Fela Kuti Biography

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, 15 October 1938, Abeokuta, Nigeria, d. 2 August 1997, Nigeria. Kuti was a primary influence behind the invention and development of Afro-Beat, the west African fusion of agit-prop lyrics and dance rhythms that has been a major medium of social protest for the urban poor since the late 60s.

Kuti was born to middle-class parents and enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood and adolescence before breaking with family wishes and becoming a band leader and political catalyst. In 1958, he was sent to London, England by his parents, who had agreed to support him there while he studied to become a doctor. Within weeks of arriving, however, he had enrolled at Trinity College of Music, where he spent the next four years studying piano, composition and theory and leading his highlife-meets-jazz group Koola Lobitos. By 1961, the band was a regular fixture on London’s growing R&B club scene, drawing substantial audiences to influential clubs like the Marquee and Birdland.

In 1962, Kuti left Trinity and moved back to Nigeria, basing himself in Lagos, where he became a trainee radio producer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. His after-hours activities with a re-formed Koola Lobitos interfered with his work, however, and he was fired after a few months. From this point on, he devoted himself entirely to a career as a band leader. By 1968, Kuti was calling the music Koola Lobitos played Afro-Beat - as a retort to the slavish relationship most other local band leaders had with black American music. His ambition to reverse the one-way tide of musical influence led him to take Koola Lobitos to the USA in 1969, where the group struggled to survive playing small clubs on the west coast. Although financially unsuccessful, the visit did much to awaken Kuti’s political sensibilities, and he forged important friendships with radical black activists such as Angela Davis, Stokeley Carmichael and the Last Poets.

Back in Nigeria, Kuti changed the name of Koola Lobitos to first Nigeria ’70 and then Africa ’70, and in 1971 enjoyed a big local hit with ‘Jeun K’oku’ (Yoruba for ‘eat and die’). He also founded the Kalakuta Republic commune, which encompassed several houses and a recording studio in a walled compound, and established the Afro-Spot nightclub (later the Afrika Shrine) in Lagos, which was to become the focus for his music and political activity. By 1972, Kuti had become one of the biggest stars in west Africa; because he sang in ‘broken English’ rather than one of the tribal languages, his lyrics were understandable in all Anglophone countries. He also rejected the traditional African band leader stance of promoting local politicians and their policies, choosing instead to articulate the anger and aspirations of the urban poor. In the process he became a figurehead and hero for street people throughout Nigeria, Ghana and neighbouring countries.

A typical early swipe at the ruling elite was contained in the 1973 album Gentleman, in which Kuti lampooned the black middle-class fetish for wearing western clothing in a tropical climate: ‘him put him socks him put him shoes, him put him pants him put him singlet, him put him trouser him put him shirt, him put him tie him put him coat, him come cover all with him hat; him be gentleman; him go sweat all over, him go faint right down, him go smell like shit’. Not surprisingly, the Nigerian establishment did not enjoy hearing songs like these - nor did they approve of Kuti’s high-profile propaganda on behalf of igbo (Nigerian marijuana). The drug squad attempted to clamp down on him on several occasions, all of them unsuccessful, but these attempts provided plenty of substance for a string of hilarious album releases. Enraged, the army was sent to arrest him at his home, Alagbon Close, in late 1974. The house was practically razed to the ground, and Kuti delighted his fans by telling the tale in gory detail on the 1974 release Alagbon Close, questioning the right of uniformed public servants to go around breaking heads and property at will. The attack only confirmed Kuti’s political aspirations and also cemented his total embrace of African mores and customs. In 1975, he changed his middle name from Ransome (which he regarded as a slave name) to Anikulapo. His full name, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, now meant ‘He Who Emanates Greatness (Fela), Having Control Over Death (Anikulapo), Death Cannot Be Caused By Human Entity (Kuti)’. Kuti needed all this ceremonial power on 18 February 1977, when the army mounted a second all-out attack on the Kalakuta Republic. Some 1, 000 soldiers cordoned off the area, set fire to the premises and viciously attacked the occupants - Kuti suffered a fractured skull, arm and leg, while his 82-year-old mother was thrown out of a first-floor window, narrowly escaping death. The army then prevented the fire brigade reaching the compound, and for good measure beat up and arrested anyone they identified as a journalist among the onlookers.

Although Kuti won the war of words which followed, he sensibly decided to leave Nigeria for a while, and in October 1977 went into voluntary exile in Ghana. Unfortunately, his Accra recordings (such as Zombie, a virulent satire on the military mentality), did not endear him to the Ghanaian authorities either, and in 1978 he was deported back to Lagos. On arrival, to mark the anniversary of the previous year’s pillage of Kalakuta and to reaffirm his embrace of African culture, he married 27 women simultaneously in a traditional ceremony (he divorced them all in 1986, stating ‘no man has the right to own a woman’s vagina’). Kuti did not drop his revolutionary profile in subsequent years. With albums such as V.I.P. (Vagabonds In Power) (1979), I.T.T. (International Thief Thief) (1979), Authority Stealing (1980) and Coffin For Head Of State (1981) all attacking government corruption and abuse of human rights, he continued to keep himself and his band (renamed Egypt ’80 in 1979) at the forefront of west African roots culture, while also acquiring a substantial international profile. In 1984, Kuti was jailed in Nigeria on what were widely regarded as trumped-up currency smuggling charges. During his 27-month incarceration, leading New York funk producer Bill Laswell was brought in to complete the production of the outstanding Army Arrangement album.

On release from prison, Kuti issued the Wally Badarou -produced Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1986), a rich, dense, at times almost orchestral work which showed him recharged, rather than weakened, by his latest persecution. In 1996, Kuti was arrested, and later released for an alleged drugs charge. The National Drug-Law Enforcement Agency got him to agree to some counselling for his alleged drug abuse. In 1997, he sued the Nigerian government for the previous incident. He died before this was resolved of an AIDS-related complication, Kaposi’s sarcoma. Over a million people attended his funeral. His son Femi Kuti went on to become an acclaimed performer and recording artist.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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