Fela defied the times and by doing so he lives on forever
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Afrobeat creator, human rights activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
On August 2, 1997, the enigma who painted himself as larger than life and who death could not touch succumbed to complications resulting from HIV/AIDS as widely reported.
Decades after Fela Anikulapo-Kuti joined the ancestors, his influence and lifestyle are felt more than ever before. Nigerian contemporary music is on the global map now and he has been traced to the boom.
Fela was infamously known as a connoisseur of the herb popularly known as marijuana. You don't have to go to the New Afrika Shrine to see young people indulging in weed. The weed culture is strong among young Nigerians than ever before as pop culture tilts toward a rebellious and counter-cultural lifestyle never seen before.
Disenchanted by Nigerian politics and mainstream culture, millions of youths have carved out a lifestyle that more or less reflects Fela's attitude towards life.
To say Fela was an icon is an understatement. He is a cultural colossus, a demi-god who still baffles, inspires and amazes millions of people till today.
He is respected by JAY-Z and Will Smith. Wizkid has a tattoo of him on his arm and calls himself Young Fela. Latino bands cover his classics. The stage play about his life held Broadway spellbound. Alicia Keys vibes out to his records on her lazy weekends.
Twenty years on Fela's still speaks from the great beyond...
IN THE BEGINNING
Fela was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Ogun state to Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
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Fela's birth names were Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Fela wasn't born into an ordinary family. He came from a fine line of Egba stock.
His father Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a respected man of God and school principal. Fela's grandfather Josiah Ransome-Kuti was the first Nigerian man to compose an album. It was a collection of church hymns sang in St Peter Cathedral Church Abeokuta, Ogun state.
Fela might have gotten his music taste from his grandfather but he got his rebellious and activist attributes from his mother.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is one of the most respected Nigerian women in history. A feminist who participated actively in the anti-colonial movement she is most known for making a king abdicate his throne. She would play a great influence in Fela's music career.
By all accounts, Fela was like most kids. He was full of life and a truant. His parents were never afraid to discipline him. They were strict disciplinarians who believed in principles and morals.
Fela's complex life can be broken into three main parts like any story; Fela the musician, Fela the activist and Fela the spiritualist.
FELA THE MUSICIAN
Fela's interest in music started early on. At Abeokuta Grammar School the music bug had gotten him fully. In his first major act of rebellion, Fela went to study music at the Trinity College of Music in London in 1958 instead of studying medicine- then a noble profession in colonial Nigeria.
He quickly formed a band known as the Koola Lobitos with his friend and partner in crime J.K Braimah. Fela's early style of music was a blend of jazz and highlife. After getting married in 1960 to Remilekun Taylor he moved back to Nigeria in 1963 and re-formed his band.
Fela's style of music wasn't a hit and he struggled to get gigs. He even played with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars. Things were not rosy for him.
Circa 1966 when his sound failed to attract a large audience his mother gave him a solid A&R advice that would revolutionize the world. "Start playing music your people understand, not jazz," Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti told her son. He started tinkering with his sound from then.
After being floored by the showmanship of Ghanaian musician Geraldo Pino in 1966 and 1967, Fela came up with the name Afrobeat in 1968 to differentiate himself from the James Brown style of music that was trendy at the time.
Fela still didn't strike gold. He decided to leave Nigerian during the civil war to the United States of America.
In August 1969, Fela would meet another woman who would also change his life forever. Her name is Sandra Izsadore. He met her in Los Angeles.
During his tour of Los Angeles with his band, he endured a lot of suffering and hardship. They soon got a hit in the foreign land. Fela composed a song called "My Lady's Frustration" which he said was his first African tune. The song was no doubt inspired by Sandra who held him down in America despite the rough circumstances. The small venues he played in America loved the tune.
