Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a Nigerian musician, the creator of Afrobeat, political activist, thorn in the side of six different Nigerian administrations and it is impossible to discuss African protest music without discussing him, his music and his politics.Of his music Tejumola Olaniyan writes in his book Arrest the Music! Fela and his Rebel Art and Politics,
“To listen to Fela’s music then is to listen to a kind of cultural, specifically musical, “biography” of the postcolonial African state: an account of the state’s crisis-ridden life so far as seen by oppositional music”
Fela, as he is known to his fans, grew up in a family with a long history of political activism. Both his father and Grandfather were active in the church and used both religion and music to further their anti-colonialist activities. He was the cousin of social critic, poet and playwright Wole Soyinka. His mother was a friend of Kwame Nkrumah and founder of the Nigerian Women’s Union which mobilized for the enfranchisement of Nigerian women. Fela was obsessed with music from an early age, but did not become political until a visit to the United States in 1969 where he met Sandra Isidore, a former member of the Black Panther Party, who introduced him to current Black Nationalist thought. Fela was awed by Malcolm X, and began reeducating himself and rethinking his music in order to reflect his new found consciousness. The result was Afrobeat,
“a fusion of indigenous Yoruba rhythms and declamatory chants, highlife, jazz and the funky soul of James Brown”
On his return from the United States, Fela had a mission, he wanted to teach black people about themselves and about their oppressors and empower them to fight. However, African American ideas cannot so easily be transplanted into an African context, despite the similarities between the two experiences. Nigeria, and Africa in general is racially homogenous; oppression is transmitted from white powers through local agents and practices. It makes sense that tools to fight this oppression be transmitted in a similar way. This is reflected in Fela’s musical catalogue; racialized songs like Black Man’s Cry and Why Black Man Dey Suffer are less commercially successful in Nigeria than his cultural nationalist songs like Lady which criticizes overly Westernized African women and Zombie a song about the mindless Nigerian military.
The African context also separates itself from the American in the issue of government legitimacy. In America, the government is traditionally considered legitimate because it is chosen by the people. In Africa, postcolonial states are in a constant crisis of legitimacy and often prove themselves by force rather than moral authority. Fela often came into violent conflict with the Nigerian administration and military, the first time being in 1974, a story that deserves a brief retelling:
In April of that year more than fifty Nigerian police officers arrived at Fela’s residence and arrested him and over sixty other members of his household. Fela was a Nigerian superstar. His stage shows included a section called yabis during which Fela would take current political events and figures and subject them to a verbal beating, to the delight of the audience. Fela with his saxophone and his gyrating dancers were also often very sexually suggestive onstage. His life offstage was also cause for tongue-wagging. Fela lived in a compound with over 60 other people including his mother and brother, various band members, several girlfriends, singers, dancers and various hangers-on. Fela and his entourage were well known for their public use of marijuana and Fela gained further notoriety at the Police Central Intelligence Division at Alagbon Close, as the number of fathers alleging that Fela had “kidnapped” their daughters increased. Fela was forced to spend several days in prison there, where helped by other prisoners he was able to get rid of planted evidence that he had swallowed in an effort to prevent the police from using it against him. Fela turned personal experience into art with the songs Alagbon Close and Expensive Shit, the cover of which has Fela surrounded by bare breasted girls behind a barbed wire fence, all holding up a Black Power fist.
In Alagbon Close, he sings,
“Dem go torture you and take your statement from you
Dem go lock you for months
Dem dey call am “investigation”
If you know dem for Alagbon
Make you tell dem make dem hear
Uniform na cloth, na tailor dey sew am”
[Their uniform is just a cloth, sewed by an ordinary tailor]
This event marked the arrival of Fela as he is known to the world; musical pioneer, champion of the oppressed, African countercultural symbol. Fela fortified his home and named it the Kalakuta or Rascal’s Republic. His music changed too, instead of espousing moral philosophies as the avenue for change in Africa, he began to look at the structural reasons behind Africa’s lack of development. He was always class conscious and consistently advocated for the oppressed to overthrow their oppressors.
“With my music, I create a change. I see it. So really I am using my music as a weapon. I play music as a weapon. The music is not coming from me as a subconscious thing. It’s conscious.”
Fela’s run-ins with the government would continue. He would have more visits to prison and would be physically assaulted by governmental forces many times. He would compose many more songs about Africa’s corrupt leadership, though he managed to do so imaginatively every time. The most vicious attack occurred in 1977 when nearly a thousand soldiers sacked and burnt his residence. Residents were brutally beaten, many of the women were sexually assaulted and Fela’s elderly mother was thrown from a second story window, her injuries resulting in her death the next year. All this happened in broad daylight, with hundreds of Fela’s neighbors in the underclass area he lived watching . No one was held responsible however; as a commission of inquiry ruled that an “unknown soldier” had committed the crimes. Fela responded by placing a replica of his mother’s coffin on the steps of the government palace, and with the song Unknown Solider,
“That my mama wey you kill
She fought for universal adult suffrage
That my mama wey you kill
Na the only mother of this country”
Much more can be said about Fela: about his reverence and use of African traditions, his stinging indictment of Western religions, his humor and his courage in the face of continuous government harassment, his thwarted attempts to run for president, hissexist views on women despite being otherwise progressive, his mentorship of the Young African Pioneers, an organization he sponsored, his death from AIDS which he claimed was a Western invention, his influence—and always his music; a textured landscape upon which the saga of postcolonial Africa was painted:
“Fela’s music did not overthrow any government. His overall contribution was much more far-reaching: his potent detachment of the power of truth from any putative hegemony that the state might profess. This was, and remains, his central political effect and significance.”
Without Fela there would be no Afrobeat as we know it today. There would be no Nomo, no Orchestra Baobab, no Antibalas Orchestra and of course no Femi Kuti. I can’t even pretend to be able to do justice to his legacy in one post. But for those of you who do not understand why he is spoken of with such reverence (unfortunately moreso in the West than on the continent he loved so much), may this serve as a little taster to find out more about the man, the music and the revolutionary.
For more information on Fela, his life and his music, check out
You might also like: