Lately, i have been listening to old mastered tapes recorded by Fela Kuti. At first, I really can’t say i fancied his art or style of music, maybe because i grew up listening to a whole different kind of stlye. This, coupled with the kind of music our present day artistes deliver it was quite hard to relate to the melodies and chants.
However as i continued, there was something about the lyrics of his songs. They were somewhat structured to portray the happenings of what we have in our society today. This was something i could definetely relate to.
Over the years and in recent times, i have heard over and again that Fela Kuti is a musical legend. I grew up accepting this as a fact without really knowing why.
Being born in the late 90’s which was a period after his demise, i couldn’t have possibly heard him sing like my parents or those heralding the music industry today did.
Could it be that me and others born in the late 90’s like me have accepted other people’s reality as ours without really knowing the man for ourselves; the life he lived, the people he inspired, songs he gave birth to and most importantly his so-called legendary afro beat?
We’re about to find out in this article. So if you’re in the same category as me and would like to know if your legend has legit done things worthy of being called one. Read this article to the end and decide for yourself.
Life, Music & Career
Fela’s music career started when he was sent to london to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music.
While undergoing studies, he formed a band named Koola Lobitos which played a fusion of Highlife & Jazz.
After Nigeria became a republic in 1963, he moved back home and reformed his band while training as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcsting Corporation.
Four years later, while he was in Ghana searching for a new musical direction, Fela with the help of his drummer; Tony Allen, created the Afrobeat genre; a combination of highlife, funk, jazz, calypso, and the yoruba traditional music.
Considering Tony’s input, It’s said that Fela had once stated that without his drummer of 10 years there would be no Afrobeat.
Fela’s music was often characterised by the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. Though his songs were usually long lasting atleast 15 minutes, it was mostly in pidgin english, so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over the African continent which already had multiple dialects and diverse languages.
Some of his discographies are given below:
- Fela Fela Fela 1970
- Stratavorious 1972
- Open & Close 1972
- Gentleman 1973
- Confusion 1975
- Everything Scatter 1975
- Expensive Shit 1975
- Zombie 1976
- Ikoyi Blindness 1976
- Unknown Soldier 1979
- International Thief Thief 1980
- Coffin for Head of State 1980
- Original Sufferhead 1981
- Teacher Don’t teach me Nonsense 1986
- Beast of No Nation 1989
- U.S (Underground System) 1992
Apart from the fact that Fela’s songs were usually long, he would refuse to perform songs he had already recorded again. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why his music never reached its Apex outside the African Shoreline.
Known for his showmanship, he referred to his stage act as an “underground” spiritual game. His concerts were always wild. it’s often said that those disappointed with his performance had never really seen him perform.
According to an interview in the Hank Bordowitz analysis of Noise of the world, Fela stated;
“Music is supposed to have 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 move them 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.”
The philosophy he has about music and the impact it should have on a person is simply phenomenal. However, much of what we have in today’s music industry is a direct oppposite. But thats’s a story for another day!
As Fela’s music career grew, so did his political influence throughout the world. He was a part of an Afro centric conciousness movement that was founded and delivered through his music.
He shared a strong sense of humanist and activist idealogies which grew till he became a political giant in Africa in the 1970’s.
His music criticized the corruption of the Nigerian government, it’s officials and the efffect their selfish actions had on the Nigerian people.
In 1977, the Afrika ’70, fela’s band released the album titled Zombie. A searing attack on the Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods employed by the Nigerian military. The album infuriated the then Government setting off attacks against the Kalakuta republic.
In a 25 minute political screed titled I.T.T (International Thief Thief), Fela mentioned the names of people like the then Vice president Moshood Abiola and General Olusegun Obasanjo as partisans in the ITT corporation.
In 1984, in a song titled “Beast of No Nation” he openly insulted Muhammadu Buhari, the then incumbent authoritarian president of the federal republic of Nigeria, calling him an animal in a mad man’s body. An excerpt of the song is given below for reference;
“No be outside, Buhari de see”
“Na craze man be that”
“Animal in craze man skin”
During the then editorial censorship of Nigeria’s state controlled media, Fela took to publishing articles in the advertising column of daily and weekly newspapers which he called “Chief Priest Say”. In this column he addressed a number of topics ranging from the Nigerian government criminal behaviour to the exploitative nature of Islam and Christainity.
