How Fela Kuti came to be celebrated by those he sang against

The Nigerian icon was harassed, censored and imprisoned for singing truth to power. Today power celebrates him.

Macron in Nigeria Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron stands on stage as Fela Kuti's son, Femi Kuti, performs at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria on July 3, 2018 [Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

Every time I see politicians and statesmen honouring Fela Kuti, I chuckle to myself and wish I could be there to ask with the utmost seriousness: “Are you, sir, recommending Fela to younger generations as a role model?”

I definitely had a good laugh when French President Emmanuel Macron came to Nigeria and, accompanied by Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, visited the New Afrika Shrine to pay tribute to Fela. It is funny because the state authorities Ambode represents now shut down the Shrine nine years ago for “disturbing” public peace. 

In October 2017, he also unveiled a monument of Fela to mark 20 years since his death. The famed musician, composer, human rights activist and fierce political critic is now immortalised in central Lagos in a fibreglass statue clad in tight, gold-coloured clothes, reminiscent of the vibrant, eye-catching outfits he used to wear. 

It is indeed funny and ironic that Fela is getting so much attention from those in power in Nigeria and elsewhere, given that he spent his whole career dissing their kind. He sang against governments and dictators, against colonialism and injustice, against oppression and censorship.

What he taught young people in Nigeria and beyond was to defy power, rebel and speak out – behaviour that both the Nigerian and French authorities are known to crack down on.

Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi at the unveiling of the unveiling of the Liberation Statue in honour of Fela Kuti at Allen Roundabout in Ikeja, Lagos [The Lagos State Govt/Twitter] 
Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi at the unveiling of the unveiling of the Liberation Statue in honour of Fela Kuti at Allen Roundabout in Ikeja, Lagos [The Lagos State Govt/Twitter] 

Fela, the one who captured death

Fela was not an ordinary man and he was not an ordinary artist. He accurately called himself “Abami Eda”, a Yoruba phrase that roughly translates to “the strange one”.

He was born Olu’fela’ Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938 to a father who was both a priest and a teacher, and a mother who was an anti-colonial activist. Fela’s family was relatively well-off, and he had a more comfortable childhood than most. He had access to the best education available at the time in Nigeria. He attended Abeokuta Grammar School and was eventually sent to Britain to study medicine, just like his two brothers.

In London, his rebellious and artistic spirit came out, and he decided to study music instead of medicine. He enrolled in the Trinity College of Music and formed a band named the Koola Lobitos. His band played “highlife” –  a unique fusion of jazz and native African drums and rhythm popular in 1960s West Africa.

In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria. On a tour of the United States in 1969, Fela met Sandra Smith (also known as Sandra Izsadore) a member of the Black Panther Party. Smith’s ideas had a significant influence on Fela. After meeting her, his music moved away from the feel-good rhythm and spirit of highlife and evolved into a new, politically conscious and rebellious Afrobeat genre, which he pioneered on his return to Nigeria. As the themes of his lyrics changed from love to social issues, Fela renamed his band The Afrika ’70.

Fela soon dropped “Ransome” from his surname and replaced it with “Anikulapo”, a Yoruba phrase meaning “one who has captured death and put it in his pouch”, to convey a sense of invincibility.

At that moment, the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was born.

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti performs on March 16, 1981, with his band Afrika 70 at the Hippodrome in Paris, France [AP Photo/Herve Merliac]
Nigerian musician and composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti performs on March 16, 1981, with his band Afrika 70 at the Hippodrome in Paris, France [AP Photo/Herve Merliac]

In 1970, he established a commune where his family and band lived and where his recording studio was set up. In 1971, he established a nightclub at the Empire Hotel in the Mainland area of Lagos called the Afro-Spot, where he would hold regular shows.

As the commune grew, he decided to call it the Kalakuta Republic after the Kalakuta cell in which he was kept during one of his many arrests. He made it a “republic” because as he said, “I wanted to identify the ways of myself or someone who didn’t agree with that Federal Republic of Nigeria created by Britishman. I was in non-agreement.”

In time, the Kalakuta Republic expanded to include neighbouring streets. In that creative space, everyone was permitted to do everything they wanted without harassment from the military regime that was then ruling Nigeria. Fela regularly smoked cannabis and encouraged his followers to do the same. Sex was also freely discussed and casually had among members of the community.

When he abandoned Christianity as a relic of colonialism and embraced local traditional religion, the Afro-Spot started to be known as the Afrika Shrine and him as its chief priest.

Fela performed there three times a week from Friday to Sunday, with the Friday show, dubbed the Yabis Night, drawing the largest crowds. On Yabis nights, Fela opened the show by mocking himself – mostly the shape and size of his head – and then moved on to mocking his band, the audience and finally government officials. Fela would diligently point out the silliness of a new government effort, dismiss it as a failure and then break into his famed free-flowing Afrobeat.

Over time the word “Yabis” came to mean “using light-hearted sarcasm to address serious issues” in the Nigerian lexicon.

