Fela Kuti was meant to be a doctor, an upstanding member of Nigeria’s elite like his father, an Anglican pastor who had founded the Nigeria Union of Teachers, and his mother, an aristocrat, nationalist and fiery feminist who had won the Lenin peace prize. His two brothers were already committed to the medical profession to which he was likewise promised. At 20 he would study in England, where his first cousin, Wole Soyinka, was already making waves as a literary lion.
Instead, Fela Ransome-Kuti became infamous, an outlaw musician who declared himself president of his own “Kalakuta Republic“, a sprawling compound in the suburbs of Lagos that housed his recording studio and offered sanctuary to his supporters. At his club, the Shrine, his band played until dawn while dozens of singers and dancers writhed and glittered amid drifts of smoke. Here, Nigeria’s corrupt dictators were denounced and ancient Yoruban deities honored, all to a backdrop of the “Afrobeat“.
His music and outspokenness made Fela a hero to Africa’s poor, but he would pay a high price for his micro-republic, which was repeatedly raided, and he and his followers would be arrested and beaten. In early 1977, the military junta had enough – Fela’s record Zombie, mocking the army’s do-as-you’re-told mentality, may have been the tipping point for head of state General Obasanjo, who had once been in the same primary school class as Fela. A thousand soldiers overwhelmed Kalakuta, brutalising and raping as they went, then burning the compound to the ground. Fela was beaten close to death, and his elderly mother thrown from an upstairs window which caused her death from the injuries.
Fela established a short-lived political party and continued to conflict with the authorities. Songs like “ITT (International Thief Thief)”, for example, spoke against the exploitation of Africa by multinationals. Increasingly, he carried his music and message to an international audience through record sales and stadium concerts. Fela toured with a 50-strong entourage. In true Fela rebel fashion he made albums of 20-minute songs, sometimes not singing until 3-4 minutes into the song. Fela was imprisoned for two years on trumped-up currency charges on the eve of a 1984 world tour. Later, Fela became a student of the spirit, only leaving home to play twice a week at the Shrine.
Upon his death from an Aids-related illness at the age of 58 in 1997 Fela left behind seven children, 50-odd albums and a musical legacy that has been kept fiercely alive by his sons Femi and Seun. Recently Afrobeat has become a cause célèbre among young European and American music fans.
The musical “Fela!” became the unexpected toast first of off-Broadway and then Broadway itself, garnering rave reviews and a string of awards. Never able to conquer the United States while alive, Fela Kuti had finally been taken to its cultural heart, captivating a new generation of black luminaries such as Jay-Z (one of the show’s co-producers) and Alicia Keys. Next month the production opens at London’s National theatre, with African-American actor Sahr Ngaujah alternating in the lead role with Britain’s Rolan Bell.