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Fela 1938–1991

Fela 19381991

Musician, singer, political activist

Music Protested Nigerian Government

Fame Spread To World

Fought For Nigeria Even in Death

Selected discography

Sources

One of Africas most acclaimed musicians, Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a peculiar late-twentieth-century mix of shaman, politician, ombudsman, activist and musical genius, according to Gene Santoro in the Nation. Fela, as he was popularly known, wrote and performed political protest songs that have won him a large following both at home and abroad, to the frequent chagrin of government authorities. His musicdubbed Afro-Beat,was an amalgam of American blues and jazz blended with African rhythms, while his pointed lyricsin pidgin English and Africanconfronted government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality. In a career that spanned four decades, Fela recorded over 50 albums and performs frequently in concert.

Fela was a flamboyant singer and musician and his concertsmany held at his Lagos nightclub, The Shrinewere lengthy and infectious. Fela belted out his driving songs, gyrating as he performed on saxophone or keyboards, directing his thunderous 27-member band, Egypt 80. Felas songs, which usually ride sloganlike lyrics over a densely woven web of cross-rhythms, have titles like Beasts of No Nation (which deals with the way various governments abet South African repression) and Just Like That (a sneeringly witty list of Nigerias current shortcomings), noted the Nation. John Darnton wrote in the New York Times that one of Felas most popular songs, Upside Down, describes a traveler who finds an organized, well-planned world everywhere except in Africa, where there are villages, but no roads, land, but no food or housing. These things are the daily lot of all Lagosians, Darnton noted. When Fela sings this song, listeners nod their heads solemnly and look into their beers.

Music Protested Nigerian Government

Felas musical upbringing spanned three continents. Born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria, he initially studied piano and percussion and, as a youth, led a school choir. In the late 1950s Fela moved to London, where he studied classical music and was exposed to American jazz artists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. His music did not become political, however, until the late 1960s, when he visited the United States and was exposed to the black power movement. Influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X,

At a Glance

Born Fela Anikulapo Ransome-Kuti on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria; died on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria; son of Reverend Ransome-Kuti (father; a minister and educator) and Funmilayo (mother; a political activist); married, 27 wives, including musical collaborator Sandra; children: six. Education: Attended Trinity College of Music, London, late 1950s-early 1960s.

Career: Musician, singer, and political activist, 1960s-1997; Koola Lobitos founder and lead singer, c. 1963-70; Afrika 70, founder and lead singer, 1970-80; Egypt 80, founder and lead singer, 1980-97.

Fela began to realize the implications for Africa of white oppression, colonialism, Pan-Africanismthe unity of African nationsand revolution. The young musicians work would never be the same; as quoted by New York Times, Fela said, The whole concept of my life changed in a political direction.

Fela returned to Nigeria and began to write politically-charged songs that rocked his country. Inspired by Pan-Africanism, he incorporated African instruments into his band, including Konga drums, klips sticks, and the sekere, a percussion instrument. Im playing deep African music, he said at the time, as Pareles noted. The rhythm, the sounds, the tonality, the chord sequences, the individual effect of each instrument and each section of the bandIm talking about a whole continent in my music. Felas protest music became very popular among the ranks of Nigerias unemployed, oppressed, and politically dissident. These groups remained a large part of his audience.

Felas music and politics have made him a cult figure in Nigeria; he has run for the presidency twice. His openly confrontive messages has, however, repeatedly irked government authorities, who found reason to jail Fela for a variety of offenses throughout his career. In 1977 official rancor turned violent when the Nigerian military leveled Felas Lagos residence after he had declared it an independent republic. Before burning the house down, soldiers went on a rampage in which Felas mother, a prominent womens rights activist, was hurled from a second-story window. She later died from her injuries and Fela, in protest, dumped her coffin at the house of then-president General Olusegun Obasanjo.

Although such incidents rallied support for Fela, he was notorious for a lifestyle that has alienated many Nigerians; he unabashedly preached the virtues of sex, polygamy, and drugs. In 1978 Fela shocked his countrymen when he married his harem of 27 women, in protest he said, against the Westernization of African culture. His commune, the KalaKuta Republicwhich was established to protest the military rule of Nigerian societywas reportedly itself run like a dictatorship. According to Darnton: [Fela] ruled over the KalaKuta Republic with an iron hand, settling disputes by holding court and meting out sentencescane lashings for men and a tin shed jail for women in the backyard. To some degree, these trappings of power account for his popularity among authority-conscious Nigerians.

