Fela Kuti (born October 15, 1938 – August 2, 1997) as a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist musician and composer, pioneer of Afrobeat music, human rights activist, and political maverick. Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria into a middle-class family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a Protestant minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers.
Kuti was sent to London in 1958 to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. While there he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1963, Kuti moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
In 1967 he went to Ghana and developed a new musical direction. What resulted was a musical style Kuti would call Afrobeats. Afrobeat is a complex fusion of Jazz, Funk, Ghanaian/Nigerian Highlife, 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 Masekela, under the uncanny Hedzoleh Soundz. Tony Allen(Kuti’s drummer of twenty years) played a key role in the formulation and development of Afrobeats.
Some elements often present in Kuti’s music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. Kuti’s songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reaching the 20 or even 30 minutes, while some unreleased tracks would last up to 45 minutes when performed live. Kuti was known for his showmanship, and his concerts were often quite outlandish and wild. He referred to his stage act as the Underground Spiritual Game.
In 1969, Kuti took the band to the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Kuti and his band were in the U.S. without work permits. The band then performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as ‘The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions’.
After Kuti and his band returned to Nigeria, the band was renamed The Africa ’70, as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta Republic, a commune, a recording studio, and a home for many connected to the band that he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. Kuti set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, named the Afro-Spot and then the Afrika Shrine, where he performed regularly. Kuti also changed his middle name to Anikulapo (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”) on the basis that his original middle name of Ransome was a slave name.
Kuti’s music became very popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. His decision to sing in Pidgin English borne out of the desire that his Music be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local languages spoken were very diverse and numerous. As popular as Kuti’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was not held in high regard by the ruling governments, and it became a common feature for Kalakuta Republic to be raided.
In 1972, Ginger Baker recorded ‘Stratavarious’ with Kuti appearing alongside Bobby Gass. Around this time, Kuti was becoming more involved in Yoruba religion. In 1977, Kuti and the Afrika ’70 released the album ‘Zombie’ a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Kuti’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Kuti claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten.
Kuti’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, and to write two songs, ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Unknown Soldier’ referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier.
Kuti and his band then took residence in Crossroads Hotel as the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune. In 1978, Kuti married 27 women, many of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Later, he was to adopt a rotation system of keeping only twelve simultaneous wives.
The year was also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in Accra in which riots broke out during the song ‘Zombie’ which led to Kuti being banned from entering Ghana. The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Kuti’s musicians deserted him, due to rumors that Kuti was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
Despite the massive setbacks, Kuti was determined to come back. He formed his own political party, which he called Movement of the People. In 1979, he put himself forward for President in Nigeria’s first elections for more than a decade, but his candidature was refused. At this time, Kuti created a new band called Egypt ’80 and continued to record albums and tour the country. He further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of ITT Corporation vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed titled ‘I.T.T.’ (International Thief-Thief)
In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari’s government, of which Kuti was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a charge of currency smuggling which Amnesty International and others denounced as politically motivated. His case was taken up by several human-rights groups, and after 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release he divorced his twelve remaining wives.
Once again, Kuti continued to release albums with Egypt ’80, made a number of successful tours of the United States and Europe and also continued to be politically active. In 1986, Kuti performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of the Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope concert, sharing the bill with Bono, Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers. In 1989, Kuti and Egypt ’80 released the anti-apartheid ‘Beasts of No Nation’ album that depicts on its cover U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African Prime Minister Pieter Willem Botha.
His album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually he stopped releasing albums altogether. In 1993, he and four members of the Afrika ’70 organization were arrested for murder. The battle against military corruption in Nigeria was taking its toll, especially during the rise of dictator Sani Abacha. Rumors were also spreading that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment.
On August 3, 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, stunned the nation by announcing his younger brother’s death a day earlier from Kaposi’s sarcoma brought on by AIDS. More than a million people attended Kuti’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound. A new Africa Shrine has opened since Kuti’s death in a different section of Lagos under the supervision of his son Femi Kuti.
He was recently awarded at the Nigerian Centenary celebrations but his family chose not to accept the award stating that the Federal Government apologize for killing his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and also for burning of Kalakuta Republic.