he divorced his remaining wives, saying that “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness.” Once again, Fela continue 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. His album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually he stopped releasing albums altogether, even though he continued to perform live at the shrine and regale his audience with several new songs which he never released. The battle against military corruption in Nigeria was taken 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. On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health stunned the nation by announcing his younger brother’s death a day earlier from health complications brought on by AIDS. More than a million people ironically including many from the armed forces and police attended Fela’s funeral in Lagos. It is not an exaggeration to say that he remains one of Africa’s most influential figures and a universally acclaimed musician, whose music has spread across the globe. His musical career was matchless and very prolific with over 70 albums and over 200 songs. A new Africa Shrine has opened since Fela’s death under the supervision of his eldest child Yeni and son Femi Kuti who with his band ‘The Positive Force’ is generally considered the undisputed king of Afrobeat today. Through them, and in the memory of his teeming grateful fans worldwide, FELALIVES!
By the FOC