Fela Kuti, or Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti (October 15, 1938 – August 2, 1997), was a highly influential multi-instrumentalist, musician, and political dissident. Born to an upper-middle-class family in Abeokuta, Nigeria, his anti-political lyrics would often get him into a lot of serious trouble with the Nigerian authorities which were under a strict dictatorship during the 60s and 70s.
He is regarded as a pioneer of the Afrobeat movement, which fused jazz and funk with traditional African music. But what makes him a true musician is his fight against anti-colonialism, his country’s corrupt regime, racism, inequality, and war.
Best remembered for his afro jazz classic, “Zombie,” an audaciously sharp criticism against the Nigerian military and their “zombie-like” soldiers, mocking them for blindly obeying orders from corrupted authorities.
This sense of natural non-conformism was most likely influenced by his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, whose feministic and anti-colonial worldviews motivated the young Fela to make politically driven music. He was also influenced by human rights activist Malcolm X, the importance of Pan-Africanism, Black Power, and unity of the African nations.
In 1979, he formed a political party called Movement of the People and ran for presidential elections twice, before being banned from the ballot.
His father was a preacher and a president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, while his three brothers pursued a career in medicine. His strong political views and the fact that Ransome was regarded as a “slave’s name” led him to change his name in the 70s and adopt the middle name “Anikulapo” which meant “to have death in his pocket.”
Fela, a true musical rebel going against his father’s wishes, decided to switch to Trinity College of Music, lasting only three days in med school after arriving in London. He formed the Koola Lobitos, a sizable band of trumpet players, percussionists and multi-instrumentalists, in which they introduced a totally new sound of jazz music mixed with traditional Nigerian music.
They were praised for their outstanding performance and groundbreaking rhythms which paved the way for a new musical genre while sparking political awareness through a constant criticism against Nigeria’s non-democratic policy.
During the 60s, Fela and his new band, “Africa 70”, met the musical legend Ginger Baker in London’s Flamingo Club.
The result from this meeting of musical giants resulted in “Live!” a collaborative album which was recorded by EMI Nigeria when they played together at Abbey Road in front of 150 people.
The famous collaboration had many plans, but it abruptly ended when a friend of Fela’s was caught with a drum filled with marijuana and Baker’s address along with it.
After many successful tours and gigs in London and the US, Fela returned to his country and formed a commune in Lagos in 1970. It was called the “Kalakuta Republic,” the name taken from a cell-block he was jailed in. In 1970, Fela Kuti declared the Kalakuta Republic independent from Nigeria.
The humble commune was beyond the grasp of the Nigerian authorities, with housing for his friends and family, a clinic and, of course, a recording studio. He also founded a nightclub called “The Shrine” in 1971, in which he played countless gigs and promoted Pan-Africanism and anti-government thinking among the people. Many famous musicians like James Brown and Geraldo Pino came to the nightclub to hear the afro jazz wonder.
The hit album “Zombie” which mocked the Nigerian soldiers for not thinking critically but blindly following orders, garnered much attention. It was Fela Kuti’s biggest insult to the Nigerian Army and General Olusegun Obasanjo. A week after the end of the World Festival of Black Arts in Nigeria, in which he promoted the album, over 1,000 Nigerian soldiers marched into the Kalakuta Republic and violently attacked and raped anyone who stood in their way.
The siege started on February 18, 1977, with the Nigerian soldiers setting fire to the generator which electrified the fence. The commune was well-built, and the Nigerian authorities didn’t have access to it. The soldiers stormed the houses and set them on fire to drive the occupants out.
Fela Kuti was nearly beaten to death, and his studio, recording equipment, and his band’s master tapes were burned. When the soldiers captured his mother, they threw the elderly woman off a building, severely wounding her, and soon after, she died in a coma from the injuries.
This was an incredible emotional blow to Fela Kuti. The event would cement his vitriol-filled hate toward the Nigerian government, and he would continue to spread his anti-militaristic worldviews.
Fela Kuti responded to the assault with writing the song “Coffin for Head of State” and delivered his mother’s coffin to General Obasanjo’s doorstep at the military barracks in Lagos. The newspaper “Daily Times” which was in Obasanjo’s pocket, didn’t mention anything about the brutal attacks.
Additionally, the Nigerian soldiers confiscated all newspaper stories which mentioned the assault on Kalakuta, concealing the whole horrible event away from the public.
The Nigerian government grew tired of the continuous mockery from Fela Kuti’s music, and he was constantly beaten, jailed over 200 times, and his music was banned in Nigeria. This didn’t stop him, and he continued to write even more lyrics, producing over 50 albums, along with bootlegs and recording sessions.
He abhorred playing the song a second time during rehearsals, preferring to leave the song as it was, with energetic rhythms and a variety of instruments and vocals.
Although he hid the fact that he had AIDS, Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. An astounding 1 million people gathered at his funeral at Tafawa Balewa Square and his home in Kalakuta which was repaired throughout the years.
Fela was more than just a virtuoso musician. Many legendary artists throughout the world have been directly influenced by his music, such as funk legend Roy Ayers, Brian Eno, Yugoslavian musician Rambo Amadeus, hip-hop legend Pete Rock, George Clinton, and countless others.
The author and African Music critic, John Collins, praised his unending fight for freedom and equality, commenting on his legacy, “His songs went much further than protest singers such as Bob Dylan, James Brown or Bob Marley.”