Plenty of musicians profess political and social ideals, but few follow through with the dedication that Fela Kuti had. While his views may have been incendiary, controversial and endlessly disruptive, no one could deny the vigour with which he pursued what he felt was right – often with deeply tragic consequences for himself and those around him. But in Fela’s music we find one of the finest examples of art utilised as a rallying cry. There’s no question his work was shaped by the restless energy of Lagos, but it’s also evident how his music came to completely reshape the minds of so many Nigerians, pushing his audience to question the blind brutality of the state and to challenge the stifling of African identity.
This feedback loop was perhaps most obvious in his live performances, which took place across several venues in the city, including Afro-Spot and later, famously, The Shrine. It was through performing his deeply interactive songs (inspired by the energy of James Brown) in the early ‘70s that Fela tapped into the unspoken, visceral spirit of his audience and developed his nascent Afrobeat sound. His band’s arrangements often took shape live on stage, with Fela guiding his listeners through the meaning of the lyrics in an effort to encourage as much involvement as possible. His shows grew ever-more popular, and it’s not hard to see why; in a politically suppressive state, here was music as an alternative form of public discourse – a venue to gather at and a charismatic figurehead to rally around.
1973’s Gentleman offers an intriguing insight into this period. Thematically the album explored Fela’s opinions on the colonial mindset which he felt still encumbered many of Nigeria’s citizens, manifested in the continued reverence of Western formal wear. “I know what to wear but my friend don’t know / I am not a gentleman like that! / I be Africa man original.” The lyrics, both humorous and invigorating, are propelled by call-and-response, further highlighting the reciprocal energy Fela was seeking to build.
Fela’s band, Afrika 70, meanwhile, were beginning to master their strikingly open-ended and rhythmically propulsive sound, with talents such as tenor saxophonist Igo Chico (who subsequently left the group) and drummer Tony Allen developing and flexing their skills. There’s an almost trance-like, cyclical nature to each of these compositions, lending itself to a build-up of frenzy which Fela clearly enjoyed responding to.
As Fela’s recording career progressed, his conflicts with the Nigerian Government grew more frequent and serious. His infatuation with Marijuana, which he first experienced during a visit to California, proved to be a major point of contention, as Fela enjoyed openly smoking it during his performances and encouraging others to follow suit. This was an obvious affront to the conservative values of the Nigerian government, who arrested the musician on more than a few occasions.
There were deeper tensions, however. Fela was becoming more and more outspoken on issues surrounding the military, government officials (some of whom he would single out by name at shows), and general public obedience. Out of this atmosphere emerged 1978’s Zombie: a searing attack on the Nigerian army, whom he likened to mindless zombies, blindly following the violent orders of their superiors. To the obvious outrage of the government, the album was a huge hit with the people, and lit the fuse on the most vicious period of attacks against Fela and his family.
In early 1978 Fela’s compound, Kalakuta Republic, was raided by over 1000 military personnel, who brutally beat Fela and several other men, raped multiple women and infamously threw Fela’s elderly mother from a first-floor window, inflicting injuries which would lead to her death a few months later. This was a watershed moment for the remainder of Fela’s career, as his musical life was steadily engulfed by the ongoing escalation and tragedy of his feud with the state – a fight which he was inevitably fated to lose.
But when Fela died in late 1997, his funeral highlighted just how broad his impact had been. As Lindsay Barrett wrote in a 1998 issue of The Wire: “It is no exaggeration to say that Fela’s memory will always symbolise the spirit of truth for a vast number of struggling people in Africa and beyond. His music and the determined consistency with which he challenged authority and demanded that popular ambitions and attitudes should be reflected in the official objectives of the nation’s leadership will continue to create a basis for radical challenges to the complacency of officialdom.”
To the ignored masses Fela was a bold pioneer of self-liberation. Days of processions culminated in a ceremony which brought the city of Lagos to a halt, as people paused to reflect on the life and music of an artist who truly lived on his own terms.