Fame Spread To World

Felas first attempt to tour the United States and to spread his music to an even broader base of fans was halted in 1984 when the Nigerian government once again stepped in to cause trauma in Felas life. Accused of illegally exchanging money, he was tried and convicted by a military tribunal court run by the government. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. It seemed that Felas music would be silenced, but a year and a half later, the government was overthrown by Ibrahim Babangida, who released Fela and cleared him of all charges.

In 1986 Fela and Egypt 80 finally made their first tour of the United States, where Felas audience was limited but growing. He influenced the work of singer Jimmy Cliff and the Talking Heads David Byrne. As Fela becomes better known outside of Nigeria, he felt that his music would increasingly hold an international message. Fela told Nolan: America needs to hear some good sounds from Africa, man. The sanity of the world is going to be generated from Africa through art. Art itself is knowledge of the spiritual world. Art is information from higher forces, by those who are talented. Im not jiving. Ive been living with my art for 23 years. My music has never been a failure.

Unfortunately for Fela, his troubles in Nigeria were not over. While he continued to tour and continued to find international success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he still spoke out about major political issues in Nigeria and often sided against the government in rallies and protests. In 1993 he was arrested on trumped up charges of murder when an electrician died at The Shrine. While Fela never stood trial for the murder, he was once again closely watched by the government until he was arrested again in 1997 for running drugs out of The Shrine and this was the final evidence the government needed to shut The Shrine down for good.

Fought For Nigeria Even in Death

On top of all of the political strife, Felas health began to take a turn for the worse. In July of 1997 he was found unconscious by Robin Denselow, a London journalist who was a close personal friend of Fela. Denselow told the Guardian News Service that when they found Fela, he refused to eat, or even to let a doctor examine him for religious reasons. A month later, Fela passed away on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria, at the age of 58. It was soon discovered that Fela had died of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a problem that had been ravaging Nigeria for years. Even in his death, however, Fela was able to speak out against the Nigerian government, for up until 1997 the Nigerian government had covered up the AIDS problem in the country by hiding the results of blood tests, refusing to provide adequate education about AIDS and the symptoms, and lying to worldwide health officials about the number of cases reported in the country. With the public revelation that Fela had died of AIDS, the international press and health organizations took a closer look at Nigeria and soon the Nigerian government admitted that Nigeria had over 2.25 million cases of people carrying the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that was the direct cause of AIDS.

Felas memory has lived on through his oldest son, Femi, who has continued to tour Africa as well as internationally playing the Afro-Beat music his father made famous. Fela has also been memorialized in Nigeria as a folk hero by many and was recently immortalized in art during an art show called Black President: the art and legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, where forty artists showed off their work that was inspired by the music and life of Fela. In summing up the accomplishments of Fela, Chido Nwangwu, the publisher of USAfrica said, His courage to speak the truth, his strong, unvarnished views to face of power and all dem oppressors will be missed by millions of other Africans and people of the world.

Selected discography

Felas London Scene, Sterns Africa, 1970.

Open and Close, Sterns Africa, 1971.

Shakara, Polygram, 1972.

Afrodisiac, Regal, 1973.

He Miss Road, Sterns Africa, 1974.

Monkey Banana, Polygram, 1975.

Noise for Vendor Mouth, Creole, 1975.

Up Side Down, Celluloid, 1976.

Unnecessary Beginning, Barclay, 1976.

Zombie, Celluloid, 1977.

No Agreement, Terrascape, 1977.

Shuffering and Shmiling, Polygram, 1977.

Authority Stealing, International, 1980.

Black President, Capitol, 1981.

Original Sugger Head, Capitol, 1982.

Army Arrangement, Celluloid, 1984.

Music of Many Colours, Polygram, 1986.

Teacher Dont Teach Me Nonsense, Barclay, 1987.

Beasts of No Nation, Shanachie, 1989.

