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A man who married 27 wives in one day, the father of Afrobeat, an eccentric, social activist—many great accomplishments are associated with the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His legacy lives on through his music, his activism, and the musicians of today he influenced. To achieve this notoriety, he synthesized various cultural influences to create an entirely new sound which still lives on today. Apart from the music, Fela continued his theatrical performances into a uninterrupted artistic statement off stage breaking down barriers of private and public life.
Few men are as synonymous with a musical movement as Fela Kuti is with Afrobeat. The story of Fela and Afrobeat starts in 1957. This year marks Fela’s first year studying at the London School of Music. Fela encountered a thriving jazz scene and often skipped class to jam with jazz musicians and others in the international music scene. Fela did not finish his course of study and headed back to Nigeria in 1963. His time back in West Africa comprised of traveling between Ghana and Nigeria, performing with his band, Africa 70, and experimenting with contemporary forms of music.
During Fela’s seminal trip to Los Angeles in 1969, he encountered cultural elements such as the black panther movement and American funk music that heavily influenced his later work. In Fela: This Bitch of Life, Fela’s authorized biography, it demonstrates that meeting Sandra Isidore was one of Fela’s most important groundbreaking moments. The young Black Nationalist showed Fela Malcolm X’s biography, which helped awaken Fela’s political conscious and Afrobeat sound. Another influential element of American culture was funk music, specifically James Brown. Malcolm X’s critique of social structure and James Brown’s innovative sound created the foundation for Fela Kuti’s legacy today.
Return to Nigeria and the Formation of the Kalakuta Republic
Within the first few years of Fela’s return to Nigeria, he formed the Kalakuta Republic, performed regularly at his own club called The Shrine and formed the basis of Afrobeat. The Kalakuta Republic was a commune free from the oppressive rule of local authorities. It housed his family, his band members, and recording studio. By declaring his compound free from the tyrannic rule of Nigeria’s military regime, it served as a critique of the military regimes unjust rule. Residents of Nigeria that agreed with Fela’s political opposition joined for live shows at the Shrine. This location served as the focal point for Fela’s band and fans to join solidarity as they peacefully rebelled against Nigeria’s military regimes. Fela crafted the Afrobeat sound by synthesizing elements of west African music with American Jazz and funk influences—Afrobeat was the African counterpart to American funk.
Social and Political Commentary in Afrobeat
Social and political commentary were interwoven between musical components like chanted vocals, complex intersecting rhythms and percussion. The different musical elements were derived from various influences: Yoruba rhythms, Ghanaian Highlife, jazz, American funk and pidgin English. Fela chose pidgin English because he did not want to tribalize his music; his goal was to reach as wide of an audience as possible. With at least 10 or more band members, Fela preformed long-winded and theatrical performances that incorporated polyrhythmic beats with advice for young Africans to suppress their oppressors in the Post-Colonial Era. His confrontational lyrics addressed the political injustice and military corruption of Nigeria. While African governments restructured after decolonization, Fela urged fellow Africans to become self-reliant and to stand up the unjust power structures.
Reaction to Fela Kuti
Fela’s social and political commentary performed at the Shrine and disseminated through recordings did not fall onto deaf ears. The continued mockery of Nigeria’s military dictatorship won the admiration from the common man, inspired a young generation of West Africans to start their own Afrobeat bands. Unfortunately, it also prompted soldiers in Nigeria to clamp down on Fela’s free expression. In 1977, the military dictatorship of Nigeria burned down both the Kalakuta Republic and the Shrine as statements of suppression against Fela’s music. During the raid of the Kalakuta and subsequent arson, Fela's mother was thrown out of a window. The military dictatorship burned down both of Fela’s emblematic platforms because of song “Zombie”, which claimed that soldiers were zombies and could only act if instructed to do so. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Fela continued to find himself harassed by various authorities, landing in jail at various times and getting beaten.
Influence of Fela Kuti
The anti-corruption and civil rights messages along with musical innovation of Fela’s expression continue to Afrobeat and musical expression of today. Femi Kuti, Fela’s son, continues his father’s legacy while creating his down distinctive take. Rooted in a similar social and political commentary, Femi has collaborated with modern artists like Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright. Femi Kuti currently operates a new Shrine in Lagos, built in 1997 following Fela’s death. Modern artists of today that have used Afrobeat influences include Paul Simon, Brian Eno, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and Peter Gabriel. In 2009, a musical called FELA! moved from off to on-Broadway and accumulated eleven Tony awards nominations and three wins.
Fela Kuti influenced a generation of young people in Africa to object to unjust rule and inspire them with a new form of musical expression. His legacy is unquestionable and he will remain an emblematic figure for those looking for either musical or social activism inspiration. If you enjoyed this story, make sure to check out The Talking Heads' Album which used many percussive and polyrhythmic beats used by Fela Kuti. Also check out Fela's store which has many different items of memorabilia such as posters and records.