Fela Kuti’s AfroBeat; or the Pan-African Revolution Through Music.
By Issa Nyaphaga
Fela Kuti, is known in Africa as Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His “middle name” ANIKULAPO in Yoruba means “the one who has death in his pocket.” For the mainstream media and the public in the West he is simply Fela. Mr. Kuti has gone through many transformations his struggle for socio-political justice for Africans. Surely he has earned the title “The Black President of the Kalakuta Republic.” Fela Kuti is undeniably recognized as an emblematic figure standing against political oppression, the pioneer of revolutionary genre of music called “AfroBeat” that he created to support his fight for social justice. Mr. Kuti was a composer, a multi-instrumentalist musician and a performer. As a human rights activist and a political maverick, Mr. Anikulapo was arrested and beaten by the dictatorial regimes that ruled Nigeria at the time. In 2008, a theatrical production debuted portraying Fela Kuti’s life entitled simply “Fela”. It was the result of a collaboration between the AfroBeat band, Antibalas, and Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones. The show was a major success on Broadway playing to sold out audiences for three good years. It was an historical breakthrough for an African artist in Western show biz.
Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938 in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. In the late 50s, he was sent to London to study medicine and decided to study classical music instead. Fela started with the trumpet but he did not stop there. He explored other music instruments, such as piano, guitar, saxophone, drum and voice, his ancestral medium. As a student in London, Fela struggled to sustain his studies and faced discrimination from British society. While looking for a room to rent, he would meet signs: “No blacks, no dogs!”, Kuti shared later. His country, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, was one of the ex-colonies the British Empire and was “Independent” in 1960, but the power belongs to an oligarchy, the legacy of colonialism. That period of Fela’s life shaped his revolutionary thinking toward the Establishment. Historically this was the turning point when Fela became the voice of the voiceless; his music was composed and performed to demand justice, basic rights, and Power to the People.
In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria to form Koola Lobitos, his first music band and collaborated with many other musicians who performed at the Shrine, his nightclub cabaret in the heart of (the neighborhood he independently proclaimed “Kalakuta Republic”) in the city of Lagos. In 1967, he traveled Ghana for residency in need of new musical horizons. That was where Fela first created the pioneering music concept baptized; AfroBeat.
Why does Mr. Kuti’s music claims “Black Power” in such a “mono-ethnic” society like in Nigeria where the last English colonist left 30 years ago? Because in the minds the African intellectuals, Colonization is not only associated to the color of a skin or being only from a European origin; it is a mentality, an attitude toward the so-called “Indigenous” and the awkward behavior of a handful of rulers who sat on Nigeria’s 130 millions people’ wealth. That is the social injustice, corruption, nepotism and grid issues. Nigeria has a rich soil but poor people. Anikolapo-Kuti always denounces in his musical work and speeches. Beyond the successful message that resonates the aspirations of the mass of underserved populations, AfroBeat’s rhythm is indeed seductive to the victims of the neo-colonialism the author is pointing out. This is what Fela aims to overcome with his Afrobeat; he wants power returned to the people as it was before colonialism; Black Power Back to the People.
The king of AfroBeat did not become a popular and an inspiring leader by historical mistake; he came from generations of political opposition against the Establishment in his country. His mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was political activist and a leader of the feminist movement in Nigeria. His father Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a clergyman and the leader the Nigerian Teachers’ Union. The young Fela grew up being fed with all the ingredients to become the maverick who would carry higher the torch of social justice. In addition, looking at Fela’s background, the “black president” shares a close “cousinery” with the legendary writer, and Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka. Soyinka is the first ever African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984 with the book “The Lion and the Jewel”.
In the heart of the Black Panther movement, Fela traveled on a tour with his band to the U.S. and spent almost a year in Los Angeles. While in the United States, Fela Kuti discovered the struggle of Black activists and their slogan “All Power to the People” resonated to the man who could not wait to fight neo-colonialism, and his U.S. experience strongly influenced the lyrics in his music. After he returned to Nigeria, Anikolapo changed the name of the band to Nigeria ’70, but kept the concept of AfroBeat, which remains indeed one of the most trans-cultural sounds today.
Fela Ransome Anikolapo Kuti died on August 3, 1997 in Lagos. Over one million people attended his funeral service in Kalakuta Republic where he lived the most gorgeous moments of his life.
One critic has confessed that, “you just don’t describe his music; AfroBeat is an indescribable genre of music, you gotta live it.” But Wikipedia has tried the exercise, and here it’s, with the final touch about the mythical drummer Tony Allen:
“The musical style of Felá is called AfroBeat style he largely created, which is a complex fusion ofJazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian High-life, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan” African-style percussion that Kuti acquired while studying in Ghana with Hugh Massekela, under the uncanny Hedzoleh Soundz. The importance of the input of Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer of twenty years) in the creation of Afrobeat cannot be overstated. Fela once famously stated that “without Tony Allen, there would be no Afrobeat”.
Issa N. Nyaphaga
Artist, Cartoonist & Human Rights Activist
Professor of Contemporary African Art, Social Justice & Cultural Diversity
Santa Fe, New Mexico – USA – Oct. 14, 2015.