Fela Anikulapo Kuti was 58 years old when he departed this life on August 2, 1997. In that relatively brief span of time, he forever changed the landscape of African music. Fela was a pioneer in Afrobeat, a blend of Nigerian and Ghanaian musical styles, funk and jazz that became popular across West Africa and among African expatriates in the 1970’s.
According to one of many online biographies, After growing up in Ogun State Nigeria, as the son of a teacher and a preacher, Fela studied trumpet at London’s Trinity College of Music. He went on to spend the last few years of the 1960’s in Ghana and America, specifically in Los Angeles, California, where he was introduced to the teachings and philosophy of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. His experience with the Panthers laid the groundwork for his future as an activist artist.
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By 1970, Fela was back home in Nigeria with his band, Afrika 70. Against the musical influences that he melded together into his signature Afrobeat sound, Fela sang lyrics in Pidgin English and local languages that openly challenged the Nigerian government led by Murtala Mohammed and General Olusegun Obasanjo, who would later become President of Nigeria. Meanwhile, Fela’s larger-than-life personality led him to openly shun many Western values that had been imposed as part of the “Colonial Mentality” – he blended elements of Yoruba spiritual traditions into his performances and embraced polygamy so fully that he married all 23 of his dancers in an on-stage wedding.
Fela paid dearly for his activism – after releasing his hit album “Zombie” about the Nigerian military, his mother was attacked during a raid on Kalakuta Republic – the complex at Lagos that housed his recording studio, performance venue, and living quarters. She later died from injuries sustained when Nigerian security forces threw her out of a window. He mourned her death and once again condemned the government on two new tracks – “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Fela continued to make music and call out corruption in his nation. When he died of complications from AIDS in 1997, more than a million people attended his funeral. This controversial figure was loved by many and hated by many. But no one can deny the impact his massive talent had in shaping a new sound and marrying social justice to popular culture, including the legacy being played out through his sons Femi and Seun, who have both distinguished themselves in the global music scene.
Please enjoy this memorial selection of Fela Kuti songs that were mentioned in the article you just read, and reflect on the life of the original “Black President.”