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Born in 1938 as Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, his parents’ backgrounds were as diverse as his destiny. His father, an Anglican priest and teacher, and his mother, a fierce anti-colonial activist, laid the foundation for a life unlike any other. Endowed with relative parental affluence, his youth bore the imprint of comfort, enriched by access to Nigeria’s finest education. Enrolling at Abeokuta Grammar School, he followed in his brothers’ footsteps and voyaged to Britain in the hope of pursuing medical education.
Yet, London’s magnetic allure steered him towards a trajectory different from those of his two elder brothers, Olikoye and Beko. Within the walls of the Trinity College of Music, Fela studied the trumpet.
The trumpet was Fela’s favoured instrument, influenced by Nigeria’s prominent highlife band leaders who were trumpeters themselves. Notably, figures like Rex Jim Lawson and Victor Olaiya served as early inspirations to him.
It was while in England that he met drummer, Tony Allen, who later joined him in a new group called Koola Lobitos and drawing inspiration from James Brown, pioneered Afrobeat, a genre that fuses traditional African rhythms with jazz, funk, and other Western musical styles.
Prior to the emergence of Afrobeat, genres like Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul held sway. Highlife music, with its origins in Ghana and widespread popularity across West Africa, reigned supreme in the musical landscape of Lagos upon Fela Kuti’s return to a newly independent Nigeria in 1963.
Fela joined the National Broadcasting Corporation, although his enthusiasm for the job was minimal. With the Koola Lobitos, they produced recordings in which his trumpet exhibited lyrical finesse but lacked interpretive vigour However, his singing emerged as innovative, featuring discursive and rational qualities distinct from the prevalent highlife vocal style of the era.
While Fela’s music garnered considerable acclaim in Nigeria, he remained convinced that his talents were yet to be fully recognised. Fueling his determination, he embarked on an audacious journey to Ghana, guided by the experienced Nigerian producer, Benson Idonije. During his time in Ghana, a fortuitous encounter unfolded with a promoter named ‘Duke’ – a Ghanaian who had transplanted himself to California. United by a shared vision, they hatched plans for an ambitious tour of the United States.
In the late 1960s, the Koola Lobitos lineup embarked on a journey to the US, resulting in recordings known as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions. During his US tour, Fela Kuti’s path crossed with Sandra Izsadore, a Black Panthers Party member, whose transformative ideas reshaped the very essence of his music. Under her influence, Fela was introduced to the Black Panthers and the revolutionary works of Malcom X and Angela Davis. These influential encounters ignited a profound political awakening in him, leading him to wield his music as a potent tool for catalysing social change
A seismic transformation took place, and Fela Kuti’s music evolved into a tapestry of contagious rhythms, extensive instrumental interludes, and lyrics that spoke to the soul of societal issues. From this creative crucible emerged the Afrika ’70, a vessel for themes that resonated at society’s core. It was during this juncture that he chose to shed his former surname, Ransome-Kuti, and adopt “Anikulapo-Kuti” instead, a name that translates to “one who holds death in his pouch,” an emblem of invulnerability. Embracing this unique persona, Fela referred to himself as the “Abami eda,” the enigmatic one who defied conventions.
Upon Fela’s return to Nigeria in 1970, he commissioned a sanctuary, located at 14 Agege Motor Road, Idi-Oro, Mushin, Lagos that accommodated his family and band. It also included a free health clinic and recording facility, nurturing the birth of his distinct sound. Years later, the place was rechristened Kalakuta Republic. “Kalakuta” was a riff on a prison cell named “Calcutta”, where Fela had once been confined.
Fela later declared his commune independent from the state ruled by Nigeria’s military junta. He began recording politicised dance music, still steeped in the James Brown idiom but increasingly laced with African elements. The Afro-Spot, a vibrant nightclub, sprung to life in the heart of Lagos in 1971, becoming a hub for Fela’s magnetic performances.
Amidst the Kalakuta streets, a defiant shift unfolded, wresting liberty from the grip of a repressive regime. Within its walls, cannabis smoke billowed freely, a symbol of newfound liberation, while candid conversations about sex and intimacy reverberated through the community. Abami Eda’s political activism was focused on the corrupt and repressive military regime of the time.
Fela’s initial inspiration for the original Afrika Shrine, though now somewhat forgotten, remains a pivotal touchstone that echoes powerfully in the present-day New Afrika Shrine. When he inaugurated his club in 1972, Fela drew on the blueprint of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club situated in Ibadan. The Mbari, a place he intimately acquainted himself with in the mid-1960s, was established in the wake of Nigeria’s newly-won independence from Britain in 1961.
It functioned as both an entertainment hub and a crucible of cultural and political discourse, where young Nigerians converged with optimism to envision the nation’s post-colonial trajectory. Remarkably, Fela’s famous cousin, Wole Soyinka, co-founded Mbari after a stint in London, where he studied and shared lodgings with Fela. The legacy of Fela’s inspiration endures, intricately woven into the vibrant fabric of the New Afrika Shrine.