Underground System, MCA, 1992.

Buy Africa, M.I.L., 1997.

Music Is the Weapon of the Future, vols. 1 & 2, Exworks, 1998.

Coffin for the Head of State, Polygram, 1999.

Sources

Books

African Biography, UXL, 1999.

Moore, Carlos, Fela Fela, Schocken, 1987.

Periodicals

American Visions, October-November 1997, pp. 11-13.

Artforum International, May 2003, p. 51.

Guardian News Service, June 5, 1997.

Macleans, October 13, 1986.

Nation, August 13, 1990.

New York Times, July 24, 1977; November 7, 1986.

People, December 1, 1986.

On-line

Fela Kuti, All Music, www.allmusic.com (November 7, 2003).

Fela Kuti, USAfrica: The Newspaper, www.usafrica-online.com (November 7, 2003).

Michael E. Mueller and Ralph G. Zerbonia

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Fela 1938—

Fela 1938

Musician, singer, political activist

At a Glance

Selected discography

Sources

One of Africas most acclaimed musicians, Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti is a peculiar late-twentieth-century mix of shaman, politician, ombudsman, activist and musical genius, according to Gene Santoro in the Nation. Fela, as he is popularly known, writes and performs political protest songs that have won him a large following both at home and abroad, to the frequent chagrin of government authorities. His musicdubbed Afro-Beat,is an amalgam of American blues and jazz blended with African rhythms, while his pointed lyricsin pidgin English and African confront government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality. In a career that has spanned four decades Fela has recorded over 50 albums and performs frequently in concert.

Fela is a flamboyant singer and musician and his concertsmany held at his Lagos nightclub, The Shrine are lengthy and infectious. Fela belts out his driving songs, gyrating as he performs on saxophone or keyboards, directing his thunderous 27-member band, Egypt 80. Felas songs, which usually ride sloganlike lyrics over a densely woven web of cross-rhythms, have titles like Beasts of No Nation (which deals with the way various governments abet South African repression) and Just Like That (a sneeringly witty list of Nigerias current shortcomings), noted Santoro. John Darnton wrote in the New York Times that one of Felas most popular songs, Upside Down, describes a traveler who finds an organized, well-planned world everywhere except in Africa, where there are villages, but no roads, land, but no food or housing. These things are the daily lot of all Lagosians, Darnton noted.

When Fela sings this song, listeners nod their heads solemnly and look into their beers.

Felas musical upbringing spanned three continents. Bom and raised in Nigeria, he initially studied piano and percussion and, as a youth, led a school choir. In the late 1950s Fela moved to London, where he studied classical music and was exposed to American jazz artists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. His music did not become political, however, until the late 1960s, when he visited the United States and was exposed to the black power movement. Influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, Fela began to realize the implications for Africa of white oppression, colonialism, Pan-Africanism the unity of African nationsand revolution. The young

At a Glance

Full name, Fela Anikulapo Kuti; surname originally Ransome-Kuti; born in 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria; son of Reverend Ransome-Kuti (father; a minister and educator) and Funmilayo (mother; a political activist); married, 29 wives, including musical collaborator Sandra; children: six. Education: Attended Trinity College of Music, London, late 1950s-early 1960s.

Musician, singer, and political activist. Formed band Koola Lobitos c. 1963; band name changed to Afrika 70, and later to Egypt 80. Recording artist for Celluloid, Shanachie, Capitol, and Mercury labels. Toured the U.S., 1986.

Addresses: Home Lagos, Nigeria.

musicians work would never be the same; as quoted by Jon Pareles in the New York Times, Fela said, The whole concept of my life changed in a political direction.

Fela returned to Nigeria and began to write politically charged songs that rocked his country. Inspired by Pan-Africanism, he incorporated African instruments into his band, including Konga drums, klips sticks, and the sekere, a percussion instrument Im playing deep African music, he said at the time, as Pareles noted. The rhythm, the sounds, the tonality, the chord sequences, the individual effect of each instrument and each section of the bandIm talking about a whole continent in my music. Felas protest music became very popular among the ranks of Nigerias unemployed, oppressed, and politically dissident. These groups remain a large part of his audience.

