Fela kuti Biography
This piece focuses on fela kuti biography, whose full name is Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He was born into a family of legendary activists, with his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, being a prominent advocate for women’s rights and against colonialism.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti, known for his political activism through music, became a government target during his lifetime. He pioneered the Afrobeat genre, a complex fusion of jazz, funk, highlife, and traditional African rhythms that he created, with contributions from his drummer Tony Allen.
For Kuti, Allen was essential to the existence of Afrobeat, which incorporates psychedelic soul components and is composed in a manner similar to James Brown’s.
Kuti ventured to Ghana in 1967 to explore new musical horizons before embarking on his music career. During this time, he coined the term Afrobeat to describe his unique musical style. Later, in 1969, his band travelled to Los Angeles, where they stayed for 10 months.
On August 3, 1997, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, also known as “Abami Eda,” passed away. His brother, Olukoye Ransome-Kuti, who had diagnosed him with AIDS, announced his death. In a post-death interview, Olukoye, a former Minister of Health and AIDS activist, revealed that Fela denied having the disease and never believed in AIDS.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. His parents were activists who opposed British rule, and his father was the Principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, while his mother was a feminist and political activist. Fela inherited their activist spirit and became a prominent figure through his music career.
Fela Kuti’s cousin, Wole Soyinka, who later became a Nobel Prize winner, used to visit the Kuti family during holidays. Fela and Soyinka grew up together and helped Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, teach English to market women who were part of the Abeokuta Women’s Union in the Kuti family compound.
As a young student at Abeokuta Grammar, Kuti was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine. However, he changed his mind and instead enrolled in the trumpet program at Trinity College of Music. During his time there, he formed a band called “Koola Lobitos,” which blended jazz and highlife music.
Following his two years in London, Kuti got married to Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, his first wife, in 1960. Together, they had three children: Femi, Yeni, and Sola.
In 1963, three years after Nigeria gained independence, Kuti returned to Nigeria and revived his band, “Koola Lobitos,” while also undergoing training as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He also played with Victor Olaiya’s All-Stars at some point.
In 1967, Kuti traveled to Ghana to explore a new musical direction. During his time there, he blended highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, and traditional Yoruba music to create a new genre, which he named Afrobeat, making him the first artist to pioneer this style of music. Following this, Kuti and his band traveled to the United States in 1969, spending ten months in Los Angeles.
While spending ten months in Los Angeles, Kuti was introduced to the Black Power movement by Sandra Smith, also known as Sandra Izsadore or Sandra Akanke Isidore, a member of the Black Panther Party.
This encounter greatly influenced his music and political beliefs. As a result, he renamed his band Nigeria 70. However, a promoter informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Kuti and his band were in the country illegally, which prompted them to quickly record a session in Los Angeles. This recording was later released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.
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After returning to Nigeria, Kuti changed the name of his band from Nigeria ’70 to Africa ’70, and the lyrics of his music began to address social issues rather than love.
He went on to establish the Kalakuta Republic, which he declared as autonomous from the Nigerian government. The Republic served as a commune, a recording studio, and a residence for many of Kuti’s band members.
Kuti opened a nightclub initially called the Afro-Spot, and later renamed it the Afrika Shrine, located at the Empire Hotel. He regularly performed there and hosted Yoruba traditional ceremonies that honored his people’s ancestral religion.
During this period, Kuti adopted the name “Anikulapo,” which means “He who carries death in his pouch,” with the connotation that he would be in control of his own fate and would decide when it was time for death to take him. It was also during this time that Kuti stopped using the name “Ransome” because he considered it to be a name that symbolized slavery.
Kuti’s music was beloved by the general population in Nigeria and throughout Africa. To ensure that people across the continent, where numerous local languages are spoken, could enjoy his music, Kuti chose to sing in Pidgin English.
Despite Kuti’s popularity, the government at the time did not appreciate his music, resulting in periodic raids on the Kalakuta Republic. In 1972, Kuti collaborated with guitarist and singer Bobby Tench on the recording of Ginger Baker’s Stratavarious. During this period, Kuti’s involvement with the Yoruba faith deepened.
Kuti and Africa 70’s album Zombie, released in 1977, used the concept of “zombie” to criticize the tactics of the Nigerian military. The album became a huge success but also enraged the government, leading to a brutal raid on the Kalakuta Republic by 1,000 soldiers. During the raid, Kuti and his elder brother were severely beaten, and Kuti’s mother was killed after being thrown from a second-story window.
