Today is the legendary Fela Kuti’s posthumous birthday and the one who brought the Afrobeat genre to Nigeria still speaks today.
It is almost impossible to grow up in Nigeria without hearing about the late King of Afrobeat and human rights activist whose impact went far beyond his music, affecting lives and creating a legacy that would endure for all-time.
Like all men, Fela was imperfect but that isn’t what people remember him for. His big heart and the lengths he was willing to go to fight for Nigerians make him one of Africa’s most beloved icons.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born on October 15, 1938. He was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music and human rights activist. His birthplace was Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State.
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement at the time. His father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister and school principal, was the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT). His brothers, Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti are both medical doctors and well-known citizens in the country.
Fela was a first cousin to Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka.
Sent to London in 1958 to study Medicine, Fela chose to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, choosing the trumpet as his primary instrument. While there, he formed Koola Lobitos band.
In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekan, with whom he had three children – Femi, Yemi, and Sola. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and first referred to his music as Afrobeat (a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso, and traditional Yoruba music) in 1967 while on a trip in Ghana.
Fela’s discovery of the Black Power movement in the United States would greatly influence his music and political views and this reflected in his songs.
In 1977, Fela and his band (now called the Afrika ’70) released the album Zombie, an attack on Nigerian soldiers, who Fela said followed orders blindly, not minding the implications of their actions. The album was a smash hit but the government (under General Olusegun Obasanjo) didn’t find its content funny and launched an unexpectedly vicious attack on Kalakuta (Fela’s domain).
Fela was beaten severely and his elderly mother was thrown from a two-storey window, resulting in fatal injuries. She died some months later and her loss was a huge blow to Fela who idolized her. He retaliated by delivering a mock coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos (Obasanjo’s residence at the time).
Fela’s outspoken nature and frequent verbal attacks on the government led to further arrests and more beatings but that did nothing but strengthen his resolve as he continued to fight for justice and a better Nigeria until his death on the 2nd of August, 1997.
The legend has been honored with the yearly Felabration event and his ‘Shrine’ in Lagos is a safe haven for those who want to feel the legacy he left behind. His sons, Femi and Seun, have continued in his musical footsteps, with the former being a frequent performer at the Shrine.
Fela Kuti was a larger-than-life character and his indelible prints in the sands of time, continued struggle for a better Nigeria and musical genius continue to speak years after his death.