Who Was Fela Kuti And Why Is He Headed For The Rock Hall Of Fame?
Fela Kuti live at The Academy, Brixton, London 1983 (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
The late Fela Kuti, inventor of the Afrobeat genre of music, emerged from Nigeria to become both a musical and cultural messiah for his country in the '70s -- and in fact, he was a figure that all of Africa rallied around. He's sometimes compared to Bob Marley, in terms of his importance, although the comparison has some major flaws. As wildly popular as Kuti was in Africa, he never made the kind of connection with American or European audiences that Marley did. Kuti's music was also more overtly political, with albums consisting of extended jams that married withering criticism of authority figures to rump-shaking, hypnotic Afrobeat rhythm.
Afrobeat combines traditional African chants and rhythms with a mosaic of jazz, funk, and psychedelic rock. His music directly spoke to the destitute and disadvantaged people of Africa.
An Afrobeat Inventor Leading The Hall Of Fame Voting
Because of his outspoken criticism of authority figures -- the authoritarian leaders who've vexed Africa, really -- Kuti has also been compared to the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and the South African political prisoner Nelson Mandela. Obviously, his social efforts fell short of those of Mandela -- Kuti was a political philosopher and a rhetorical bomb-thrower, but he was not an organizer. But to many Africans he was both a musician and a revolutionary.
That brings us to the fan voting for the 2021 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Kuti was announced as one of the 16 nominees for 2021, in a field that includes Tina Turner, Devo, the Go-Go's, Carole King and others. When the voting was opened to the public, Kuti jumped out to a commanding lead, with votes pouring in, presumably, from Nigeria if not all of Africa. Kuti and the Afrobeat genre he invented may not have broken through to American audiences during his lifetime, but his African fans may help raise his profile more than 20 years after his death.
Fela Kuti Benefited From An Early Education
Fela Kuti was born in 1938 to an Anglican pastor father who founded the Nigeria Union of Teachers and a fiery feminist mother who won the Lenin Peace prize. Unlike many in Africa, Kuti received a quality education, attending the Trinity College of Music in London after grammar school in Africa.
Kuti’s cousin, Wole Soyinka, became the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. With high familial expectations, Kuti went his own way, starting his first band Koola Lobitos. In ‘67 Kuti traveled to Ghana, searching for musical inspiration. It was there that he first invented Afrobeat.
Coming To America
After leaving his job at the Nigerian National Broadcasting Corporation, Kuti went to America and rubbed elbows with numerous musicians and political groups like the Black Panthers. In the United States, he delved deeper into the history of Africa and gained a better understanding of his roots.
America also introduced him to the pleasures and dangers of marijuana and alcohol. As he stated, “Being African didn't mean anything to me until later in my life. When I was young we weren't even allowed to speak our own languages in school. They called it 'vernacular,' as if only English was the real tongue."
Conflict In Africa
Upon his return to Africa, he renamed his group Nigeria 70 and his legendary musical skills began to coalesce. According to one story, Kuti learned the tenor saxophone in 17 hours after a falling out with the group’s resident player. His music also became more outspoken, mocking the tyrannical treatment of the military junta that ran Nigeria. Eventually, the country’s military ruler General Obasanjo had enough and raided Kuti’s self-proclaimed independent republic called Kalakuta Republic that housed his many followers.
The multitude of raids became more and more violent, leading to endless beatings and rapes conducted by the military. The final assault razed Kalakuta Republic, nearly killed Kuti, and saw his mother thrown from a window. She sustained injuries from which she later died.
Fela Kuti’s Legacy Lives
After a failed political bid and a two-year stint in prison on dubious charges, Kuti’s music spread far and wide despite his early death from AIDS. Even now the strident musician and social warrior’s message grows louder and louder thanks to his children, a wildly successful Broadway musical appropriately named Fela!, and his posthumous run at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Broadway musical’s backers include Jay-Z, and Alicia Keys. It will also play at the London National Theatre.
As Rikki Stein, Kuti’s long time manager, says, "The show is faithful to Fela's character, a tornado of a man who liked to play, eat, have sex and get high. But he was also sweet – he loved humanity, he was principled. He was a lot of fun to be around. He'd show up in the lobby of a five-star hotel wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos."
Fela Kuti Was A Rock Star, With Rock-Star Excesses
Like many figures seeking to change the world, Fela Kuti’s legacy is not without blemishes. In ‘78 he married 27 women under the guise of protecting the women and himself from charges of kidnapping and prostitution. Later he established a rotating system whereby he would keep 12 wives simultaneously. He also denounced the use of condoms, calling AIDS a white man’s disease.
Later in life, he may have seen the error in his ways. He divorced his remaining 12 wives and declared that no man should own a woman’s body. Even one of his daughters, Yeni who proudly champions her father’s crusade for Africans, struggles with some of his actions. "I learned at an early age that men were polygamous, so I just accepted it. For me, as a kid, it was fun having so many stepmothers, though now, at 49, I wonder how my mother, Remi who was born and raised in England, really felt."
His sons Femi and Seun continue his legacy of music and fighting for the African people. Seun, who leads a latter-day version of his father’s band, Seun's Egypt 80, says, "Musicians have a responsibility to motivate the young. Life here is so hard, people don't have time to think about anything but survival, which is why I say, 'Stand up and think', rather than 'Stand up and fight'. I don't think African art, in general, is representing the cause of the continent. The corporations push commercial things: cars, clothes… it's a brainwash. People here respect Afrobeat artists because they know we are trying to give the people some kind of voice."
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