"Afrobeat will be one of the musics of the future"
- Miles Davis
"The best band I've ever seen live...When Fela and his band eventually began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I just couldn't stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience"
- Paul McCartney
"I listen to (Fela) over and over and over again. I have more albums by him than by any other single artist... I listen particularly to the way the bass is used; that's what really interests me about these records. The use of the bass as an instrument that is both percussive and melodic at the same time"
- Brian Eno to the BBC in 1995
"I think Fela is a strong African singer and his message was very strong within the music"
- Burning Spear
"I felt like I was a tree replanted and able to flourish"
- Gilberto Gil, then-Minister of Culture in Brazil after meeting Fela in Lagos, Nigeria
The leading exponent and popular originator of the innovative Afrobeat, a '70s musical genre that blended Yoruba music with R&B, funk, and jazz (with hints of soul, reggae, straight rock, Latin and blues), Fela's poetry and political stature continues to register deeply within the global musical community.
The "Black President" commanded a variety of instruments, including the guitar, drums, trumpet, organ, saxophone, and keyboard, and was a singer-songwriter-record producer-arranger-bandleader visionary. In the eyes of many an African, he was a hero to an entire continent ravaged by centuries of oppression, corruption, and a range of social, economic, and political ills. Recording more than 70 albums in a nearly four-decade career, his legend continues to be appreciated, examined, and loved by many people.
Artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Miles Davis, James Brown, Sun Ra, Brian Eno, The Talking Heads' David Byrne, Stevie Wonder, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins, Hugh Masekela, Caetano Veloso, Manu DiBango, and Jimmy Cliff have expressed their interest in Fela's music, and even the legendary Motown label offered him a record deal. Musicians as diverse as Lester Bowie of The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Roy Ayers, and Cream's Ginger Baker and noted producer Bill Laswell have collaborated with him. Missy Elliott, Nas, Mos Def, and Common are just some of the artists that have sampled his work.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, born in southwest Nigeria, grew up in a middle class family. His father was a Reverend, his mother was feminist who won the Lenin Peace Prize, and his grandfather had been one of the first West Africans to record music. Absorbing these privileges, Fela was sent to London in the late 1950s to further his studies at college, where he opted to venture into the field of music. By the early '60s, he had made a name for himself on the UK R&B circuit with his jazzy, African-informed band Koola Lobitos before moving back to Nigeria with his wife and their son Femi in 1963.
While working for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, Fela re-grouped Koola Lobitas and was beginning to draw on the American sounds of jazz and the then-nascent genre of funk music, culminating in 1966's live effort Afro Beat On Stage. Another pivotal turn in the group's career was their visit to the US in 1969, where the seeds of Fela's political messages sprouted after meeting up with the Black Panther Party. Influenced by black figureheads such as Malcolm X and the ideas of Pan-Africanism and socialism, Fela renamed his group Africa '70 and returned to Lagos, Nigeria with a fresh, inspired agenda, founding a self-governing commune in the process that also acted as a recording studio.
In 1970, the single "Black Man's Cry" was issued and was the start of the Fela's marriage of socio-political content and Afrobeat. The following year's impressive effort, Open and Close, not only implemented this fusion groove but also introduced the sexually-charged title track, a theme that would be revisited again.
The year 1972, however, was Africa '70's calling card. The suggestive and controversial hit "Na Poi" was released and later re-recorded on a few occasions, becoming a timeless example of Afrobeat in the process. The album Roforofo Fight, also made available that year, is considered Fela's first exceptional album effort with its irresistible stew of rhythms and title song. But it was that years' Shakara that seemed to be the prizewinner. Both "Shakara Oloje" and the notorious but humorous "Lady" (the latter sung in Nigerian and English) are bona-fide Fela Kuti gems. With eclectic endeavors illustrating infectious musicianship and exuberant vocals, there was no stopping the Afrobeat juggernaut helmed by Fela.
In 1973, more success erupted for Africa '70. A re-recorded "Jeun Ko Ku" (originally released as a single in 1971 as "Jeun Ko'Ku," meaning "Eat and Die" or "Chop and Quench") became a huge Nigerian hit and further propelled the band's stardom. That year's Gentleman ranks as one of the greatest Afrobeat recordings in history. The title track, a commercial success, directly focuses on colonial mentality and signaled Fela's direction towards more blistering verbal assaults against evil forces.
