On August 2, 1997, the world bid farewell to Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His doctor brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, announced the day before that he had died of AIDS-related complications. Anikulapo, the man who carries death in his pouch, had succumbed to the indispensable reality of death. Yesterday, Monday, August 2, 2021, marked the 24th anniversary of that tragic day.
Reminiscing on his lifetime, Fela’s eldest daughter, Yeni Kuti, took to her Instagram page and wrote: “2nd of August! It’s been 24 years Fela since you left us. You are missed but your legacy continues in your children and grandchildren. Gone but never forgotten. You left too strong a legacy to be forgotten!!! Pix 1. When Fela was playing the trumpet. In those days. Pix 2. Fine boy no pimples. Pix 3. Testifying at the tribunal for the burning of his house in which justice has never been served and the perpetrators are still in government. FELA LIVES!!!!!”
For many young people in my Indomie-eating generation, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was that man who pioneered Afrobeat, from which Grammy-winning music acts, Burna Boy and Wizkid, draw inspiration. However, there was more to the man called “Abami Eda”. He wasn’t merely the musician who performed in his underpants on stage. He was the musician’s musician.
Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on the 15th day of October, 1938 in Abeokuta, Fela was one of the children of Chief Funmilayo and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He was educated at Abeokuta Grammar School. Defying his parents’ desire for another doctor in the family, he would head to London to study music at the Trinity College of Music, instead of medicine.
Later in 1960, Fela tied the nuptial knot with Remilekun Taylor, his first wife, the mother of Femi, Yeni, and Sola. A pronounced polygamist, in 1978 he married 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers. The marriage, according to Wikipedia, “served not only to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic but also to protect Kuti and his wives from authorities’ false claims that Kuti was kidnapping women.”
During his days as a music student in London, Fela created the band Koola Lobitos and played a fusion of jazz and highlife. When he moved back to Nigeria in 1963, he re-formed the group. He also had a stint at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation where he trained as a radio producer.
He would then rename his band Nigeria 70 (and later Africa 70), with a thematic shift from love to social issues, following his discovery of the Black Power movement while in Los Angeles, which influenced his music. Fela went on to form his recording studio, the Kalakuta Republic, and set up a nightclub which is still known today as the Afrika Shine.
Sang in Pidgin English which many found relatable, his music endeared Nigerians and Africans. Shakara (1972), Water No Get Enemy (1975), Zombie (1977), Shuffering and Shmiling (1978), and Beasts of No Nation (1989), to name a few, were among his most popular albums. In an interview on CGTN Africa’s Faces of Africa, Fela remarked that his music was impacted by his surroundings. He said: “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 the struggle for people’s existence.”
For Fela, activism ran in his blood. His mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was an anti-colonial campaigner, political leader, and women’s rights activist who was more than “the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria” as erroneously taught in history classes.
As Fela’s name became popular, he ran into trouble with the ruling government who were offended by his critical commentaries on the state of the nation. His 1977 album, Zombie, infuriated the military government. Fela had used the zombie metaphor to depict the Nigerian military’s methods. Kalakuta Republic was raided by 1,000 soldiers. They beat him mercilessly, almost killing him, and threw his elderly mother out of a window causing her fatal injuries. She never woke up from coma. Fela, in response, refused to put his mother’s coffin in the ground at her funeral, sent it to the military headquarters in Dodan Barracks in Lagos, where General Olusegun Obasanjo resided. He narrated the whole experience in a 22-minute long track, ‘Coffin For Head of State’.
Fela took his activism to another level in 1983 when he established his political party, Movement of the People (MOP). Four years earlier, his self-nomination for Nigeria’s president in the 1979 elections had been refused. For his vocal criticisms of the Muhammadu Buhari military government, he was jailed for 20 months. He was later released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida.
Undeterred by his many travails having being jailed a whopping 200 plus times, he continued to release albums with his band, Egypt 80, before he eventually called it quit. Later in 1993, Fela and four members of his Africa 70 band were arrested and charged for the murder of an electrician. Many believe the trial was a retaliation by the military regime for his opposition.
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Fela, a lot more than meets the eye. Even a 50,000-word book would be insufficient to discuss him. In his article, Tom Taylor brilliantly captures this assertion: “In truth, he was both and a hell of a lot more. Everything about him is hard to reconcile and as such very little has been. His unruly ways and huge mistakes are at odds with his largely benevolent approach, that according to his manager, sought a better humanity for all. Likewise, his musical brilliance and maniacal methods muddy the canvas of his life into even murkier tones.”