There is something altogether gutsy and admirable about a man who can write a song titled, “you give me shit, I give you shit”. That was Fela Anikulapo Kuti for you. The black president, Africa man original. He simply did not give a shit what people thought of him. He was not afraid of ruffling feathers. But he did care a lot about other things. About Africa and it’s people, our culture, resources and governance. He was passionate about African music and explored it indepth. He was completely obsessed with reclaiming Africa’s lost dignity. Yet this obsession came with a high price that included police beatings and near death encounters with the military. Let’s not forget the unfair court rulings and even the loss of his own mother.
Fela changed his name from Ransome, which was his birth name, because he did not want to remain with what he saw as a slave name. He instead took up Anikulapo, meaning ‘he who carries death in his pouch’. He was basically saying that he would be the master of his destiny. That he would decide when it was time for death to take him. It’s hardly surprising that at his funeral one million voices chanted, ‘Fela will live forever’.
I have great reverence for Fela. To me he has always seemed like a demi god. This man whose hypnotic music first began a guilty pleasure in my otherwise completely western classical music world. Yet his music like Bob Marley’s got me hooked. And I would spend hours completely mesmerized. Fela is complex, I did not know what to make of him in the beginning. This man who once married 27 women on one day. This man who referred to his music as the underground spiritual game. This man who reverted back to the religion of our ancestors. This man who boldly denounced being a gentlemen. I don’t know, Fela is like magic. Ever mysterious yet one cannot help but fall in love. He is the root of our music. He is to Africa what Bach is to western classical music. The foundation which we rest upon. The root which holds the tree firmly in the ground.
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta Nigeria in 1938. His father was an Anglican minister and mother a Feminist activist. He left for London in 1958 to go study music at Trinity college. He was to study was to study medicine initially. While in London he formed his first band, known as Koola Lobitos. He went back to Nigeria upon finishing his studies. Here he would perform with his band for a few years before leaving for Ghana in ’67. He wanted to think up a new musical direction. It was here that his music was first referred to as Afrobeat . He is the pioneer of Afrobeat, a genre that fuses funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, juju, high life and African percussive patterns. Two years later, he left for America. Here he was influenced by black power ideals. It was the era of the Black Panther party. While in America, he recorded the Los Angeles sessions with his band Nigeria ’70. He came back to Nigeria and renamed his band Afrika ’70. He also formed the Kalakuta Republic. It was a commune of sorts, a recording studio and the ultimate chill spot. He even later declared it independent from the Nigerian state!
Fela set up a night club as well, the Afrika Shrine. He would perform here regularly and practice the traditional Yoruba religion. In 1979 he put himself forward as a candidate for president but it was declined. He created Egypt ’80 around this time.
Fela’s legacy lives through his music as well as through his two sons. Seun, the youngest, who leads his father’s band Egypt ’80. Femi, the first born who has his own band, Positive force. Fela is one of the most sampled artists of all time with musicians such as Yasiin Bey, Wizkid and Nas having sampled his music. There are also numerous covers of his music.
Every year in October the “Felabration” concert is held his honour. I hope I can get to attend one of these someday. This and a visit to the ‘New Afrika Shrine’ in Lagos.
I leave you with “Shakara” and “Trouble sleep yanga wake am. ” The latter being the first Fela song I heard. I always get wistful whenever I listen to it playing.