Fela Kuti

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Fela Kuti

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born October 15, 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria to parents Funmilayo and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Fela was blessed with greatness in his genes; his father was a Protestant Preacher and School Principle, his mother was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement; she was said to be the inspiration behind Fela’s political activism.  In 1958 Fela was sent to Trinity College in London, England to study medicine, but made the decision to study music instead. In College he formed his first band Koola Lobitos, a band that played a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1963 Kuti moved back to Nigeria and reformed his band, he also trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1967 Kuti traveled to Ghana and developed Afrobeat.

Afrobeat is a complex fusion of Jazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High Life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Kuti’s music also incorporated call and response, and he was also known for making songs that could last up to forty five minutes. Fela developed a reputation for being a showman, his concerts were very extravagant, and he called his stage act Underground Spiritual Game. In 1969 Fela Kuti arrived in the United States to engage in some recording sessions, while recording in Los Angeles authorities were tipped off by a sour promoter that the band was recording without a permit. The band recorded the sessions in a hurry and later released the sessions as “The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions”.

When Kuti returned to Nigeria he renamed his band the Africa ’70, he also changed his lyrics from music about love to music about political issues. He formed the Kalakuta Republic, a place where he housed a commune, a recording studio, and a home for many that connected to the band that later declared independent from the Nigerian State. Kuti became very popular through his music; he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so his music reached a large number of people. With fame came problems, he was often raided by the ruling Government labeled as a problem.

In 1977 Kuti released the album “Zombie”, an attack on Nigerian soldiers using zombie as a metaphor for methods the military used. The album was a smash hit, and an insult to the Nigerian Government. The Government retaliated with an attack on the Kalakuta Republic, during the attack one thousand soldiers attacked the commune, Kuti was severely beaten and his mother thrown from a window causing fatal injuries. Kuti’s studio was destroyed and burned down; they lost all their music and the masters to their recordings. In response to his mother’s death Kuti delivered his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, Nigeria, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence. He wrote two songs in addition to delivering his mother’s coffin, “Coffin for head of state” and “Unknown Soldier”.

In 1978 Kuti married 27 women to mark the attack on the Kalakuta Republic, later he adopted a rotation system, keeping only 12 wives at a time. He also had two notorious concerts because of riots; one led to him being banned from Ghana, the other in Berlin the Jazz Festival where his musicians deserted him because of rumors about money. Despite setbacks Kuti pushed forward, he formed his political party which he called “Movement of the people”. Kuti put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections, but was refused. He used his time to create a new band Egypt ’80, and further infuriated the Government by dropping names of ITT Corporation vice-president Moshood Abiola, and then General Olusegun Obasanjo. In 1984, Muhammad Buhari’s government, Kuti’s opponent jailed him on a charge of smuggling currency.

His case was taken up by human-rights groups, and after 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. A condition of his release was him divorcing his remaining twelve wives. Kuti continued to release albums with Egypt ’80; he performed in Giants Stadium at the Conspiracy of Hope concert with Bono, Carlo Santana, and The Neville Brothers. In 1989, Kuti released the anti-apartheid “Beast of a nation” album, depicting Ronald Regan, Margret Thatcher and Pieter Willem Botha on the album cover. Album output slowed then stopped in the 90’s, and he and four members of his organization were arrested for murder. His battle against military corruption took its toll, it was said that he was suffering from illnesses but refused treatment. Fela died August 7, 1997; more than a million people attended his funeral. Fela left a legacy of servant hood, activism and relentlessness. He was a, musical genius, who used his talents to uplift his people, Fela Kuti we proudly stand on your shoulders.

J.A. Ward.

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