Confusion, out in 1975, was an even greater adventure, continuing the political barbs, but this time perching it against more complex and improvisatory instrumental proficiency. The legendary title record relayed the deteriorating conditions of urban Nigeria while accentuating the horrors of post-colonial mentality.
Around this time, Fela replaced the "Ransome" part of his name with "Anikulapo" ("one who carries death in his pouch") and renamed his autonomous compound Kalakuta Republic. He had also formed a nightclub in the Empire Hotel at Lagos called the Afrika Shrine, where he frequented to perform.
Because of his blunt critiques on Nigerian society and the ruling elite and the "separate state" operation of his compound within Nigerian borders, Fela and his members were constantly harassed, beaten, and tortured by the Lagos authorities. The brilliant and scathing Expensive Shit (1975) demonstrates this oppressiveness of corrupt forces. Like Shakara, the album boasted two immortal items in the searing Afro-funk of the title track and the entrancing jazz of "Water No Get Enemy."
But nothing could top Fela's summit year of 1977. Shuffering and Shmiling, No Agreement, and especially Zombie are epic masterworks that epitomized Fela's Afro-funk-jazz innovations and bracing socio-political commentary. On February 18, 1977, Fela's communal colony was descended upon by a thousand armed Nigerian men, leaving many of his entourage pummeled or arrested. His own mother was thrown down from a window, where she later died after sustaining brutal injuries. This event impacted several of Africa '70's albums, peaking with Zombie, his biggest seller that struck and tugged at the heart of the entire African homeland. The seething single satirized and condemned oppressive military regimes as "zombies", and when Fela performed this, he incurred the wrath of the Nigerian military. With a tumultuous year, it is no wonder Fela had fled to Ghana with Africa '70.
Nevertheless, the blistering criticism continued. International Thief Thief in 1979 (a play off International Phone and Telegraph) and 1980's Authority Stealing further drew the ire of the ruling class.
Around this time, Fela had formed a new band called Egypt '80. Up to this point, he had an extensive musical catalog that centered on blackism and socio-political woes caused by the aftereffects of colonial rule and greedy, violent institutions. He had toured Europe, performing in Italy, Belgium, France, and England, thereby winning over more audiences. And last but not least, he was subjected to numerous forms of torture and threats that grew by the minute. Amazingly, Fela continued on with his bristling attacks.
Original Sufferhead (1981) was evidence that Fela's spirit was yet to be broken and silenced as it called to attention the irony of a destitute nation rich in oil resources. That year's Coffin for Head of State attacked the Nigerian president directly for the demolishment of Fela's communal zone in 1977. The song title became another smash.
Egypt '80's latter period of the 1980s could not match the uncompromising intensity and unbridled passion of Fela's earlier periods, although they continued to perform in Europe and made inroads in the US as ethnic/world music finally made its mark there. By the 1990s, Fela's musical output slowed, although his work continued to be reexamined and appreciated even more.
In 1997, at the age of 58, Fela Kuti died from AIDS-related complications. Over a million fans flocked to his funeral to pay their respects to the "Chief of the Shrine." Later, legendary rapper Common paid tribute to him in a song called "Time Travelin' (A Tribute to Fela)," and in 2002, MCA Records released a tribute album called Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti. It's an ironic and tragic loss considering that Fela escaped death numerous times at the hands of his enemies.
What should be noted is the fact that Fela's misogynistic views towards women and biting commentary prefigured gangsta rap (Ice-T, N.W.A) and misogynistic rap (2 Live Crew). His constant demonization by those in power and legal troubles foreshadowed what some rap artists had to endure. Much of his work was also banned, and his career was riddled with controversy, violence, and trouble. In a more positive light, Fela's propulsive rhythms also pioneered modern "world music" along with Nigeria's second biggest musical exponent, King Sunny Ade, and his iconic status and being a beloved hero of the Pan-African world is a rarity for any musical artist.
At times tongue-in-cheek, at times overtly sexual, never losing the abundance of wit and satire that forms many of his songs, Fela Kuti's music serves as a genuine historical document. Not only do these documents freeze in time his experiences and the history of an oppressive militaristic government, but also showcase his captivating musical blend of Afrobeat and profound messages that are sure to last a lifetime.