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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Remember, Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti, a Cultural Rebel and Revolutionist

For most Nigerians and Black Africans in general, it is impossible to overlook the impact and relevance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or simply Fela as been fondly called, especially in the global musical village as producer, arranger, musician and political radical among other names.

He was also a showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac.

Fela’s death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice at par with Rastafarian, Bob Marley of blessed memory.

According to a  press statement from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela’s death, “Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa.”

This is as succinct a summation of Fela’s political agenda one is likely to find.

Born in Abeokuta, Ogun state, Nigeria, North of Lagos in 1938, Fela’s family was firmly middle class as well as politically active.

His father was an Anglican Priest (and talented pianist), his mother active in the anti-colonial, anti-military, Nigerian home rule movement.

So at an early age, Fela experienced politics and music in a seamless combination. His parents, however, were not interested in his becoming a musician but to be a doctor.

So they packed him off to London in 1958 for what they assumed would be a medical education, but instead, Fela registered at Trinity College’s School of Music.

Having tired of studying European composers, Fela formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, in 1961, and quickly became a fixture on the London club scene.

He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and started another version of Koola Lobitos that was more influenced by the James Brown’s style singing of Geraldo Pina from Sierra Leone.

Fela combined this with elements of traditional high life and jazz, which he dubbed “Afro-beat,” partly as critique of African performers whom he felt had turned their backs on their African musical roots in order to emulate current American pop music trends.

In 1969, Fela brought Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles to tour and record.

They toured America for about eight months using Los Angeles as a home base.

It was while there that Fela hooked up with a friend, Sandra Isidore, who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver (and by extension the Black Panthers), and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism.

So impressed at what he read, Fela was politically revivified and decided that some changes were in order: first, the name of the band, as Koola Lobitos became Nigeria 70; second, the music would become more politically explicit and critical of the oppression of the powerless worldwide.

After a disagreement with an unscrupulous promoter who turned them in to the Immigration and Naturalisation Services, Fela and band were charged with working without work permits.

Realizing that time was short before they were sent back to Nigeria, they were able to scrape together some money to record some new songs in L.A. What came to be known as the ’69 Los Angeles Sessions were remarkable, an indication of a maturing sound and of the raucous, propulsive music that was to mark Fela’s career.

Afrobeat’s combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela’s quasi-rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove (in the early days driven by the band’s brilliant drummer Tony Allen) that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound. Once hooked, it was impossible to get enough.

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”) .

Playing constantly and recording at a ferocious pace, Fela and band (who were now called Africa 70) became huge stars in West Africa.

His biggest fan base, however, was Nigeria’s poor masses.

Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass (specifically a military government that profited from political exploitation and disenfranchisement), Fela was more than simply a pop star; like Bob Marley in Jamaica, he was the voice of Nigeria’s have-nots, a cultural rebel.

This was something Nigeria’s military junta tried to nip in the bud, and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him.

In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 (the second government sanctioned attack).

Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal.

The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.

After the Kalakuta tragedy, Fela briefly lived in exile in Ghana, returning to Nigeria in 1978. In 1979 he formed his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), and at the start of the new decade renamed his band Egypt 80. From 1980-1983, Nigeria was under civilian rule, and it was a relatively peaceful period for Fela, who recorded and toured non-stop. Military rule returned in 1983, and in 1984 Fela was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of currency smuggling. With help from Amnesty International, he was freed in 1985.

As the ’80s ended, Fela recorded blistering attacks against Nigeria’s corrupt military government, as well as broadsides aimed at Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (most abrasively on the album Beasts of No Nation).

When it came to relationships with women or patriarchy in general (the fact was that he was sexist in the extreme, which is ironic when you consider that his mother was one of Nigeria’s early feminists), he was coming around to the struggles faced by African women, but only just barely.

Fela’s music sincerely didn’t change much during this time, and much of what he recorded, while good, was not as blistering as some of the amazing music he made in the ’70s.

When a Fela record appeared, it was always worth a listen. He was unusually quiet in the ’90s, which may have had something to do with how ill he was; very little new music appeared, but in as great a series of reissues as the planet has ever seen, the London-based Stern’s Africa label re-released some of his long unavailable records (including The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions), and the seminal works of this remarkable musician were again filling up CD bins.

He never broke big in the U.S. market, and it’s hard to imagine him having the same kind of posthumous profile that Marley does, but Fela’s 50-something releases offer up plenty of remarkable music, and a musical legacy that lives on in the person of his talented son, Femi.

Fela exhorted social change in such songs as “Zombie,” “Monkey Banana,” “Beasts of No Nation,” and “Upside Down.” Fela (as he was popularly known) and his band, which was known variously as the Nigeria 70, Africa 70, and later the Egypt 80, performed for packed houses at the early-morning concerts that they staged at Fela’s often raided nightclub in Lagos.

The firebrand singer, who gyrated over the keyboard as he sang in English and Yoruba, struck a chord among the unemployed, disadvantaged, and oppressed. His politically charged songs, which decried oppression by Nigeria’s military government, prompted authorities to routinely raid his club, looking for reasons to jail him.

Near there he also set up a communal compound, which he proclaimed the independent Kalakuta Republic. As head of the commune, he often provoked controversy and attracted attention by promoting indulgence in sex, polygamy (he married 27 women), and drugs, especially marijuana.

A 1977 raid on the complex by Nigerian authorities resulted in his brief incarceration and the death of his mother the following year due to complications from a fall. In exile in Ghana in 1978, he changed his name from Ransome to the tribal Anikulapo.

In 1979 Fela formed a political party, the Movement of the People, and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Nigeria. Five years later he was jailed for 20 months on charges of currency smuggling.

Upon his release, he turned away from active political protest and left his son, Femi, to carry the torch of Afro-beat music.

Fela was jailed again in 1993 for murder, but the charges were eventually dropped. He died as a result of complications from AIDS.


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