Today 2nd August 2021 marks the 24th year Abami Eda, the Nigerian legendary singer Fela Kuti passed away and Nigerians will not let the day slide without paying homage and tribute to the multi-talented and controversial act.
Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, Fela came into the world on the 15th October 1938 in Abeokuta, Ogun State into the family of Reverend Oludotun Israel and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, an upper middle class Nigerian family. His father was an Anglican minister, school principal, and the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, while his mother was an anti-colonial feminist.
Fela attended Abeokuta Grammar School and was later sent to study Medicine in London. 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 highlife band named the Koola Lobitos.
After marrying his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor in 1960, Fela moved back to Nigeria in 1963 and then took the band to the United States in 1969 where they spent 10 months in Los Angeles. While they were there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The experience heavily influence his music and political views and he decided to switch him message from mainstream to a more conscious form of music addressing colonialism, oppression and tyranny by the ruling class in Nigeria.It was on this trip that he realised how valuable an understanding of Africa’s history could be to the expansion of music’s outreach, and it was during this trip too that he was able to record some of his latest compositions with a new group of musicians who interpreted his musical vision with a greater level of commitment and ability. He called this group Nigeria 70 but on his return to Nigeria, Fela renamed the group a second time, calling it Africa 70.
He formed the Kalakuta Republic—a commune, recording studio, and home for many people connected to the band—which he later declared independent from the Nigerian state. Kuti set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and later the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated at personalised Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honor of his nation’s ancestral faith. He also changed his name to Anikulapo, meaning ‘He who carries death in his pouch’, with the interpretation, ‘I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me. He also stopped using the hyphenated surname ‘Ransome’ because he considered it a slave name.
Kuti’s music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. He decided to sing in Pidgin English so that individuals all over Africa could enjoy his music, where the local languages they speak are diverse and numerous. As popular as Kuti’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic were frequent. Around 1972, Kuti became even more involved with the Yoruba religion.
Kuti’s music, called the Afrobeats, infuriated the Government and got he and his band thrown in jail several times, his house, music masters and instruments destroyed, his mother thrown out of the window and killed, his ban from entering Ghana and many more. To mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic (which took place in 1977 after he and Africa 70 released the album Zombie, which heavily criticized Nigerian soldiers, and used the zombie metaphor to describe the Nigerian military’s methods) and to protect he and his wives from authorities’ false claims that he was kidnapping women, Fela married 27 women in 1978. Later, he adopted a rotation system of maintaining 12 simultaneous wives.
In 1983, he formed his political party Movement Of the People MOP which aimed to “clean up society like a mop”, and preached Nkrumahism and Africanism. In 1979, he nominated himself for president in Nigeria’s first elections in decades, but his candidature was refused. Fela continued to release albums with another band he formed Egypt 80 and toured in the United States and Europe while continuing to be politically active.
Fela’s album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually, he ceased releasing albums altogether. On 21 January 1993, he and four members of Africa 70 were arrested and were later charged on 25 January for the murder of an electrician. Rumors also speculated that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment. However, there had been no confirmed statement from Kuti about this speculation.On 3 August 1997, Kuti’s brother Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, announced Kuti’s death the day before from complications related to AIDS. Kuti had been an AIDS denialist, and his widow maintained that he did not die of AIDS. His youngest son Seun took the role of leading Kuti’s former band Egypt 80. As of 2020, the band is still active, releasing music under the moniker Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.
Kuti is remembered as an influential icon who voiced his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music. The Felabration festival at the New Afrika Shrine is held each year to celebrate the life of this music legend and his birthday. Since his death in 1997, there has been a revival of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another re-release of his catalog controlled by UMG, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically based shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who carry the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.
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