The raid resulted in the destruction of Kuti’s studio, equipment, and master tapes, and the commune was set on fire. Kuti later stated that he would have been killed if a commanding officer had not intervened during the assault. Despite the violent suppression of his music and political views, Kuti continued to speak out against corruption and injustice in Nigeria.
After the Kuti shrine and the commune were both demolished, Kuti and his band moved into the Crossroads Hotel. He then married 27 women in 1978: Kikelomo Oseyni, Folake Oladejo, Tejumade Adebiyi, Naa Lamiley, Sewaa Kuti, Omotola Osaeti, Omowunmi Oyedele, Alake Anikulapo Kuti, Shade Shodeinde, Adeola Williams, Najite Kuti, Emaruagheru Osawe, Kevwe Og Taylor, Remilekun. Based on research, these women were part of Fela’s band, serving as dancers, composers, and singers.
Later, he adopted a rotating method of having 12 women at a time. Additionally, two concerts were held during the year. The first was in Accra, during which riots broke out while performing “Zombie,” leading to Kuti’s ban from Ghana.
The second concert took place after the Berlin Jazz Festival, and it was rumoured that Kuti planned to use the proceeds to finance his presidential campaign, resulting in most of his musicians turning against him.
Kuti established the Movement of the People (MOP) in 1979 with the goal of “cleaning up” society. However, due to his conflicts with the ruling party, MOP quickly became inactive. During its brief existence, MOP promoted Africanism and Nkrumahism.
In 1983, Nigeria held its first elections in decades, and Kuti attempted to run for president but his nomination was rejected. He also formed a new band at the time called “Egypt 80” with the aim of emphasizing the idea that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African.
Kuti stated in a report, “I am putting emphasis on the idea that I must educate Africans about the reality that Egyptian civilization is their own. And because of this, I changed the name of my band to Egypt 80 for that reason.” Despite facing rejection from the political establishment, Kuti continued to release records and perform across the country.
In his well-known 25-minute political rant “I.T.T.” (International Thief-Thief), he further enraged the political establishment by naming Moshood Abiola, vice president of ITT Corporation, and Obasanjo.
In 1984, Kuti was incarcerated by the administration of Muhammadu Buhari, whom he vehemently opposed. The allegation leveled against him was cash smuggling, but Amnesty International and other organizations criticized the accusations as being politically motivated.
Amnesty classified him as a prisoner of conscience, and he received support from other human rights groups. After numerous controversies, General Ibrahim Babangida eventually released him from prison after 20 months. Following his release, Kuti divorced his 12 remaining wives, asserting that “marriage brings envy and greed.”
Kuti’s album production declined in the 1990s and eventually came to a halt. On January 21, he and four other members of Africa 70 were detained and on January 25, they were accused of murdering an electrician.
There were rumors that Kuti may have been suffering from a medical condition for which he refused treatment, but there was no official statement from Kuti regarding this rumor.
Fela Kuti’s Music
Kuti’s band was recognized for their distinct Afrobeats, featuring not one but two baritone saxophones – a rarity at a time when most bands only had one. This musical niche is commonly found in funk, hip hop, and other genres influenced by African or African-inspired music.
In some performances, Kuti’s band would feature two bassists playing melodies and rhythms simultaneously, and there were always at least two guitarists present. The electric West African style guitar was a crucial element in the Afrobeat sound, providing a fundamental structure by playing a repeated chordal or melodic statement, riff, or groove.
Two common features of Kuti’s music were the call-and-response chorus and symbolic yet simple lyrics. Additionally, his songs were notably lengthy, typically lasting between 10 to 15 minutes, and often extending to 20 to 30 minutes. In fact, some unreleased tracks had live performances lasting up to 45 minutes.
Kuti’s songs were predominantly sung in Nigerian pidgin English, although he did sing a few in Yoruba. He favored the saxophone and keyboards but also occasionally played the trumpet, electric guitar, and performed drum solos.
As a showman, Kuti’s performances were often flamboyant and unconventional, characterized by his “Underground Spiritual Game” style. In the 1980s, he had no interest in putting on a typical Western-style show despite pressure from fans who expected it.
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Fela as a Political Activist
Kuti was a prominent political activist from the 1970s until his death. He spoke out against the mistreatment of Nigerians and the corruption of government officials in Nigeria. He believed that the socio-economic and political problems facing African people were the result of colonialism.
Kuti’s open condemnation of Nigeria’s brutal and authoritarian government came at a cost. He was arrested and detained over 200 times, with his longest imprisonment lasting 20 months following his arrest in 1984.
