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Who is Fela Anikalapo Kuti? A globally beloved icon, Fela Kuti was one of the most influential musicians and political activists of the 20th century. He is known for pioneering Afrobeat, a percussion-heavy genre of music that fuses traditional Yoruba music, American funk, jazz, and Afro-Cuban music with politically-charged lyrics. His staunch opposition to the Nigerian military regime led to his being arrested 200 times, with himself, his musicians, and his followers suffering countless beatings. A dedicated pan-Africanist, Fela urged Nigeria and those of African descent to denounce the Western values enforced by colonization, inspiring people all over the African diaspora to embrace their roots. Using his music as a political weapon, he would forever change how his country fought for their rights.

Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, into the prestigious Ransome-Kuti family, with its long lineage of highly educated revolutionists, doctors, and artists. His mother was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an anti-colonialist and fierce feminist who led the Nigerian Women's movement;  his father, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was a protestant minister and president of the Nigerian teachers’ union. His grandfather was Josiah Ransome-Kuti, a musically-talented Anglican priest who was the first to translate Christian hymns into Yoruba. 

Fela’s music career began in 1958 when he ditched his plan to study medicine and instead studied music at London’s Trinity College. Enamored with highlife, a Ghanaian music genre that fuses indigenous African styles with Western instruments, and jazz, Fela played a fusion of the two with his band Koola Lobitos all over London. Fela returned to Nigeria in 1963 with his newly-formed sound but met underwhelming success since highlife and jazz weren't as popular in Nigeria at the time.  His music - and his entire life - transformed after his ten-month tour in the United States in 1969. During this time he met Sandra Izsadore, a Black rights activist, composer, and singer, who became Fela’s friend, lover, and mentor. Sandra introduced Fela to the Black Power movement in the U.S., turning his mind onto the philosophies of Black revolutionists like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Stokely Carmichael. From this experience, Fela learned more about African history than he had back home, where history and education were whitewashed by colonization. When he returned to Nigeria, he was ignited with a new passion for political activism for his home country. 

During this time, Nigeria was in disarray thanks to the aftermath of British colonization and the country’s 1967 civil war, a bloody conflict that resulted in an oppressive military dictatorship. Under this corrupt government, Nigerian citizens faced beatings from soldiers, poverty, famine, and a lack of resources while government officials pocketed the country’s revenue for themselves. Before his trip to the U.S., Fela was not as involved in Nigeria’s political landscape. As Fela developed a deeper understanding of Nigeria’s corruption, he turned away from feel-good music and started making the provocative music we know him for today -- Afrobeat. 

Afrobeat spread like wildfire all over Nigeria, and eventually the entire world. Afrobeat’s energetic rhythms are easy to dance to, and its sociopolitical messaging exposed the effects of Nigeria’s corruption on its citizens in an outright way others shied away from. To reach the widest audience possible, Fela intentionally put his lyrics in Nigerian Pidgin. Also known as Naija, Nigerian Pidgin is the common language spoken by all ethnic groups and social classes in Nigeria. As a lingua franca most common among the working class, Nigerian Pidgin is used to conduct business, socialize at gatherings, and, much to Fela’s benefit, talk about politics.

The 1970s was a golden era for Fela. With his new sound and mindset, Fela became a top-selling artist in Nigeria, releasing some of his most impactful albums: Roforofo Fight (1972), Gentleman (1973), Expensive Shit (1975), Zombie (1977), and Sorrow Tears And Blood (1977). Now a conscious anti-colonialist, Fela changed his surname from Ransome-Kuti, which he denounced as a colonizer name, to Anikulapo-Kuti (meaning, “he who carries death in his pouch”). His rebellious streak carried over to his spiritual beliefs when he denounced Christianity as a tool of White supremacy and advocated for a return to traditional Yoruba practices. 

When in Nigeria, Fela performed at his own nightclub, The Afrika Shrine, where lines of people eager to watch Fela perform were always out the door. The Shrine was also part of his commune, the Kalakuta Republic, which he declared a separate entity from Nigeria. The commune housed him, his band members, and his dancers while serving as Fela’s recording space, political soapbox, and spiritual space. As Fela’s influence skyrocketed and The Shrine became the hottest spot in Lagos, Fela faced more and more harassment from the government, who despised how he boldly called them out in his music. Over the course of his life, Fela had his commune raided on multiple occasions, most often for fabricated crimes. The barrage of harassment erupted into a violent climax in February 1977, when 1000 soldiers burned down his commune, beating and sexually assaulting the 60 Kalakuta residents. The raid resulted in the death of his mother Funmilayo, who was thrown from a second-story window. 

Despite this heartbreaking tragedy, Fela doubled down on his activism. In 1979, he placed a symbolic coffin in honor of his mother at the Head of State's headquarters in Lagos, which led to the beating of him and all that came with him. This event inspired his hit song “Coffin for Head of State”.  

For the rest of his life, Fela continued touring all over the USA, Europe, and Africa, releasing hits like “Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense” (1986), and “Beasts of No Nation” (1989). And he still regularly faced government harassment, beatings, and false arrests. In 1984, Fela was arrested on charges of currency smuggling, and sent to prison for five years in Nigeria's most brutal prison, Kirikiiri. His sentence was reduced to 20 months once it was revealed that the judge who sentenced him was pressured by the government. 

Later in his life, he began suffering from skin lesions and dramatic weight loss, a sign of suffering from Kaposi's Sarcoma, an illness associated with HIV/AIDS. Being an AIDS denier, he refused treatment. He succumbed to his illness and died in 1997. Fela's funeral was a testament to all the lives he had touched with his music. Around 1 million people attended his funeral, lining the streets of Lagos and stopping the flow of traffic.

Fela’s impact has lived on well beyond his death. The fight for a better government is ongoing today, Fela and his music being an inspiration for activism. Musically, the trailblazing sounds of Afrobeat are still heard in popular music: artists including Beyonce, Wyclef Jean, Wizkid, and Jay Z, have cited him as an influence or sampled his music. Fela was a charming, charismatic man who loved music, women, and a good time… but most of all he loved Nigeria, and constantly put his life on the line to stand up for the rights of his countrymen. He will forever be remembered as a spirit and voice of those who are oppressed.


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