Fela Kuti (also known as Fela Anikulapo Kuti) was a Nigerian musician and activist who is widely regarded as the pioneer of the Afrobeat genre. He was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, and died on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Fela Kuti was not only a musician but also a political activist and a human rights advocate. He used his music as a means of social and political commentary, addressing issues such as poverty, corruption, and oppression in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
Fela Kuti’s music was a blend of African rhythms, jazz, and funk, and he is credited with popularizing the use of the Afrobeat rhythm, which is a fusion of West African rhythms and American funk and jazz. He released over 50 albums during his career, including classics such as “Zombie”, “Lady”, and “Shakara”.
Fela Kuti was a controversial figure, and he was often at odds with the Nigerian government. He was arrested and imprisoned several times for his political activism and was frequently the target of harassment and violence from the Nigerian authorities. Despite this, he continued to speak out against injustice and oppression until his death.
Today, Fela Kuti is remembered as a cultural icon and a musical legend, and his music continues to inspire and influence artists around the world.
Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Ogun state, Nigeria. He was born to a middle-class family, with his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, being a famous activist in the anti-colonial movement, and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, being a Protestant minister and the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Fela’s musical talents and radical nature manifested early, and he went to London in 1958 to study music at the Trinity College of Music.
While in London, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, which played a fusion of jazz with West African highlife. He returned to Nigeria in 1963, reformed Koola Lobitos, and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States, where he discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith, a member of the Black Panther Party. This experience heavily influenced his music and political views, leading to a total transformation of his worldview and music, and his place of Africa and the Black man in history.
Fela’s early exposure to political activism, thanks to his mother’s involvement, introduced him to the fight for political independence from colonialism. This early exposure, coupled with his nine-month sojourn in Los Angeles, completed his political education and gave birth to the musical phenomenon and political maverick of African music. In his own words, “for the first time I heard things I had never heard before about Africa.”
Fela’s music became very popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. He sang in pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous. However, his music was very unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic, where Fela lived and ran his recording studio, were frequent.
In 1977, Fela and the Africa ’70’ released the hit album “Zombie,” a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe their methods. The album was a smash with the people and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, resulting in fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela responded to the attack by delivering his mother’s coffin to the main army barracks in Lagos and writing two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier,” referencing the official injury that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.
Fela continued to release albums with his new band, Egypt ’80,’ and toured the country despite the setbacks. He formed his own political party, called Movement of the People, and put himself forward for president in Nigeria’s first elections in more than a decade in 1979. However, his candidacy was refused. In 1984, he further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT Vice President Moshood Abiola and then-General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a 25-minute political polemic titled “I.T.T.” He was again attacked by the military government, who jailed him on a dubious charge of currency smuggling. His case was taken up by several human rights groups, and after 20 months, he was released from prison. He continued to release albums with Egypt ’80,’ made a number of successful tours of the United States of America and Europe, and his album output slowed down
Fela Kuti’s marriages and wives
Fela Kuti was famously known for his numerous marriages and relationships with women throughout his life. It is estimated that he married a total of 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers.
Fela’s marriages were often considered unconventional, as he would sometimes marry several women at the same time. He saw his marriages as a reflection of his belief in African culture and tradition, and that polygamy was a natural aspect of African life.
One of Fela’s most famous marriages was to his dancer and choreographer, Laide Anikulapo Kuti. The couple married in 1978 and had three children together. Laide was also a key member of Fela’s band and played an important role in the development of his music.
Fela was also married to Najite Olokun, a musician and dancer who was a member of his band. Their marriage was short-lived, however, as Najite left Fela after she became pregnant and he refused to acknowledge the child as his.
Another notable marriage of Fela was to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, his first cousin and the daughter of his mother’s brother. Funmilayo was also a musician and played an important role in Fela’s life and career. They had one child together, a daughter named Sola.
Fela’s marriages were not without controversy, however. Some of his wives were reportedly physically abused by him, and there were rumors of infidelity on his part. Additionally, his marriages and relationships with women were a source of criticism from conservative Nigerians who saw his lifestyle as immoral.
Despite the controversies surrounding his marriages, Fela remained a powerful figure in Nigerian music and culture. His music and message of African liberation and cultural pride continue to inspire people around the world.
Fela Kuti’s songs and musical impacts
Fela Kuti was a prolific musician and composer, and he released a large number of songs and albums throughout his career. It is difficult to give an exact number as some of his work was not officially released, but it is estimated that he recorded and released over 50 albums during his lifetime.
Some of his most popular albums include “Zombie,” “Expensive Shit,” “Shakara,” “Roforofo Fight,” and “Sorrow, Tears and Blood.” These albums are considered classics of Afrobeat music and have had a significant influence on the development of African music.
In addition to his albums, Fela Kuti also released numerous singles and collaborated with other musicians. He was also known for his electrifying live performances, which he recorded and released as live albums.
Overall, Fela Kuti’s musical output was extensive and varied, and he remains one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century.
Fela Kuti’s Death and Burial
Fela Kuti died on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58. The cause of his death was reported as complications from AIDS, although some of his followers and family members have disputed this claim. Fela had been HIV positive for several years before his death and had even released a song titled “Sorrow Tears and Blood” to raise awareness about the disease.
In addition to his HIV status, Fela’s death was also attributed to other health problems he had been facing. He had been battling with diabetes and was also reported to have been suffering from respiratory problems. Fela’s lifestyle, which included heavy drug use and frequent engagement in risky sexual behaviors, likely contributed to the deterioration of his health.
Fela’s death was a huge loss to the Nigerian music industry and the African music scene as a whole. He is remembered today as a pioneer of Afrobeat music and a political activist who used his music to speak out against oppression and corruption in his country.
Fela Kuti was buried on August 11, 1997, at the Kalakuta Republic, which was his communal compound in Ikeja, Lagos State, Nigeria. The compound served as both his residence and the location of his recording studio. Fela’s coffin, shaped like a giant-sized version of a traditional African snuff box, was carried through the streets of Lagos in a grand funeral procession attended by thousands of his fans and admirers. The procession was led by Fela’s family, friends, and associates, and included traditional African drummers, dancers, and musicians. After the funeral, Fela was interred in a mausoleum located in the compound’s courtyard, where his grave remains a popular tourist attraction to this day.