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Fela Kuti: the Man, his Message, a Cultural Icon, a Prophetic Visionary
Fela Kuti: the Man, his Message, a Cultural Icon, a Prophetic Visionary
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By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 10-06-2019

On the 15th of October 1938, Nigeria’s foremost musician, Fela Ransome Kuti was born into a middle-class family in Abeokuta, now capital of Ogun State. In 1978, he dropped his given middle name of “Ransome” which he said was a slave name, and took the name “Anikulapo” (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”).  His parents were quite influential as his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a feminine activist during the colonial era; her political activism earned her the accolades of being described as the doyen of female rights in Nigeria. She was equally regarded to as the “Mother of Africa”, especially for her role in advocating for women’s right to vote. Fela’s father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a school principal and an Anglican minister; he was also the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, a position he held until his retirement from public service in 1954. In recognition of his exploits, a hall (Kuti hall) at the University of Ibadan was named after him.

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti performs on September 13, 1986 at the “Party of Humankind” of the French Communist Party at La Courneuve in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Laurent Rebours)

Fela had two brothers, Olikoye and Beko Ransome-Kuti, who were both renowned worldwide as medical doctors and human right activists. Olikoye Kuti became the Health minister under General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime in the 1980s and he was the one who broke the news of the first AIDS case, a 14 year old girl diagnosed with HIV in Nigeria while Beko Kuti was instrumental in establishing the first human rights campaign organization in Nigeria, ‘Campaign for Democracy’, which sternly opposed the tyrannical administration of General Sani Abacha in 1993.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti started Afrobeat, which is a complex fusion of Jazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms. It is believed that the Afro-beat music has its roots in the Ghanaian highlife music, which is a bright, sunny dance music driven by horns and/or guitars. However, Fela’s style was unique and distinctive in approach. He was able to merge African-American musical styles with that of Africa. His manager was Rikki Stein, a British music industry executive who worked with Fela from 1983 till the music icon’s death in 1997. Rikki is the CEO of Kalakuta Sunrise Limited Knitting Factory Records, Partisan Records.

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Fela was a pretty skillful songwriter and an instrumentalist of different ‘shades’. He founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space which he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. His music portrayed themes like injustice, freedom, corruption and the general state of the Nigeria and by extension, Africa. His songs were mostly in Pidgin English and Yoruba. Fela’s music became so popular among the Nigerian populace and Africans at large. His decision to sing in Pidgin English was born out of a desire to see that his music is enjoyed by individuals across Africa, where the local languages spoken vary. Fela released over 200 songs and some of his popular songs include ‘Zombie’, ‘Water no get enemy’ and ‘Beast of no nation’. Fela was well known for his outlandish showmanship. Fela believed that “music is supposed to have an effect. If you’re playing music and people don’t feel something, you’re not doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must have an effect on you.” He often refers to his stage act as the ‘underground spiritual game’. Ara ra ra ra! Oro ro ro ro!

Fela’s Prophetic Vision and the Falsehood of Democracy

Fela Kuti was an outspoken man whose music resonates with Africanism and its elements – politically, culturally, socially and economically. Fela believed Africa was fast sinking into abyss, due to prevalent social vices which included inflation, corruption, mismanagement, stealing and austerity. It became ironical that the government which was supposedly believed to act in the interest of the people was doing otherwise. He believed what we were practicing in Nigeria was “democrazy” and not the supposedly people-oriented “democracy.” A major concern for Fela as rightly emphasized in one of his songs, “Teacher, Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” was electioneering in Nigeria and till date, we are yet to recover from this misdemeanor.

In the just concluded Nigerian 2019 elections, there were countless situations of massive rigging, people were intimidated from voting and sometimes, one begins to wonder how these super parties come up with “big big numbers” as Fela rightly put it in the song. The will of the people gets subverted and this has led to continued voter apathy across the country. People now have a feeling that their votes don’t count. The Afro-music visionary already saw all of these and he forewarned us all but I guess, we were too busy to hear him or probably felt unconcerned about his outcry. Fela didn’t spare the whites from his outburst as he ridiculed them for their failure to call our leaders to attention; he believed that they had a hand in all of our travails and should also be held responsible. They claim to be our teachers but from all evidences, they have not taught us all or better still, they taught us nonsense.