The corrupt regime went to extreme lengths, sending soldiers to beat Kuti, his loved ones, and associates, as well as destroying his home and confiscating any instruments or recordings he owned.
To bypass editorial restrictions imposed by Nigeria’s primarily state-controlled media, Kuti resorted to publishing provocative political pieces in the advertising sections of newspapers such as The Daily Times and The Punch in the 1970s.
These articles, published under the title “Chief Priest Say,” covered a wide range of topics, including scathing denunciations of the Nigerian government’s criminal activities, the exploitative nature of Islam and Christianity, multinational corporations’ wrongdoing, as well as critiques of Western medicine, Black Muslims, pollution, sex, and poverty.
After facing backlash and criticisms for the publication of his articles in the newspapers, the Daily Times and The Punch eventually decided to discontinue “Chief Priest Say.” Many believe that the editors of the papers were threatened with violence, leading to the discontinuation of the column.
Kuti’s lyrics served as a medium for expressing his innermost thoughts. His rise to fame in the 1970s marked a transformation in the relationship between music as an art form and the socio-political discourse in Nigeria.
For instance, in his popular song “Beast of No Nation,” released in 1984, Kuti openly criticized and insulted Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s autocratic president. In the song, he referred to Buhari as a “beast in a madman’s body,” which, in Pidgin, translates to “He is not outside, Buhari is the madman; an animal in a madman’s skin.”
Kuti was also a vocal critic of the United States. During a conference he attended on his 1981 trip to Amsterdam, he spoke out against the psychological warfare waged by American organizations like ITT and the CIA against emerging nations through language. He believed that terms like Third World, underdeveloped, or non-aligned countries should not be used since they imply inferiority.
On August 3, 1997, Olukoye Ransome-Kuti, Fela Anikulapo’s brother, announced his death due to AIDS, which he himself had diagnosed. Fela Anikulapo Kuti passed away on August 2, 1997. Olukoye, a former Minister of Health and AIDS activist, stated in an interview after Fela’s death that Fela did not believe in AIDS and denied having the disease.
Despite Olukoye’s statement, Fela’s wives continued to deny that he had AIDS. As a result, Seun, Fela’s youngest son, took over leadership of Egypt 80, Fela’s former band. As of 2020, the band continues to perform and release music under the name Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s legacy has had a significant impact on music and popular culture, particularly in Africa and the African diaspora. Since his death in 1997, there has been a resurgence of interest in his music and political activism.
One of the ways in which Fela’s legacy has been preserved is through the annual Felabration festival, which began in 1998. The festival is held at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, and is organized by Fela’s daughter, Yeni Kuti. It features performances by musicians who were inspired by Fela, as well as exhibitions, panel discussions, and other cultural events.
In addition to the Felabration festival, Fela’s music has been re-released by Universal Music Group, making it more widely available to new audiences. His influence can also be seen in the emergence of new bands, such as Antibalas, who have introduced Afrobeat to a new generation of listeners.
Fela’s political activism and outspoken criticism of the Nigerian government continue to inspire social justice movements in Nigeria and beyond.
He challenged the status quo through his music and used his platform to raise awareness about issues affecting the African continent, such as poverty, corruption, and imperialism.
Fela’s life and music have also been the subject of numerous biographies and documentaries. The 2008 off-Broadway production “Fela!” was based on Carlos Moore’s 1982 biography, “Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life.” The show featured music by Fela and his band, performed by the Afrobeat band Antibalas, and was directed by Tony award-winner Bill T. Jones.
In 2021, Hulu released a six-episode documentary called “McCartney 3, 2, 1,” where Paul McCartney praised Fela Kuti’s music, stating that “the music was so fantastic that I wept.” He also recounted his experience of seeing Kuti at the African Shrine, the musician’s club outside Lagos, which he described as one of the most memorable musical experiences of his life.
Moreover, the Nubian Jak Community Trust recognized Kuti’s contribution to music by placing a blue plaque at 12 Stanlake Road in Shepherd’s Bush, where he lived while attending Trinity College of Music in 1958. The ceremony featured several individuals, including Shalewa Ransome-Kuti, a presenter for Resonance FM, Debbie Golt, Rikki Stein, Lemi Ghariokwu, and others, who paid tribute to Kuti throughout the event.
In 2022, Kuti’s legacy continued to be celebrated as he was inducted into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame, cementing his influence on African music and the global music industry.
Overall, Fela’s legacy has had a lasting impact on music, politics, and popular culture, and his message of resistance and social justice continues to resonate with people around the world.