Fela also did not shy away from participating in party politics. In fact, in 1979, he founded the Movement of the People (MOP), a political party with the goal of bringing about societal change. However, conflicts with the government led to its inactivity. MOP promoted Nkrumahism and Africanism. In 1981, he renamed his Afrika ’70 band to the Egypt ’80 band. This band aimed to emphasise that Egyptian civilisation belongs to Africa, reflecting Kuti’s belief in the African heritage and knowledge. In 1983, he ran unsuccessfully for president.
In the course of his illustrious career, Fela and his band forged an exceptional path with record-shattering hits like “Vagabonds in Power (V.I.P)”, “Coffin for Head of State”, “Beasts of No Nation”, and “International Thief Thief (I.T.T.)” , to name a few. But it was the resounding impact of “Zombie” that truly shook the foundations. This song, a poignant critique likening the Nigerian military and government to mindless zombies, struck a nerve. It not only infuriated then Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo but also pushed his military administration to the brink of confrontation. In this defiant anthem, Fela’s voice echoes with the unapologetic call for accountability, capturing a defining moment in his legacy of challenging authority.
In an unprecedented show of force, the military government launched a ruthless assault on his residence, spearheaded by a formidable force of approximately one thousand heavily armed soldiers. The shocking culmination arrived on 18 February, 1977, when Fela’s cherished compound was engulfed in flames, and reduced to ashes. During this harrowing episode, Fela himself faced brutal mistreatment, while his elderly mother, Funmilayo, reportedly endured the horrifying ordeal of being cast from a second-storey window. Tragically, she slipped into a coma, battling for life for nearly eight agonising weeks before succumbing to her injuries.
A year later and in a resolute act of defiance, Fela undertook a daring step – he entered into marriage with 28 women. This assembly encompassed his dancers, composers, and singers, collectively erecting a bulwark against the groundless allegations of abduction levied by authorities. This matrimony stood for him, not only as a tribute to surviving the tragic assault on Kalakuta Republic but also in granting honour to those who became his beloved wives.
By rejecting the vestiges of colonialism, Fela fervently embraced his indigenous heritage, casting the Afro-Spot aside to unveil the transformative masterpiece, the Afrika Shrine. Within those hallowed walls, Fela assumed the mantle of a spiritual trailblazer, guiding a movement for change that resonated far beyond the surface.
But Fela Kuti’s legacy transcends mere musical brilliance; it encompasses his very human imperfections. In addition to openly advocating the use of ‘igbo’ with the belief that “the God of Africa created this herb to enlighten his people,” his sexual indiscretions, including maintaining relationships with multiple partners and publicly showcasing his harem of young women throughout Lagos, are integral to this narrative – an aspect of his story that cannot be overlooked. Tragically, Fela’s lifestyle choices ultimately resulted in his contracting HIV, which played a role in his succumbing to HIV-related complications in 1997.
This intricate canvass defined Fela’s contradictions, underscoring his remarkable strengths, alongside his all-too-human frailties. However, his memory is now celebrated for the extraordinary life he led. He could have dwelled in opulence, yet he chose solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed. With unyielding conviction, he waged his battles to the very core of his being.
A Broadway production titled “Fela!” premiered in 2008 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It is a musical based on the life and art of this Nigerian legend. The production showcased his music, his activism, and his complex personality, giving audiences a glimpse into his life and the political and social issues he confronted.
In 2012, Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State initiated the transformation of Fela Kuti’s former compound into the Kalakuta Republic Museum. Opening on 15 October, 2012, it displays Fela’s belongings, instruments, art, and includes a restaurant and hotel.
In 2017, Lagos Governor Akinwunmi Ambode unveiled a fiberglass monument of Fela in central Lagos to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The statue depicts Fela in his iconic gold attire, celebrating his musical, activist, and political contributions.
Just as the Shrine drew in a constellation of visiting musical legends
like Bootsy Collins, James Brown’s bandmates, Paul McCartney, and the legendary Stevie Wonder during Fela’s heyday – the allure persists unabated. Today, its successor, the New Afrika Shrine, continues to exert its magnetic pull, attracting a contemporary array of luminaries that have included Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Skepta, Rita Marley, Bono, Anthony Joshua, and even Naomi Campbell. Notably, in 2018, the club welcomed none other than President Macron of France, who rekindled memories of his earlier diplomatic visits to Lagos in 2002, during a captivating evening at the venue.
From inspiring a Broadway production to music and art exhibitions in his honour Fela’s enduring legacy continues to inspire individuals to challenge injustice and embrace freedom. His resolute fight for liberty continues to resonate and motivate people worldwide, guided by the belief that “Lean liberty is better than fat slavery.”
Fela lived an anarchist lifestyle and was never a man of immense wealth, yet his stature remains unparalleled, transcending sports figures, music icons, academics, businessmen, and even past and present heads of state – both domestically and internationally. His enduring legacy serves as a potent reminder that our focus should be on noble ideals, rather than being ensnared by the allure of wealth and primitive acquisitions.
Since 1998, an annual music festival named Felabration has been held in honour of the memory and to celebrate this quintessential Nigerian icon. This year, the event will take place from Monday, 9th October to Sunday, 15th October at the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, Lagos.
Rest on Abami Eda and be rest assured that thousands led by Femi, Yeni, Seun, Kunle, Motunrayo, Shalewa and Omorinmade are keeping the flame burning. May your legacy ignite the dawn of a rejuvenated Nigeria, where the inherent dignity of every man is restored.
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