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Fela Kuti

February 16, 2010

Fela Kuti (1938-1997) was a musician, composer, and political outlaw whose music and lifestyle were a form of resistance. Fela was born into a middle-class, Nigerian family. His mother was a feminist and anti-colonial activist. His father was a Protestant minister and school principal. Though his parents sent him to London in 1958 to study medicine, he studied music instead. Fela and his band, Koola Lobitos, invented what he would later call afrobeat. For Fela, afrobeat was more than a fusion of jazz, funk, psychedelic rock, and traditional West African rhythms and chants; it was also a critique of African musicians’ abandonment of their musical roots and their conformity to American pop music trends. Throughout his career, Fela challenged pop musical norms. Many of his songs were 20-30 minutes long—sometimes 45 minutes at live shows. Known for his showmanship, his concerts were called the “Underground Spiritual Game.” Fela also refused to perform a song after recording it.

Fela’s political beliefs began taking shape in London, but they solidified in the U.S. in 1969 when he discovered the Black Power Movement. Though his political beliefs in socialism and African nationalism were vague, he lived as an activist and revolutionary. Fela never gave into the demands of Western record companies to make millions. In 1970, he established a massive commune and recording studio, the Kalakata Republic, in one of the poorest parts of Lagos, Nigeria. He declared independence from the Nigerian state.

In addition to his lifestyle, Fela’s music attacked the Nigerian military regime. In 1977, Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the album Zombie, comparing Nigerian soldiers to zombies. Yet, Fela’s protest had a price. One thousand soldiers invaded the commune. They severely beat Fela, killed his mother, burned his studio, and destroyed his instruments and master tapes. In response, Fela wrote two songs: “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier.”

Despite the attack, Fela refused to conform. In 1978, he married 27 women and created a rotation of keeping 12 at a time. He formed a political party, Movement of the People. Though he tried to run for President several times, his candidacy was refused. In 1984, he was attacked once again by the military. He also performed at an Amnesty International concert and released an anti-apartheid album called Beasts of No Nation. Fela died as a result of AIDS complications

Though Fela lived a life of resistance, the ambiguity and simplicity of his beliefs are controversial. In a Mother Jones article, Sam Baldwin notes the “entirely uncritical embrace of traditional African values.” His pride was indiscriminate and he didn’t confront the complexities of certain African cultural practices. He also maintained a low opinion of women. Though his wives said they were satisfied living with him, several did report being slapped.

Fela’s activism was not well formulated and it was sexist. Though his values and lifestyle require a critical eye, at least Fela succeeded in living his beliefs. He destabilized oppressive systems by creating his own system.

Amanda Shirazi


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