In 1971, Fela was back in Nigeria. He changed the name of his night spot from the Afro-Spot to Shrine. This was also the year he scored his first Nigerian hit 'Jeun Ko'ku (Chop and Quench)'. The song was a hit and if you turned on your radios back then, you wouldn't have missed it.
A star was born.
FELA THE ACTIVIST
Apart from inspiring his first African tune, Sandra Isadore influenced Fela a lot. The reason why his records had deep political messages was because of her.
The third thing Fela did after hitting Nigeria was changing the name of his band from Koola Lobitos which he said meant nothing to Africa' 70. (He would also change it to Egypt 80 in the 80s. This is the present day of his band helmed by his son Seun Kuti.)
His other records "Buy Africa" and "Why Black Man Dey Suffer" started to show his political and radical leanings.
In 1976 on her second trip to Nigeria, Sandra Izsadore sang on a Fela record titled 'Upside Down'. She remains the only woman who Fela has featured on a song apart from his back up singers.
Fela was vocal against the government of the day- military regimes and bashed them (or in Shrine parlance 'yabbed' them) on many of his records.
In 1975 he altered his last name by doing away with the Ransom and adding Anikulapo to it. From henceforth Fela was to be known as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. It means "having death in your pouch."
One of his most scathing diss records was 'Zombie' released in 1976 in Nigeria and 1977 internationally. Arguably his greatest musical piece, Fela blasted the zombie like obedience of Nigerian soldiers.
Fela had had many issues with the law but this record would bring him into direct conflict with the military regime led by Olusegun Obasanjo and start the third chapter of his great life.
In 1977, after Nigeria had played host to the world during FESTAC, unknown soldiers attacked Fela's abode known as the KALAKUTA Republic.
It was a bloody and deadly ordeal. Women were raped, stabbed and beaten. Fela's body was broken in many places. His vanity mini-republic KALAKUTA was burnt to the ground. And most tragically, his mother, the great Nigerian feminist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a balcony. She would later die as a result of the injuries of this tragic day.
The horror of this day was so bad that one of Fela's queens could not talk for months. Many still had the physiological scars years after.
An inquiry was carried out about the attack on Fela and his home. At the end of the day, it was declared that it was "unknown soldiers" who carried out the job.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's next record would be his most poignant 'Sorrow, Tears & Blood', a dark narration of what happened on that unfortunate day. It was released in 1977.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died on April 13, 1978. Her death would have a heavy toll on Fela and mark his entrance into the dark arts.
FELA THE SPIRITUALIST
Ghana has always played a significant role in Fela's life. His mother was friends with Kwame Nkrumah, the father of modern day Ghana. As a musician, Fela would travel to Ghana to try and forge a new sound for himself. He would later go into exile when he got into trouble with the government.
The dark arts and spiritual side of life properly kicked off when a man from Ghana. His name was Kwaku Addai, popularly known as Professor Hindu, a mystic from Ghana.
Professor Hindu claimed he could communicate with the dead and also resurrect them. Fela was intrigued about Hindu when he heard about his powers.
In 1981, Professor Hindu was invited to Nigeria by Fela. The Afrobeat maestro was so taken by Hindu during his first visit that he made him his spiritual adviser. This move would push Fela's longtime associates such as J.K Braimah to the background.
The entrance of Professor Hindu into the new KALAKUTA Republic in Ikeja led to the emergence of strange happenings in Fela's household.
It has to be said that it was in 1981 that Fela started seeing visions of his late mother. Coincidence that it was the year Hindu met Fela? Who knows.
According to Fela's biography 'This B*tch of A Life' written by Carlos Moore, Femi Kuti, Fela's first son had a strange supernatural encounter and fell into a trance. According to the book, Femi saw Fela's mum during this trance. Femi Kuti's friends also fell into a trance. Fela too fell into a trance for days.
During this period, Fela was having sex with one of his queens Adejonwo when she fell into a trance. According to Fela, the spirit of his late mother had overtaken her. A few minutes later, Fela's home was turned upside down from spiritual fervour.
