In light of the current Red Hot project honoring the Afro-music legend, Fela Kuti, here is a look into his personal history and influence on the African music of today.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a multi-instrumental musician and composer, the pioneer of Afrobeat music, and human right activist.
Fela was born in Nigeria on October 15, 1938. At the age of 20, he was sent to London with the intention of studying medicine, but found a passion for music instead. He formed a band called Koola Lobitos, which playing a fusion of jazz and high-life. In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos there, and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1967, Fela traveled to Ghana to experiment with the new sounds of West African music. There, he first coined the term ‘Afrobeat’ for his unique blend of Jazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat is characterized by having a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals, and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A “endless groove” is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, a muted West African style guitar and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song.
After Fela and his band returned to Nigeria, the band was renamed The Afrika ’70, as the lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, which was a commune, a recording studio, and a home base for his emerging sociopolitical movement. Fela later declared the commune’s independence from the Nigerian state.
In 1977, Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the album Zombie, which used ‘zombie’ as a metaphor to mock the methods of the Nigerian military. The album became a smash hit but infuriated the government; causing a vicious attack on the commune by more than a thousand government soldiers. Kuti was severely beaten and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. He responded by writing two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier.”
In 1979, Fela created a new band called Egypt ’80, and in addition to touring the country and recording new albums, he further infuriated the government by dropping the names of ITT vice-president Moshood Abiola and General Olusegun Obasanjo into the lyrics of a 25 minute political piece entitled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”.
But by the 1990’s, Fela’s album output slowed and eventually stopped. In 1993, he and four members of the Afrika ’70 organization were arrested for murder. In addition to his public political quarrels with the Nigeran government, rumors were spreading that Fela was suffering from a mysterious illness for which he was refusing treatment.
On August 3, 1997 Fela passed away from Kaposi’s sarcoma, which had been brought on by AIDS. More than a million people attended his funeral.
But the legend of Fela Kuti lives on. His music is still played around the world and his influence has paved the the waged for generations of new African artists. Fela’s son, Femi Kuti, followed in his father’s footsteps, in addition to artists such as Antibalas’ Afrobeat Orchestra and Lagbaja who continue the tradition of Afrobeat music. Afrobeat has also influenced many popular hip hop artists such as Common, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def.
Watch Fela Kuti & Africa 70 live in Berlin, 1978 performing ‘Cross Examination’: