It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he’s more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac.
Musician and political activist Fela Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Kuti was the son of a Protestant minister, Reverend Ransome-Kuti. His mother, Funmilayo, was a political activist. As a child, Kuti learned piano and drums and led his school choir. In the 1950s, Kuti told his parents that he was moving to London, England, to study medicine, but wound up attending the Trinity College of Music instead. While at Trinity, Kuti studied classical music and developed an awareness of American jazz.
Fela attended Abeokuta Grammar School. Later he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he would have three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).
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In 1967, Fela went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music. In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States where they spent 10 months in Los Angeles. While there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The experience would heavily influence his music and political views. He renamed the band Nigeria ’70. Soon afterward, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his band were in the US without work permits. The band performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Kuti’s rebellious song lyrics established him as a political dissident. As a result, Afrobeat has come to be associated with making political, social and cultural statements about greed and corruption. One of Kuti’s songs, “Zombie,” questions Nigerian soldiers’ blind obedience to carrying out orders. Another, “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” seeks to empower the disenfranchised masses to rise up against the government. In 1989, three years after touring the United States, Kuti released an album called Beasts of No Nation. The album cover portrays world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (among others) as cartoon vampires baring bloody fangs.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. It was during this time that he dropped his given middle name of “Ransome” which he said was a slave name and took the name “Anikulapo” (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”).
Fela Kuti was a political giant in Africa from the 1970s until his death. Kuti criticized the corruption of Nigerian government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people. Corruption was one of the worst, if not the worst, political problem facing Africa in the 70s and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries of the time.
Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost to Kuti, who was arrested by the Nigerian government 200 times, and was subject to many beatings that left him with lifelong scars. Rather than abandon his cause, however, Kuti used these experiences as inspiration to writing more lyrics. He produced roughly 50 albums over the course of his musical career, including songs for Les Negresses under the pseudonym Sodi in 1992.
On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, announced his younger brother’s death a day earlier from complications related to AIDS. However, there has been no definitive proof that Kuti died from complications related to HIV/AIDS, and much skepticism surrounds this alleged cause of death and the sources that have popularized this claim. For example, it is widely claimed that Fela suffered and may have possibly died from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which is a symptom of HIV/AIDS infection.
light sleeper, heavy dreamer.