“It is practically impossible to separate the man (Fela Kuti) from the music and the myth. For fans, though this is the very reason he is the thinking man’s Bob Marley—Anansi, Superfly, Sun Ra, Kwame Nkrumah and Bruce Lee wrapped up in one vigorously unwholesome Third World hero package; a larger than life figure that could never be contained by one name, or even one life.” Peter Shapiro
All great legends have intriguing backgrounds and life stories—they are most likely never your ‘average’ citizen. They tend to travel and experience a lot, they are exposed to countless people, ideas and situations which the majority cannot think of, let alone comprehend. This interesting mix gives birth to heroes, and I think it is safe to say that Fela Ransome-Kuti is a hero too. Those who know him may disagree; you might say that a hero shouldn’t have as many flaws and he should live up to his position as a role model for his followers. Fela was never ‘perfect’ but I still believe, as many others do, that he is a personality that we will continue to cherish for many years to come.
Kuti was a pioneer both as a musician and as an activist. He mixed elements of Nigerian and Ghanaian music with jazz, funk, salsa and coined the term Afrobeat for this new genre. His educational background allowed for this mixture to be of top quality. Since he attended the Trinity College of Music in London, he studied a lot of classical music and jazz, which gave him the theoretical qualifications to fuse in many genres in a successful way. ‘Beasts of No Nation’ is one of his famous compositions:
Fela owned a shabby club in the outskirts of Lagos, where he spent a lot of his time. The Afro-Shrine was Kuti’s home. It was also the home of all of his listeners, fans and followers. Fela used to perform there, giving speeches to the audience. They came together to get lost in hours of non-stop music where Kuti’s songs lasted an average of half an hour. They talked about politics, religion and society to discuss and share ideas. After Fela’s death the Afro-Shrine was closed but now a new one stands as strong, the Afrika-Shrine, opened up by his son, Femi Kuti.
Fela Kuti’s music gave birth to a new genre, fusing in many different ones together to bring about a new product that was completely fresh. Besides his new way of approaching contemporary Nigerian, jazz and funk music, he also imposed a wider political meaning to his creations. Fela Kuti grew up in a family that nurtured a culture of political activism in him. His father was a Protestant minister who later became the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. At the time he grew up in it was hard for women to play an important role in society but both his mother and cousin had significant accomplishments. His cousin Wole Soyinka was the first African women to win a Nobel Prize for literature, while his mother was one of the leading figures of feminine activism in Nigeria. Kuti’s music was never just about the music, he wanted to add a bigger picture to his compositions. Due to his political views, he was arrested 200 times by the Nigerian police. Through his approach to music, Afrobeat now became a big part of political activism. In search of justice, his lyrics most often criticised the corruption behind his government. He has countless songs that are designed to ignite the power to rise up in his fellow Nigerians. Below is his song V.I.P (Vagabonds in Power) in which he hopes to push the defenceless population to revolt against oppression:
Fela lived a life of polygamy and married 27 women; he never treated them unjustly but loved each and every one in his own way. He fell ill with AIDS and passed away in 1997. 1 million people attended Fela’s funeral. His influence was widespread and his passion hard to miss: he was a role model for many musicians and activists in the past, and he still continues to be.
If you are interested in finding out more about Fela Kuti, we suggest watching the documentary ‘Finding Fela!’ If you want to experience an Afrobeat night in London, Tony Allen who was Kuti’s legendary drummer is performing in Village Underground on the 20th of November.
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