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Time it seems has passed since the legendary musical icon Fela Kuti left the musical scene, but his message and music definitely lives on, and to him we still owe a son of Africa who was truly special and singular, so that today Africans and indeed the black diaspora still celebrate the message he told. It is therefore no mistake that recently he was honored on Broadway. The show was successful, running for three years in the US alone. It won three Tony Awards with several nominations since the launch (2006). The show has since been moved to London for re-launch. But just as Fela is special to the black diaspora, so is the Nigerian great cherished by Liberians. His music was heard at a time of great social and political upheavals in the Western African nation.
By the 1970s progressivism and liberalism were shaping the political and social debates peripherally in Africa and the greater black diaspora, Liberia being no exception. Fela was a hit in there; he finally came to the country during the famous Reggae Sun splash Concert ’87. While in Monrovia, Fela chastised the military movement in Liberia’s politics and was noted to have said ‘don’t overtake…overtake… overtake!’ his contribution to social change is well noted.
“We have an uphill battle,” said Stephen Hendel, the producer who started the Fela! Project, “because we don’t have a recognized star, and Fela is an international artist and musician who is outside the mainstream of American culture.” But it seems his fame is growing more than ever, even in America.
For what he brought to music and jazz, respectively and the struggled for rights collectively, he still remains unappreciated. Where Fela Kuti pioneered ‘Afrobeat’ in Africa and abroad, and his message of social change toned to poverty and corruption and the emancipation of the African peoples, especially post continental independent Africa in the 1960s, so did Bob Marley and his brand of ‘reggae’ music resounded beyond the coast of Jamaica. Marley’s music was profoundly influenced by the societal conditions in his country and the African diaspora. Like Fela, Marley also lend voice to the social iniquities in his native Jamaica. And today the campaign to end political corruption, inequality and injustice abounds in Africa and beyond Kuti and Marley many have said have a lot in common as far as their music and message.
Fela’s music and his genius are well crafted in what can be referred to specifically as the Afrobeat. It draws influence also from American jazz and is enriched by reggae too. Afrobeat’s also progressed into a unique jazz-fusion that evolved in the 1960s setting the stage for a world music which was uniquely African.
Disenfranchised like millions of Nigerians, like millions of Africans across the continent by military and autocratic regimes, Fela campaigned vigorously against military rule politicizing his message through music and especially the trumpet. He recorded many songs in Nigerian pidgin (English), which is commonly spoken by the locals in Nigeria and recognizable in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Nigerian democracy may seem a long way from perfection today, but Fela, once considered a political dissent in Nigeria must also be credited for helping to nurture Nigeria’s political stability through his persistent activism.
Still, the African landscape continues to see a lot of musicians, producers, lyricists who are drawn to the music of Fela Kuti. But more than that, activists also uphold his message which is pitch towards the cause of injustice and the oppressed in Nigeria specifically and Africa generally.
Because Fela sang and spoke against the social structures that were built to support the wealthy and powerful few and collaborators on the continent and his native Nigeria, the Nigerian military dictatorship labeled him a ‘rebel.’ He was so tinted by them because of these views, he was jailed in 1984, by Gen. Muhammad Buhari’s military dictatorship on a feeble charge of currency smuggling, the indictments were condemn by rights groups as politically motivated, intimidation however never stopped him.
For Fela, smoking marijuana came naturally. The Nigeria musical giant was also an unabashed Africanist known for his psychedelic style for women that have been referred to as promiscuous. True to his Pan-African roots Fela also was a strong advocate for the Black Power Movement. Foreign governments also hated him. His ‘Zombie’ album was so popular, it stirred controversy during a concert in Ghana and he was banned from entering that country.
When Fela’s ‘Kalakuta Republic’ declared independence from Nigeria: he was simply mocking the political establishment, the men in military uniforms got irritated; he was again harassed. Kalakuta republic was simply his communal compound and true to his radical populist roots and sense of mission he used the compound which was situated at 14 Agege Motor Road, Idi-Oro, Mushin, Lagos, Nigeria as a place for charity. He hosted there free medical and recording studios. It was raided in 1977 by soldiers, looted and burnt down. It is believed the military dictatorship also murdered his mother. He came from a prominent Nigerian family.
The Nigerian has been described by others as larger than life. Kuti came from a Nigerian elite family. His parents were of the Yoruba tribe. He was name Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti at birth on October 15, 1938 in Abeokuta. His parents had wish for him to become a doctor and sent him to London to study medicine. But instead Fela enrolled at the Cambridge College of Music in pursuit of a career in music. His two other siblings went on to become professional doctors and activists in Nigeria. But it was Fela who traded his original middle name ‘Ransome’ which he claimed was a slave name for ‘Anikulapo,’ meaning “one who carries death in his porch.” Fela returned to Nigeria (1963), there, he trained and worked as a broadcaster (programmer) while he continued improving the band and music that would become a global sensation. Fela’s Afrobeat unique sound included his bands Koola Lobito (re-named) Nigeria ’70 (re-named) Africa ’70 and then Egypt ’80.
In Fela, the world would see a man who was a Pan-Africanist by instinct, and when his band toured the US in ’69, the music legend also discovered the Black Power Movement and became an active advocate for the movement globally. He fathered several children some of whom continue in his footsteps: Femi and Seun. When he was laid to rest in 1997; one million mourners show up to paid their respect. Kuti will be remembered perhaps as Africa’s most influential world musician.
His international fame now attested Fela is now being referred to as the “the James Brown of Africa,” by some. “African music is becoming such a staple in mainstream America that heavyweight hip hop producer Swizz Beatz can’t resist the infectious sounds of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti In a recently released mixtape titled Swizz Beats vs. Fela Kuti, Swizzy blends Kuti classics such as “Yellow Fever,” “African Woman,” and “No Agreement” with some of his biggest hits, including “Touch It” and “Tambourine.” While some have argued that African music is becoming too ‘American,’ it looks like American music is the one becoming more African,” said Orijin Culture in March 2011,the website says it is dedicated to “Connecting all African Decedents through Culture.”
It’s safe to mention Fela’s classical rhythm too, because Afrobeat did set the stage for contemporary world music. It influence can be seen through other genres of music like afro-pop and hip-hop.
Don’t we all still take inspiration from Fela’s music and his message? Even with time he remains relevant. Jazz aficionado Michael Veal, a Yale professor passionately followed Fela’s career for over 20 years. “In his own country of Nigeria he was simultaneously adulated and loathed, often by the same people at the same time. His outspoken political views and advocacy of marijuana smoking and sexual promiscuity offended many, even as his musical brilliance enthralled them. In his creation of Afrobeat, he melded African traditions with African-American and Afro-Caribbean influences to revolutionize world music,” veal wrote.
As a Pan-Africanist Fela understood that his fight was two-fold: the growing polarization across the continent and the persistent meddling and exploitation by the West and the powerful politicians. For what he gave us, what can we gave back in return, but to thank him immensely for enriching our lives. For, he still lives in our time!
P.S First published in "Liberian Listener" (December '12)