1938-1997. Pianist, saxophonist, pot-smoking statesman. The James Brown, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan of Nigeria. A classically-trained musician, he became politicised by both West African funk and the US Black Power movement of the 60s. His Africa 70 and Egypt 80 Afrobeat orchestras inspired Brian Eno and David Byrne, and was a thorn in the side of despots.

"If you want to be a musician, you have to listen to jazz" - to his son Femi, who now carries on the family business.

A real enigma, Fela was part James Brown, part Black power Leader, and part Voodoo witch doctor. The charimatic band leader criticised the government of Nigeria on a regular basis, and thus spent jailtime everytime another regime would take power.
He calls his music Afrobeat.

Born Oct. 15, 1938. Died Aug. 2, 1997, Nigeria. His original middle name was Ransome, but he later changed it to Anikulapo, which means "he who holds Death in his pocket". He attended Trinity Music College in Oxford, England from 1959 to 1962 and traveled extensively as he formed his philosophy of political protest against the abuses of Nigeria's various and sundry corrupt dictatorships.

By the 1970s, his passionate, hypnotic music had a powerful impact on Nigerian politics and made him a target for government retaliation, as evidenced by his frequent stints in jail and the burning of his house in 1977. He never let up in his fight against corruption, and even used his mother's corpse and coffin as part of a protest against a Nigerian dictator in 1979.

Fela was well known for his legendary promiscuity and his 27 wives, one of which bore his son, Femi Kuti. Despite the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, Fela considered condoms and the threat of disease to be tools of a white conspiracy to keep blacks from reproducing, so he defiantly engaged in unprotected sex and eventually died from the disease.

Olufela Oludotun Olusegun Ransome-Kuti aka Fela Anikulapo Kuti (born 15 October 1938 - died 2 August 1997) was a Nigerian musician who was popular outside Nigeria for his unique musical style, and within Nigeria for his opposition to government and its corruption, refusal to be cowed by the military, and unorthodox lifestyle.

His initial claim to fame is his family. He comes from a prominent family of high achievers. Both his parents were teachers at a time when teaching was a prestigious occupation. His father Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers while his mother Chief Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was the first female student of the Abeokuta Grammar School. She was a fearless woman who stood up to the British colonial government and the traditional ruler of her town, even forcing him to temporarily abdicate. Like many of her generation, she viewed the USSR and socialism favorably, even receiving the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970. Despite all this, the things she is most known for in Nigeria are being the first woman to drive a car in the country and being the mother of Fela and his brothers, Beko and Olikoye who were accomplished medical doctors, with Olikoye even being Federal Minister of Health. He is also cousins with Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's only Nobel Laureate.

Given the family's achievements, it is obvious that they were quite driven and obstinate. Fela was meant to study medicine, like his brothers. However, while at Trinity College, Cambridge, he switched to music. He was classically trained and favored the trumpet. Along with the extemely talented drummer Tony Allen, he formed a band - the Koola Lobitos - which played jazz and highlife. He created afrobeat which was, like highlife, a combining of western instruments and West African musical styles. He allegedly decided to create the afrobeat style after conversations with a member of the Black Panthers - Sandra Smith - made him realize he was not playing African music. Although, I don't get how playing western instruments was African music. Another account states that he changed his musical style because his mother told him to play music his people could understand. Given that she was upper crust Yoruba, who despite their strong adherence to their culture, still idolize western culture, I find the story rather implausible. It is also possible his decision was commercial, since he wasn't particularly successful as a highlife musician. In any case, he changed his musical style, along with his lifestyle and probably his philosophy.

The change he introduced in his music was the introduction of African elements like the use of indigenous instruments and singing styles. He had the conventional short songs lasting between three and seven minutes and longer songs lasting up to 20 minutes. Some of the long songs (Upside Down, 1976) had extended instrumental solos. But the more African ones had lyrics, usually excoriating the government (Sorrow, Tears & Blood, 1977) or society (International Thief Thief, 1980) or just bawdy ones about sex (Shakara, 1972). The songs seem extemporized, a bit like rapping. But I think they are authentically African because there are Hausa singers - notably Musa Dankwairo, Mamman Shata and Abubakar Ladan (who has a book length song on the need for African unity) who sang in the same way. They are probably the last descendants of the griots of old.