He was a candid supporter of human rights and most of his songs were dedicated attacks against dictatorships.
None was left out of his criticism as he also heavily criticized his fellow Africans, most of which were the upper class for betraying the African culture for their western counterparts.
This criticism didn’t stop in Africa. Fela Kuti was also an outspoken critic of the western world. He criticised the United states. He believed terms such as “third world”, “under-developed”, or non-aligned countries implied inferiority and shouldn’t be used.
He called it a psychological warfare that American organisations and the CIA waged against developing nations in terms of language.
Fela’s fearless and outspoken ideaologies isn’t without consequences. He was arrested multiple times and spent time in jail. After the release of the zombie album in 1977, his home was attacked by one thousand unknown soldiers as they were called then. His mother was thrown from a window causing fatal injuries. Fela was beaten and the self prolaimed independent kalakuta republic was set ablaze.
You’d think this would weaken his spirit, but the fire in his bones wasn’t gonna be put out by the bullying of his government. Charged up, his response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence after which he wrote two songs; “Unknown Soldier” and “Coffin for Head of State”.
In 1979, Fela Kuti presented himself for President in the election year under a politcal party called Movement of the People (MOP) formed by him but was refused candidacy.
I really do not know about politics of the then republic, but i often wonder what became of that party. I guess we’d have to do a little bit of digging some other time.
It’s widely known that Fela believed in the African culture. Perhaps one of his greatest beliefs in the culture had to do with Polygamy. He was a lover of women!! and in 1978 he performed a feat which some people consider to be one of the greatest of all time.
He married 27 women in a go, most of them were his back up singers and dancers on grounds that he was protecting himself and his wives from false claims purported by the authorities that he was kidnapping the women.
Fela died on the 2nd of August 1997 in Lagos, Nigeria. He was loved by a lot of people. His burial was attended by more than a million people.
Every year, an annual festival, called Felabration is held to celebrate the music and birthday of this icon.
Since his demise, there has been a revival of the influence of his music all over the world.
Much of his legacy is still celebrated till this day.
In his home country Nigeria, most artists find a way to attribute their inspiration to Fela.
Now, the question remains, is he a legend or it’s n hoax?
Before we get to that I’d like you to know that the late Fela Kuti wasn’t without awards and recognition.
In 1999, Universal Music France remastered the 45 albums it controlled and released them to the world in 26 compact discs.
In 2003 Fela Kuti was one of the 39 international artists whose work was featured in an exhibition titled The Black President Exhibition.
He won the MTV Africa Music Legend award in 2008.
In 2009, Fela!, a musical based on the music and lyrics of the late Fela Kuti won the Lucille Lortel award for outstanding musical performance.
On the 4th of May 2010 Fela! was nominated for eleven Tony awards.
Other events have occurred just to honour the late Fela Kuti. One of such events is our very own stage play called Fela Son of Kuti: The Fall of Kalakuta, written by Onyekaba Cornel Best in 2010 which shows the events that occurred a day after Kalakuta was burned down.
With so many recognitions to his name, Game developers of the infamous Grand Theft Auto featured his hit song “Zombie” in GTA: IV.
For years, before it was pulled down, the Late Fela Kuti also has a statue to his name and is situated at Ikeja, Lagos Nigeria.
Taking, the little i have covered in this article, it is not hard to see that Fela Kuti wasn’t just like any other artist. He was a multi talented intrumentalist, musician, composer, political maverick, human rights activist and pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre. Indeed the man is a Legend and anyone who argues that fact is simply arguing based on ignorance.
However with such an historic and inspirational icon to guide the music industry, it’s appaling to find what we call music today.
The industry now seems to be filled with selfish and shortsighted Labels, self centered clout chasing maniacs and power seeking tyrants.
It’s a different time than the one Fela Kuti lived in and such times calls for a different approach.
With so many meaningless lyrics which only move you to dance and so few that move you to think, one can’t help but wonder what he would think about the music industry and it’s music today.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment below and don’t forget to share.