Felas music and politics have made him a cult figure in Nigeria; he has run for the presidency twice. His openly confrontive messages have, however, repeatedly irked government authorities, who have found reason to jail Fela for a variety of offenses throughout his career. In 1977 official rancor turned violent when the Nigerian military leveled Felas Lagos residence after he had declared it an independent republic. Before burning the house down, soldiers went on a rampage in which Felas mother, a prominent womens rights activist, was hurled from a second-story window. She later died from her injuries and Fela, in protest, dumped her coffin at the house of then-president General Olusegun Obasanjo.

Although such incidents have rallied support for Fela, he is notorious for a lifestyle that has alienated many Nigerians; he unabashedly preaches the virtues of sex, polygamy, and drugs, in particular the use of marijuana as a creative stimulant. In 1978 Fela shocked his countrymen when he married his harem of 27 women, in protest he said, against the Westernization of African culture. His commune, the KalaKuta Republicwhich was established to protest the military rule of Nigerian societywas reportedly itself run like a dictatorship. According to Darn ton: [Fela] ruled over the KalaKuta Republic with an iron hand, settling disputes by holding court and meting out sentencescane lashings for men and a tin shed jail for women in the backyard. To some degree, these trappings of power account for his popularity among authority-conscious Nigerians.

While Felas politics and lifestyle are controversial, few quibble over the power of his music. In 1986 he and Egypt 80 made their first tour of the United States, where Felas audience is limited but growing. He has influenced the work of singer Jimmy Cliff and the Talking Heads David Byrne. As Fela becomes better known outside of Nigeria he feels that his music will increasingly hold an international message. Fela told Nolan: America needs to hear some good sounds from Africa, man. The sanity of the world is going to be generated from Africa through art. Art itself is knowledge of the spiritual world. Art is information from higher forces, by those who are talented. Im not jiving. Ive been living with my art for 23 years. My music has never been a failure.

Selected discography

Army Arrangement, Celluloid.

Beasts of No Nation, Shanachie.

Black President, Capitol.

Coffin for the Head of State.

Fela, Celluloid.

Fela and Ginger Baker, Live, Celluloid.

Mr. Follow Follow, Celluloid.

(With Roy Ayers) Music of Many Colours, Celluloid.

(With Lester Bowie) No Agreement, Celluloid.

Original Sufferhead, Capitol.

Overtake Done Overtake Overtake, Shanachie.

Shuffering and Shmiling, Celluloid.

Teacher Dont Teach Me Nonsense, Mercury, 1987.

(With wife, Sandra) Upside Down, Celluloid.

Zombie, Celluloid.

Sources

Books

Moore, Carlos, Fela Fela, Schocken, 1987.

Periodicals

Macleans, October 13, 1986.

Nation, August 13, 1990.

New York Times, July 24, 1977; November 7, 1986.

People, December 1, 1986.

Michael E. Mueller

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Fela

Fela

One of Africa's most acclaimed musicians, Nigerian Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938-1997) wrote and performed political protest songs that won him a large following both at home and abroad, to the frequent chagrin of government authorities. His music—dubbed "Afro-Beat"—was an amalgam of American blues and jazz blended with African rhythms, while his pointed lyrics—in pidgin English and African—confronted government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality. In a career that spanned four decades Fela (as he is popularly called)recorded over 50 albums and performed frequently in concert.

Fela was a flamboyant singer and musician and his concerts—many held at his Lagos nightclub, The Shrine—were lengthy and infectious. Fela belted out his driving songs, gyrating as he performed on saxophone or keyboards, directing his thunderous 27-member band, Egypt 80. John Darnton wrote in the New York Times that one of Fela's most popular songs, 'Upside Down,' describes a traveler who finds an organized, well-planned world everywhere except in Africa, where there are villages, but no roads, land, but no food or housing. "These things are the daily lot of all Lagosians," Darnton noted. "When Fela sings this song, listeners nod their heads solemnly and look into their beers."

Fela's musical upbringing spanned three continents. Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1938, he initially studied piano and percussion and, as a youth, led a school choir. His father, the Reverend Ransome-Kuti, was a Protestant minister and educator. In the late 1950s Fela moved to London, telling his parents that he intended to study medicine. Instead he attended the Trinity College of Music, where he explored classical music and was exposed to American jazz artists Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.