Being a musician, it was easy for him to abandon the sober lifestyle of his parents and siblings. And, boy! did he carry that to the extreme. His family name is Ransome-Kuti. He dropped the Ransome because it is an English word, thus a slave name. He replaced it with Aníkúlápó, meaning "he who carries death in a bag". Given how non-violent he was and how many kids he had, the name was not appropriate although he claimed to have chosen it because he was the master of his destiny and he would choose when to die. The son of an Anglican Reverend, he abandoned Christianity, because it was not African. He named his club The Shrine and has a skit where he tells a tax collector that his shrine is a religious establishment which should enjoy the same privileges that a church does. He also has a song (Shuffering and Shmiling, 1978) where he mocks black people for following religions headed by non Africans in the persons of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Imam in Makkah (I suppose he did not know Islam does not have a head other than Allah or perhaps Muhammad. He would have been better off mocking the Shiites, since they have Grand Ayatollahs). He sang a song (Gentleman, 1973) mocking the African penchant for thinking European dress was professional thus requiring people to wear 3-piece woolen suits in the heat and humidity of places like Lagos. He often performed on stage in underwear or maybe even a loincloth. A man who was educated in Oxford, he sang and spoke in pidgin English. While pidgin is a lingua franca in West Africa, it is a language of the lower class and the uneducated. I dislike it, speak it badly (and people make good natured fun of me for that) while loving the songs that are sung in it. His rejection of the conventional and Western, went so far as sabotaging himself. In 1972, Paul McCartney saw the band play live in Lagos and described it as the best live performance he had ever seen. Paul offered to make a record with Fela. In a display of ego and bad manners, Fela went on stage and accused Paul of wanting to steal black man's music. That was the same way he pissed on an offer by Motown Records to produce or license some of his songs. One way of looking at these antics is to say he was not after money or was not a capitalist. But it is also evidence that he probably believed in that stupid theory which holds that black Africans invented everything, especially Western civilization but had the fruits of their labor stolen. He was obviously not enamored of the trappings of wealth. He once bought the type of Mercedes Benz limousine used by the Nigerian head of state, sawed off the roof and had it used as a trash collector.

While the trash car stunt was (an ineffectual in my view) mockery of the pomposity that public office feels entitled to in Nigeria, it was also an example of the deserved disrespect Fela had for the government and its officials. He had a pet donkey named Yakubu, after Yakubu Gowon, the military ruler from 1966 to 1973. Nothing happened to him for that because Gowon was a gentleman. It is a testament to how civil liberties have declined since then because in 2016, a man was arrested by our counterintelligence outfit, the Department of State Services for naming his dog Buhari, after Muhammadu Buhari who was the sitting president. Buhari had been a military ruler in the 1980s and had locked up Fela for an unrelated issue. Gowon's tolerance was rather unusual because the next two regimes to come after him brutalized Fela. The twin regimes of Murtala/Obasanjo unleashed the military on the populace. In 1977, he released a song titled Zombie which was mocking the military for being brainless, like zombies. The government invaded his house with soldiers which at the time was called Kalakuta Republic (he had declared independence from Nigeria in solidarity with Biafra). During the invasion, his old and revered mother either fell or was pushed off a balcony. She died as a result of that. He sang a very touching song - (Unknown Soldier, 1979) - where he laments her death and points the finger at Obasanjo (♫with his big fat stomach♫) and his deputy Yaradua (♫with his neck like ostrich♫). The song was called Unknown Soldier because the government released an insulting and transparently false statement saying the incident was carried out by unknown soldiers. This same tired and false playbook was rolled out in October 2020 during the #ENDSARS protests when young people were massacred at Lekki tollgate. Kalakuta Republic was closed by the government and title to the land revoked. This is what led to the opening of its successor, The Shrine.

The Shrine was both household and workplace. Other than its fame as a club, it was notorious for its liberal attitude to marijuana and sex. Consuming marijuana is a crime in Nigeria. Fela defiantly smoked a giant spliff on stage. He had 27 women who were once his wives but whom he divorced at once because he did not believe in marriage. He kept them on though, probably because quite a few of them were part of his musical act. Having so many sexual partners, some of whom themselves were probably as generous with their favors as he was with his meant that his household was a potpourri of STDs. Fela got HIV and died from AIDS complications in 1997.

His impressive discography of 40 studio albums and 5 live ones is probably incomplete because he stopped recording albums in the 1990s only performing live at his club. Also, many of the albums have one or two songs, and even though the songs could be longer than 10 minutes each, the frequent album releases (5 albums in 1975, 7 in 1976 and 4 in 1977) seems like just noding for numbers.

Fela was a talented and successful musician. He was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021 but despite having one of the highest number of votes, he was not admitted. There was a lot of venting online by Nigerians.

2 of his children Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti have continued his legacy and are successful musicians.


The Paul McCartney Incident
Pictures and a colorful website
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snub
Memorial by a local newspaper

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