Fela Kuti is remembered as being one of Africa’s most celebrated musicians, a fierce political activist, and a lover of women.

The Afrobeat pioneer was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Kuti was the son of a political activist, Funmilayo, and Reverend Ransome-Kuti, a Protestant minister.

During his childhood, Kuti discovered his passion for music; he led his school choir and played the piano and the drums.

By Kuti’s adolescence, his parents sent him to London so that he could study medicine. However, he ended up at the Trinity College of Music instead.

While at Trinity, Kuti developed an appreciation for musical genres ranging from classical to American jazz.

After returning to his home country in the late 1960s, he still had a desire to create music, and he did just that. By blending traditional Yoruba music with jazz, West African highlife and funk, Kuti invented Afrobeat.

Afrobeat is not simply a cool and upbeat genre; its conception was also the beginning of a new political era marked by revolution and unrest.

Fela Kuti’s music was inspired by the militant Black Panther movement, and his scathing lyrics are a reflection of that.

In fact, My Lady Frustration by Fela is inspired by his first meeting with African-American civil rights activist Sandra Smith. Smith inspired Kuti to play African music and project “Afro-consciousness.”

While speaking to journalist Carlos Moore, Kuti stated:

 

“Sandra gave me the education I wanted. She was the one who opened my eyes, talked to me about politics, history … she blew my mind really.”

After meeting Smith, Kuti’s lyrics became infused with social and political critique, as well as Nigerian proverbs. These lyrics were meant to denounce Nigeria’s current state. He cited that a poor man stealing is called a “criminal” and goes to jail shortly after. Conversely, when a person with influence is caught with large sums of money, it’s called “mismanagement.”

Kuti’s music and outspokenness drew criticism, but his personal affairs were also the subject of contentious debate.

Fela married 27 women in a single ceremony, stating that they needed someone to take care of them. Subsequently, a mass divorce took place a decade after this mass wedding.

The musician reportedly decided to marry these women because there were rumors that he was holding his female bandmates captive. In order to combat this untruth, he asked all of the ladies in his band to marry him; 27 of them said yes.

In February of 1978, twelve priests married the husband and wives at the Parisona Hotel at Anthony, Lagos. Polygamy was part of Fela’s utopian African dream, as it opposed Eurocentric values.

Much of Kuti’s political thought derived from his cousin, Wole Soyinka, who was at the forefront of the Pan-Africanist movement. Kuti exemplifies the complete rejection of anything “un-African.”

For instance, in the book Black Man and The Veil, Wole Soyinka speaks about a metaphor coined by W.E.B. DuBois in which a black man is simply in compliance with his own fate. He understands that he has been liberated in some ways, however, he still falls victim to human nature.

Soyinka goes on to describe ways that the black man has also tried to be the victor of his fate. According to Soyinka, black men have tried to achieve this by resisting white values and converting to what he deems a more “African” religion. Upon conversion, the black man will also change his name, his dress, and anything else that is a reminder of an oppressive and historical narrative of white supremacy.

With Soyinka’s ideals in mind, Fela went on to establish a political party which was met with heavy opposition from authorities. In 1979, Kuti tried to run for president, but that attempt was quickly shot down by the military.

Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications in 1997 in Lagos at 58 years old. One million mourners attended his funeral.

Kuti still remains a hero to Nigerian people for standing up to government and being a bold example of rebellion. Fela once said that “the human spirit is stronger than any government or institution” and he is a proof of that.

 

 

 

Featured Image via Flickr.