Influenced by Black Power Movement

Fela's music did not become political until the late 1960s, when he visited the United States and was exposed to the black power movement. Influenced by the teachings of black activist leader Malcolm X, Fela began to realize the implications for Africa of white oppression, colonialism, Pan-Africanism—the unity of African nations—and revolution. His new-found political consciousness inspired him to adopt the middle name Anikulapo—"having control over death"—and change his band's name from Koola Lobitos to Afrika 70 (later Egypt 80). The young musician's work would never be the same; as quoted by Jon Pareles in the New York Times, Fela said, "The whole concept of my life changed in a political direction."

Fela returned to Nigeria and began to write politically charged songs that rocked his country. Inspired by Pan-Africanism, he incorporated African instruments into his band, including Konga drums, klips sticks, and the sekere— a percussion instrument. "I'm playing deep African music," he said at the time, as Pareles noted. "The rhythm, the sounds, the tonality, the chord sequences, the individual effect of each instrument and each section of the band—I'm talking about a whole continent in my music." Fela's protest music became very popular among the ranks of Nigeria's unemployed, oppressed, and politically dissident. These groups remain a large part of his audience.

Political Confrontations

Fela's music and politics made him a cult figure in Nigeria; he ran for the presidency twice. His openly confrontational messages, however, repeatedly irked government authorities who found reason to jail Fela for a variety of offenses throughout his career. In 1977 official rancor turned violent when the Nigerian military—some say in response to Fela's album Zombie —leveled his imposing Lagos residence after Fela had declared it an independent republic. Before burning down the house—including Fela's recording equipment and master tapes—soldiers went on a rampage in which Fela's 82-year-old mother, a prominent women's rights activist, was hurled from a second-story window. She later died from her injuries. In protest, her son dumped her coffin at the house of then-president General Olusegun Obasanjo.

Unconventional Lifestyle

Although such incidents rallied support for Fela, he was notorious for a lifestyle that alienated many Nigerians; he unabashedly preached the virtues of sex, polygamy, and drugs—in particular the use of marijuana as a creative stimulant. In 1978 Fela shocked his countrymen when he married his harem of 27 women (whom he later divorced), in protest against the Westernization of African culture. His commune, the Kalakuta Republic—established to protest the military rule of Nigeria—was reportedly itself run like a dictatorship. According to the Times's Darnton: "[Fela] ruled over the Kalakuta Republic with an iron hand, settling disputes by holding court and meting out sentences—cane lashings for men and a tin shed 'jail' for women in the backyard. To some degree, these trappings of power account for his popularity among authority-conscious Nigerians." Spin's Larry Birnbaum elaborated on Fela's excesses, reporting, "Stories abound of his setting fire to hotel rooms, firing penniless band members on overseas gigs, making interviewers cool their heels for days and then receiving them in his underwear."

While Fela's politics and lifestyle were controversial, few quibble over the power of his music. In 1986, the human rights organization Amnesty International helped free him from prison, where he had languished due to questionable currency-smuggling charges. Fela and Egypt 80 then made their first tour of the United States, where their audience was limited but growing. He has influenced the work of reggae singer Jimmy Cliff and the Talking Heads' David Byrne. In 1991 he performed an epic gig at New York City's Apollo theater accompanied by 30 support players.

As Fela became better known outside Nigeria he felt that his music increasingly held an international message. He told People's Cathy Nolan: "America needs to hear some good sounds from Africa, man. The sanity of the world is going to be generated from Africa through art. Art itself is knowledge of the spiritual world. Art is information from higher forces, by those who are talented. I'm not jiving. I've been living with my art for 23 years. My music has never been a failure."

Fela died of an AIDS-related illness at his home in Nigeria on August 2, 1997. He was 58 years old.

Books

Moore, Carlos, Fela Fela, Schocken, 1987.

Periodicals

Maclean's, October 13, 1986.

Nation, August 13, 1990.

New York Times, July 24, 1977; November 7, 1986.

People, December 1, 1986.

Spin, November 1991. □

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