Born: Abeokuta, Nigeria, 15 October 1938; died Lagos, Nigeria, 2 August 1997
Best-selling album since 1990: Red Hot + Riot (2002)
Fela Anikapulapo-Kuti wielded political criticism and opposition to the Nigerian government in the form of hard-hitting, high-life-derived "Afro-beat" music from the late 1960s until his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1997. His birthplace had been established by the British in 1800 as a home for freed slaves and had a heritage of creative activism. Kuti's Yoruban grandfather was a celebrated composer, his father was a pianist and preacher, and his mother was a leading figure in the Nigerian nationalist struggle.
Kuti began his career in 1954 as singer in the Cool Cats high-life band in Lagos. Even then he had his own style, which he called high-life jazz. By the early 1960s, after four years of musical study at Trinity College of Music, London, he was back in Lagos, an apprentice radio producer playing alto and tenor saxophone, and handling keyboards for a band called Koola Lobitos, which was influenced by James Brown and Geraldo Pino, a singer from Sierra Leone. He announced his new Afro-beat style in 1968 and then spent ten months in the United States in 1969, during which time he met members of the Black Panther Party. Kuti's hard-edged music was further shaped by avant-garde techniques and the black-nationalist rhetoric of some American jazz musicians, and he recorded a succession of singles decrying the poverty and oppression suffered by the Nigerian population. He enjoyed considerable success on a tour of Europe, acknowledged for his insistent ire and fiercely individualistic Pan-African ideology. Upon returning to Nigeria, he opened the Shrine nightclub to showcase his band Africa 70 (later called Egypt 80), featuring drummer Tony Allen.
Kuti's troupes were typically composed of as many as forty-five players: singers and dancers, reeds and brass players, drummers, hand percussionists, and guitarists. His songs were equally expansive; a single piece often filled the entire side of an album, and in performance he directed sprawling, noisy jams over militantly stiff rhythms unsuitable for most dancing. He also disliked performing songs once he had recorded them, a preference that, along with his lengthy diatribes from the stage, hampered his success in the United States. However, his use of pidgin English rather than a tribal tongue made his work accessible—and popular—throughout Anglophone Africa.
Performing bare-chested, usually smoking a spliff of igbo (Nigerian marijuana), Kuti exhorted his audiences with chants and rants about the corruption of politicians, the brutality and stupidity of the Nigerian military (which ruled his country during much of his career), and the plight of the disenfranchised, including women. In 1975 he changed his middle name, Ransome, which he considered a slave name, to Anikapulapo, so that his entire name translated into "he who emanates greatness, having control over death, death cannot be caused by human entity."
The bluntness of Kuti's criticisms of African elites and bourgeoisie led to nearly constant conflict with those in power. In 1977 the Nigerian military staged a heavily armed attack on his private, walled compound, which he called the Kalakuta Republic. Kuti was beaten, his eighty-two-year-old mother thrown out of a window, and his home set afire. He went into voluntary exile in Ghana, where he continued to attack with music, then was deported back to Nigeria. Upon arrival, to affirm his African roots, he married twenty-seven women, all of whom he divorced in 1986, declaring "No man has a right to own a woman's vagina."
In 1979, during a period of civilian government, Kuti established his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), but when the military returned to power in 1983, he was charged with currency violations and sentenced to a five-year jail term. International protest led a new government to release him in 1986. But while Kuti was incarcerated, the New York–based producer Bill Laswell completed work on his Army Arrangement (1986); out of prison, Kuti collaborated with producer Wally Badarou on Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense (1987). Both of these albums, and the distribution of some 133 songs from Kuti's seventy-seven albums, sustained international interest in and acclaim for his music and political stance.
Kuti was arrested in Nigeria again in 1994 on drug charges and agreed to undergo counseling for substance abuse, but he then sued the government for pressing those charges. The case was still pending when Kuti fell into a coma in 1997, having refused either Western or traditional Yoruba treatment as "a matter of principle." Fela's son Femi carries on the Kuti name and Afro-beat sound, though in a less overtly political, more musically solicitous manner.
Underground System (Kalakuta, 1992); Red Hot + Riot (MCA, 2002)