Fela’s Music and the Continued Decline of African Civilisation

Civilisation in Africa has been at an all-time low, all of which was predicted by the Afro-music legend, Fela. In his song, “Beasts of No Nation” which was inspired by a statement from South Africa’s President PW Botha – “This uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us”; Fela carefully examined the hypocrisy of the African leaders as he compared them to animals in human skins. The reason for the decline of African civilization is not far-fetched; it is the inability of her leaders to navigate through the emerging trends of the modern day. While fingers can be pointed to the continued failures of African leaders; it is also pertinent to state that the followers are also far from being innocent. Our leaders are not accountable and we have all failed to hold them responsible. Fela in the “Beats of No Nation” also highlighted names of several institutions (Police, Judiciary, Army) of the state (Nigeria), whose actions were against the development of the state, and by extension, Africa. Nowadays, our news headlines are filled with stories of indiscriminate killings by the military and unhealthy infiltration of the judiciary by politicians. For Africa to witness any upturn in her civilization, her priority must be set right. The world is fast changing but the dynamics of our institutions are far from being impressive. We keep doing the same thing in the same way but expect a different result. For us to gain freedom from the oppressive dominance of globalization, we have to be intentional about our technological and innovation strategies. We tend to prioritize trivial issues while concerns that directly affect the life of her citizenry are left un-discussed.

Fela’s Political Voyage

Fela announced that he would be contesting for the post of the President in 1983 on the ticket of his own party, the Movement of the People (MOP), in a bid to “clean up society like a mop” though he didn’t win. After the elections, the military overthrew the new civilian government and the attacks on Fela were on the increase again. An agency accused him of flouting the country’s currency laws because he returned with about 1000 US dollars from an overseas visit. Fela was detained for almost two years. In 1986, he was released after another coup which had occurred. But a few months later, he was charged with kidnapping one of the young women who stayed at his house, whose father was said to be a senior official in one of the security agencies. Fela was released, but later on, he was accused of murder after someone got killed in a fight at the shrine (his abode). Years later, Fela stated in an interview with Lindsay Barrett that he believed the dead man was killed and planted in the club by another branch of the security services.

Fela’s Life of Controversies

Fela’s life was not free from controversies as he is known by many as “the man who married 27 wives”. He married the entire female entourage of his band in a ceremony conducted by a Yoruba priest on 18 February 1978. Also, before his trip to the USA, Fela was neither a smoker nor a drunk. He was serious and dedicated to music. On his return to Lagos, he revealed that a young woman he had met in America (who was later to sing on one of his albums) introduced him to marijuana, and he became convinced that the use of marijuana was not taboo provided the user was ‘conscious’. This new cultivated attitude eventually contributed to his confrontations with the Nigerian government. Fela was subjected to several official and personal physical abuses. At a time, he was paraded in chains on state television in Lagos by a security agency, the Anti-Drug Squad. In all of these circumstances, Fela stood his ground and even went as far as challenging the director of the agency publicly; stating that he did smoke marijuana, an act he considers as not only his right but a privilege set apart for humanity by the “God of Africa”.

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In one of the most inhumane acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 on the government’s order. During this attack, Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; and his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The compound was set on fire and fire fighters were prevented from reaching the area. All of Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.

Fela’s Life After Death

Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeats died on August 2, 1997 from AIDS-related complications, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. About a million people graced his funeral procession, which began at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at Kuti’s home, Kalakuta, in Ikeja, Nigeria, where he was laid to rest. After Fela’s death, his house, which is also his revolutionary headquarters, was transformed into a museum. The Kalakuta Museum, as popularly called, now houses fascinating relics of this exciting and enigmatic musical figure. In celebration of this icon, people from far and wide gather every year to celebrate the power of music and the late Afrobeat legend – Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Felabration is an annual festival of music and arts that celebrates the sound, life and times of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The week-long event in honour of this musical icon draws in millions of fans, curious minds and music lovers to Lagos from different parts of the world. The musical thirsts of all are satisfied through performances of star studded lineups of both local and international artists.

Many of his listeners today, describe him as a prophet and some even see him as a messiah (Adams, 2004). While several musicians have come out today, claiming to be the new ‘Fela’, none has been able to match up the legacy of the Afro-music legend. Tejumola Olaniyan stated rightfully that “Fela did not overthrow any government, his overall contribution was far more reaching and his potent detachment of the power of truth from any putative hegemony that the state might profess remains his central political effect and significance (Olatunji, 2004).

Fela Kuti is an African emblem and through his protest music, Fela’s political activism uncovered several shady dealings of the government. He did not only sing about the present but his songs contained messages for the future. He was a phenomenon and a true symbol of what music should entail. The legend is gone but his legacies would forever be a reference point for us.

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