My mom’s been quoting Fela Kuti to me since I’ve been old enough to form memories. A paragon of African music and the creator of the Afrobeat genre, Fela Kuti’s work is not only memorable but still culturally important. While his reputation as a bon vivant has continued to scandalize even years after his death, his creation of the still thriving, globally popular Afrobeat genre and his human rights activism have left an astounding legacy.
Fela Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938 in the city of Abeokuta in Nigeria. His father, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a high school principal and Anglican priest and his mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a feminist organizer and educator. Both his parents were well known and respected. His father was the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers and his mother had the title ‘Chief’ bestowed on her as an acknowledgment of the work she’d done in the community. Growing up in a milieu that valued intellectualism and civic-mindedness, Fela, the youngest of three boys, soaked up all of these influences. It’s almost unsurprising that Fela went on to create the work that he did. His cousin Wole Soyinka likely did too, as he went on to become the first African Nobel Laureate.
When Fela left to go to university in London at the age of 20, his father expected him to study medicine like his two older brothers. He, like his cousin, shifted to a more creative path, and enrolled at the Trinity College of Music, studying composition and concentrating on the trumpet. Even before setting off to England, Fela had his sights set on music. In high school, he loved listening to highlife bandleaders like Rex Jim Lawson and Victor Olaiya and began sitting in with bands led by musicians like Roy Chicago, Bobby Benson, Eddie Okonta, and Billy Friday. He was also enamored of Miles Davis’s recordings with Charlie Parker and became interested in Afro-Cuban music while studying at Trinity.
Fela started his first band Koola Lobitos while at Trinity and they began playing their fusion of jazz and highlife at various venues. Pianist Wole Bucknor and fine jazz drummer Bayo Martins were members of the band who steered Fela’s musical interests and would also go on to become prominent themselves. They were further influenced by James Brown’s sound and their string of performances eventually turned into a tour in the United States.
The 1969 tour consisted of a slew of failures, leaving Fela with a load of debt and legal issues. However, being surrounded by musicians, writers, and painters who infused their work with political consciousness was a positive influence for him. He also discovered he enjoyed smoking marijuana, which would later become a point of contention with the Nigerian government. He started a new group called Nigeria 70 which he later renamed Africa 70, and hired out a nightclub where the band could perform multiple nights a week. With this strategy Fela’s music continued to accrue increasing amounts of notoriety, all the while changing names, venues, musicians, and experimenting musically. His lyrics often expressed the political theories he was turning over in his head and he frequently circled back to criticism of government corruption and praise of Afro-centric consciousness.
While his music gained popularity, Fela’s hedonism became reliable tabloid fodder. His marriage to 28 women in a single day is still infamous. His treatment of the harem of women who sometimes performed in his shows was seen as evidence of chauvinism. His endorsement of marijuana served as a pretext for ongoing raids by the authoritarian government*, who came after him for his criticisms of brutality and corruption. Kuti found himself in prison on various occasions where he was subject to torture.
More than a million people attended his funeral when Fela Kuti died in 1997, reportedly from complications due to AIDS. He’s left behind an incredible musical legacy, inspiring the Broadway play Fela!, and having two sons Seun Kuti and Femi Kuti who went on to cultivate incredible musical reputations of their own. His activism and politically conscious music are still unbelievably inspirational as well and some combination of all these things is why Fela Kuti epitomizes so well the spirit of the conscious rebel.
*Many of his criticisms were of the administration led by Muhammadu Buhari. Yes, this is the same Buhari who conspiracy theorists believe has been replaced by a body double.