Passionate, fearless and conscious
These words embody the existence of Fela Kuti and the mark he left on the world as a musician whose music pierced archaic morals and forced citizens to listen.
Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in modern-day Ogun State (Nigeria) to an upper-middle class family. Fela was privileged to be surrounded by educated, spirited individuals such as his mother Funmilayo who was the first female student to attend Aebokuta Grammar School, before becoming a prominent figure in movements such as Nigeria Woman’s Union that was instrumental in the fight for female voting rights in Nigeria. Aside from his mother’s influence, Fela’s father was a community clergyman and a pioneering president of the Nigeria Union of teachers.
Whilst being fortunate to be surrounded by such aspirational figures, Fela always had a mind of his own. When he was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine, he instead decided to pursue a music degree at Trinity College of Music. Over a thousand miles away from home, Fela was able to take his creativity to another level by exploring new ideas. This sparked the formation of Koola Lobitos, a band that coalesced flavours of jazz and highlife. This period in the UK gave Fela the hunger to truly pursue his passion for music and he never looked back.
After this, he briefly returned to Nigeria before travelling to Ghana where he was introduced to Afrobeats. From the moment he encountered this genre, it was like the opening of Pandoras box. Fela now had a sound he could utilise to unite the whole of Africa, and he cemented this realisation by producing a lot of his subsequent songs in Nigerian pigeon. This is a dialect that can be understood across countries so it allowed Fela to spread his message even further. United States was amongst the first country to hear this new sound as Fela arrived there in 1969 with his new band Nigeria 70’. During his visit the American civil War was rife, and its reverberating hostility was inescapable. At the time, Black Panther movement were a powerful force against inequitable treatment of black people in America. Fela witnessed the strength of this movement firsthand through a friend Sandra Izsadore. He never forgot the virtues shown by the Black Panther party and their capacity to unite for a social cause became the bedrock for Fela’s activism in Nigeria.
When Fela returned to Nigeria he was a man on a mission, the young musician now had a focused mindset. The songs transitioned from romance to socially conscious rhythms, his name also changed from Ransome to Anikulapo meaning “He who carries death in his pouch”. Ransome represented the power of former colonial masters and Fela wanted to liberate himself from the shackles of colonisation. During this time, he also became more heavily involved in the native Yoruba religion, further highlighting his rejection of colonial doctrine.
As time went by, Fela became more vocal against the attitudes of the Nigerian military and government, something that was unprecedented at the time. His 1977 album ‘Zombie’ ridiculed the tactics of the Nigerian military and sparked a riot of his communal home by the authorities. Many were brutally beaten and killed including his mother Funmilayo who was shown little sympathy despite her old age. Fela also suffered life-threatening injuries, many of which he never recovered from.
Despite this inhumane treatment, Fela never stopped fighting for what he believed in. The strength of character exhibited in the midst of pain is incomprehensible, Fela was truly prepared to die for his cause and nothing in the world could change that. The activist continued to release music long after this event until his death in 1997, where a crowd of over a million people attended his funeral. The gargantuan turnout speaks volumes of the influence Fela had in Africa and beyond, he stood for principles that transcends generations and this is why decades later he is still revered by many.