Fela Anikulapo Kuti is a legend in Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, given his immense contribution to the African music scene and his political activism efforts in Nigeria. He is essentially the Father of what we know now as the Afrobeat genre, widely predominant in West African music.
To understand how Fela came to bestow the afrobeats genre upon us, one must also understand what he went through because it resonates greatly in his music.
Born in 1938 when Nigeria was still a British colony, Fela Kuti bore witness to the atrocities that his people had to suffer under the hands of the British government and later on, the evils of corruption on the society.
Fela was from an upper middle-class family, and expecting him to follow in the paths of his two brothers before him, Fela’s parents sent him to London to study Medicine. Instead, he ended up studying music and various instruments with the trumpet being his preferred instrument and later a defining sound in his songs. He formed a band known as Koola Lobitos that went by many names over the years: from Nigeria ’70, to Afrika ’70, and eventually Egypt ’80. Each rename seemed an ode to his political views at the time.
The band first used to play a combination of jazz and highlife, but that was before Fela went to Ghana in 1967 in an effort to reevaluate his musical direction. There, he first decided to call his style of music Afrobeat, a nuanced mix of traditional West African music, salsa, funk, calypso, jazz, and highlife. His drummer, Tony Allen was also instrumental in the actualization of the Afrobeat genre and Fela has been cited as stating that the genre would not be what it is without Allen.
Fela went to the United States with his band and crossed paths with the Black Panther Movement and the Black Panther party thanks to Sandra Smith. This would heavily influence his political views and change his musical theme from that of love to political and social issues. He would later return to Nigeria, forming a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic, where he would record his music and offer a home to people connected to his band members. His music was well-favored among the Nigerians and other Africans, especially since he decided to sing primarily in Pidgin English, ensuring that people all over the continent could enjoy his music and message.
During that time, the socio-political climate also fuelled heavy corruption among government officials in Nigeria, making the country one of the most corrupt in Africa at the time. Fela’s music was heavily laced with political messages openly condemning the ruling government and their heavily corrupt ways, thus he was not very popular with government officials. This prompted frequent attacks and raids on the Kalakuta commune by Nigerian soldiers. Following the release of the song “Zombie”, an attack on the Nigerian military soldiers and their methods, he was subjected to an attack which caused him to be severely beaten and led to the death of his mother. The Kalakuta Republic was burned during this raid and his studio, his instruments, and master tapes all went up in flames.
His mother’s death was one of the turning points of his life and his music, understandably took a dark and somber turn thereafter. In response to this attack, Fela wrote two songs “A Coffin for the Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier” referencing the events of the attack and had his mother’s coffin delivered to General Obasanjo’s House.
His music also proved to be quite inciting to the public with a riot breaking out during one of his concerts in Accra when he performed the song “Zombie” after which he was banned from going back to Ghana. He also formed a political party, MOP or Movement of the People, with the aim of running for president of Nigeria in 1979 but his candidature was refused.
Fela was also jailed multiple times and served time because of his vocal opposition of the ruling government leaders but once he was out of prison, he was back to releasing albums and music like nothing happened.
Fela strongly believed that music was meant to move you not only physically, but also mentally, which is why he infused such strong messages in his songs. He made music with the primary purpose of making people think about their current state of affairs hopefully with the intention of making a change for the better.
His influence is widely felt not only in Africa but also internationally with many artists such as Wyclef Jean, J Cole, Nas, and Common sampling and drawing from the well of inspiration and culture that was Fela’s music. Artists like Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Fela’s own son Femi Kuti have tapped into his music for inspiration without diluting the messages that Fela preached.