His poignant lyrics often focused on the state of Nigeria, Africa and the rest of the world, but he would also often throw in some lewdness. He would often break off criticising the government to talk about the beauty of a woman’s body in an explicit manner.

His shows gradually became a focal point of the growing opposition to the military regime, which started to perceive Fela as a serious threat and used every opportunity to put him behind bars. He was regularly arrested on a variety of charges, most frequently for possession of marijuana.

Nigerian musician and composer Fela Kuti performs at the
Nigerian musician and composer Fela Kuti performs at the “Party of Humankind” of the French Communist Party at La Courneuve in Paris, France on September 13, 1986 [AP/Laurent Rebours]

The straw that broke the camel’s back was his song titled Zombie, in which he sang about soldiers as mindless zombies who had no free will and followed orders without hesitation. The military decided it had had enough of Fela and his music, and sent hundreds of soldiers to raid the Kalakuta Republic under the pretext of an anti-drug operation. 

The soldiers burned several houses in the area to the ground and beat up and arrested residents. Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown out of the second-floor window of her home.

When she died a few months later because of the injuries she sustained, Fela put her body in a coffin and took it to the gates of Dodan Barracks, which was the seat of power in the military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo.

He was beaten by soldiers for his efforts, but his stunt further fuelled the Nigerian public’s growing outrage about the incident. Obasanjo was forced to deny that he authorised the invasion and claimed that the act was carried out by an “unknown soldier”. Fela later wrote two songs describing the events, named Unknown Soldier and Coffin For Head of State. In the latter, the artist sang frankly about how Obasanjo and his deputy Shehu Musa Yar’Adua killed his mother and how he carried her coffin to the gates of Dodan Barracks.

After the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic, Fela moved his shows to the Crossroads Hotel and made the Ikeja area of Lagos his new home. He continued living his Bohemian lifestyle, famously marrying 27 women in one day. His attitude towards women would be questioned and described as misogynist. Fela’s life with his multiple wives was later turned into a musical, titled Fela’s Life With His Kalakuta Queens, by Nigerian arts connoisseur, Bolanle Austen-Peters.

In the 1980s, the authorities continued to harass Fela. He resumed writing hit after hit and speaking truth to power. In his songs, he frequently criticised General Muhammadu Buhari and his deputy Tunde Idiagbon. In 1983, Fela was sentenced to five years in jail on trumped-up charges of “currency speculation”. When he was released in 1986, he started writing Beast of No Nation in which he mocked Buhari for launching a public “discipline” campaign:

Make you hear this one

War against indiscipline, ee-oh

Na Nigerian government, ee-oh

Dem dey talk ee-oh

My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indiscipline”

His lyrics also attacked then-South African Prime Minister PW Botha, British PM Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. He also slammed the United Nations for not taking action to end the apartheid in South Africa.

When Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died of AIDS in 1997 at the age of 58, over one million Nigerians attended his funeral at the Tafawa Balewa Square in Lagos Island.

After his death, his children continued his legacy. His son from his first marriage, Femi Kuti, who had started playing in Fela’s band in the late 1970s, continued to follow in his father’s footsteps and make music. Moreover, together with his sibling Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti he founded the New Afrika Shrine – an open-air entertainment centre in the Ikeja area of Lagos.

Nigerians file past the body of Fela Kuti in Lagos, Nigeria on August 11, 1997 [Reuters]
Nigerians file past the body of Fela Kuti in Lagos, Nigeria on August 11, 1997 [Reuters]

Recognised by power, forgotten by the music industry

One of the thousands of people who visited the New Afrika Shrine a few months after it opened in 2002 was a young intern at the French embassy. So captivated was that young Frenchman with what he saw, that he returned to the venue some 16 years later as the president of France.

On July 3, at a special event at the Shrine, Emmanuel Macron bantered with Femi Kuti, whose music and performances he had become familiar with during his time in Nigeria. Femi later told me that he offered to take the president to the upper terrace of the Shrine, and he agreed. He described how they went upstairs, with Macron’s security detail and Governor of Lagos State Akinwunmi Ambode tagging along.

After years of persecution and abuse, it seems Fela’s legacy is finally receiving the respect it deserves from the authorities he once mercilessly criticised.

But while his music and activism are finally gaining widespread respect, the Nigerian music scene is moving away from his legacy. In recent years, artists from Nigeria have won global acclaim for their songs – conveniently referred to as Afrobeat – but their music lacks Fela’s spirit of activism or rebellion.

Conscious music – the type Fela created – is music that wakes people up to the things around them, to the reality in which they live in. It stirs the mind of the listener to reflect on life. Conscious music comes from an artist who is himself conscious of the world he lives in.

But Nigerian artists today seem to be living in a reality of flash and cash: singing about money and the good life while ignoring the daily struggles and misery of many of their fans. Some of them say their music is a reflection of what the fans want – in Fela’s time there was also a good market for feel-good music, but he chose a different path.

And this is where the true irony lies. The man who was despised by the authorities is now recognised and celebrated by them in his death, but artists who claim to be inspired by him continue to sing songs about an illusory reality.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.