Professor Hindu not only introduced questionable spiritualism to Fela but paranoia as well. Fela became so paranoid that he turned down so many foreign shows. His behaviour became erratic. Strange people now filled the KALAKUTA Republic, people who fed on Fela's paranoia that the CIA was trying to assassinate him. His entourage became shady and strange. It was at this time Fela started rubbing white spiritual powder beneath his eyes.
Fela lost wives, friends, associates at this point in his life. Things were getting too strange. Fela was detached from reality. With Hindu controlling the puppet strings, Fela's career nosedived. His European tour from 1983-1984 was a disaster. He tried to relaunch his career in 1984 with an ambitious foreign tour and in a new album.
Unfortunately, this never happened as he was arrested by the Buhari regime on trumped up charges. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Luck was on his side soon enough. In July 1985, Ibrahim Babangida came into a power through a palace coup. In April 1986, Fela was released.
Fela's time in jail did not shake his belief in African spiritualism. It reinforced. After he was released he announced his new moniker 'Abami Eda' which means the Strange One. He also said he was now half man and half spirit.
Abami Eda's son Femi Kuti who held the band down when Fela was in jail left his father's services and struck solo with his own band 'The Positive Force'. Then it was due to a difference in philosophy. This mutiny didn't affect Fela for long.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti would retreat to his own world. This reflected in his music. The energetic, complex, groovy constructions made way for more sobering compositions. It was said that he felt the term Afrobeat no longer suited his style of music and called his new works African classical music.
His next record Beasts of No Nation (1989) was a smash hit as he sang about his time behind bars and the mad jungle world of global politics. Fela made up for lost time and toured overseas extensively.
In 1992, Fela released 'Underground System' a tribute to the great Pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara. Fela was hosted by Sankara in Burkina-Faso a few months before he was assassinated in 1987. The record was a hit, probably Fela's last hit.
According to This B*tch of A Life, Fela noticed lesions all over his body during his trip to Burkina Faso. He quickly left the country and went back to Nigeria to meet with his spiritualists. Fela described the lesions as a "spiritual transformation." It was, however, a symptom of AIDS.
Fela laughed that AIDS was a white man's disease and black men couldn't get it. He even recorded a tune for it. "Condom, Scallywag, Scatter" was his Fela's last release. Ironic that his last record which denounced AIDS would end up taking his life.
In his last days, it was said he was sad. Sandra who saw him during this period said he told her that there was nothing else to sing about. He became a recluse in his own kingdom surrounded by sycophants.
Fela still performed at the Afrikan Shrine but the energy and fervour he once had gone. His son Femi who struck out solo scored a hit with his self-titled debut album in 1995.
Shortly before his demise in 1997, there were reports Fela had become gravely ill and was in the hospital. Fela refused any form of Western medicine for his ailment.
On August 2, 1997, the Strange One (Abami Eda) died. His brother Olikoye Ransome-Kuti who was a former Minister of Health announced to the nation that his enigmatic brother had died from complications of AIDS on August 3, 1997.
Was Fela's life a tragedy? No. Fela was a complex human being and with most complex people, their lives are never simple. Fela had his ups and downs. He had his moments of glories and personal tragedies. He made mistakes. He scored important victories.
Fela was larger than life and one cannot view his life based on his last few years. Fela is an ideal, rather ideals of self-expression, courage, determination, justice and independence. Fela represented more than himself. Fela represented millions of people both home and abroad.
Today the world celebrates Fela and what he stood for. In a time of darkness, he spoke up. In the face of tyranny, he protested. In a time of so many stifling conventions, he broke the rules. He lived life on nobody's terms but his own.
When we see two clenched fists in the air. We know what it means- freedom, and we know who it belongs to- Fela Anikulapo Kuti. No, Fela didn't die on a tragic note because ideals never die. They live on.
Fela lives because we still dream of the things he sang about.
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