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Kuti in 1970
|Birth name||Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti|
|Also known as||Fela Anikulapo Kuti|
|Born||15 October 1938|
Abeokuta, Western Region, British Nigeria
(now Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria)
|Died||2 August 1997 (aged 58)|
Lagos, Lagos State, Nigeria
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti; 15 October 1938 – 2 August 1997) was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, political activist, and Pan-Africanist. He is regarded as the pioneer of Afrobeat, an African music genre combining traditional Yoruba and Afro-Cuban music with funk and jazz. At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa's most "challenging and charismatic music performers." AllMusic described him as a "musical and sociopolitical voice" of international significance.
Kuti was the son of a Nigerian women's rights activist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. After early experiences abroad, his band, Africa '70, shot to stardom in Nigeria during the 1970s, during which time he was an outspoken critic and target of Nigeria's military juntas. In 1970, he founded the Kalakuta Republic commune, which declared itself independent from military rule. The commune was destroyed in a 1978 raid. Since his death in 1997, reissues and compilations of his music have been overseen by his son, Femi Kuti.
Early life and career
Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born into an upper-middle-class family on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, the modern-day capital of Ogun State, at that time a city in the British Colony of Nigeria,. His mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was an anti-colonial feminist, and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican minister, school principal, and first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. His brothers Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, both medical doctors, were well known nationally. Kuti was a first cousin once removed to the writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, as they are both descendants of Josiah Ransome-Kuti, who is Kuti's paternal grandfather and Soyinka's maternal great-grandfather.
Kuti attended Abeokuta Grammar School. In 1958, he was sent to London to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1960, Kuti married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he had three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola). In 1963, Kuti moved back to the newly independent Federation of Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos, and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All-Stars.
In 1967, Kuti traveled to Ghana looking for a new musical direction. He called his style Afrobeat, a combination of highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, and traditional Yoruba music. In 1969, Kuti took the band to the United States, to spend ten months in Los Angeles. While there, he discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. This experience heavily influenced his music and political views. He renamed the band Nigeria '70. Soon after, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Kuti and his band were in the US without work permits. The band performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The '69 Los Angeles Sessions.
After Kuti and his band returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed (the) Afrika '70 as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. 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. According to Lindsay Barrett, the name "Kalakuta" was derived from the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta dungeon in India. 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 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 very 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. During 1972, Ginger Baker recorded Stratavarious, with Kuti appearing alongside vocalist and guitarist Bobby Tench. Around this time, Kuti became even more involved with the Yoruba religion.
In 1977, Kuti and Afrika '70 released the album Zombie, which heavily criticized Nigerian soldiers, using the zombie metaphor to describe the Nigerian military's methods. The album was a massive success and infuriated the government, resulting in a raid against the Kalakuta Republic. During the raid, one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was thrown from a window, fatally injuring her. The commune was burnt down, and Kuti's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Kuti claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for a commanding officer's intervention as he was being beaten. Kuti's response to the attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo's residence, and to write two songs, "Coffin for Head of State" and "Unknown Soldier," referencing the official inquiry that claimed an unknown soldier had destroyed the commune.[dead link]
Kuti and his band took up residence in Crossroads Hotel after the Shrine had been destroyed along with his commune. In 1978, he married 27 women, namely: Kikelomo Oseyni, Folake Oladejo, Tejumade Adebiyi, Naa Lamiley, Sewaa Kuti, Omotola Osaeti, Omowunmi Oyedele, Alake Anikulapo Kuti, Shade Shodeinde, Adeola Williams, Najite Kuti, Emaruagheru Osawe, Kevwe Oghomienor, Ihase Anikulapo, Adejonwo Iyabode Ogunitro, Bose Anikulapo Kuti, Lara Anikulapo Kuti, Suru Eriomola, Tokunbo Akran, Funmi Kuti, Omowunmi Afesumo, Laide Anikulapo Kuti, Ronke Edason, Damiregba Anikulapo Kuti, Aduni Idowu, and Omolara Shosanya Remilekun Taylor. Many of these women were dancers, composers, and singers with whom he worked with. The marriage served not only to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic but also to protect Kuti and his wives from authorities' false claims that Kuti was kidnapping women. Later, he adopted a rotation system of maintaining 12 simultaneous wives. Two notorious concerts also marked the year: the first was in Accra, in which, during the song "Zombie," rioting broke out, which led to Kuti being banned from entering Ghana; the second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after which most of Kuti's musicians deserted him, due to rumors that he was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
In 1983, Kuti formed his political party, which he called Movement of the People (MOP), to "clean up society like a mop." MOP preached Nkrumahism and Africanism. In 1979, he put himself forward for president in Nigeria's first elections in decades, but his candidature was refused. At this time, Kuti created a new band Egypt '80, reflecting the idea that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African and must be claimed as such. As Kuti stated in an interview, "Stressing the point that I have to make Africans aware of the fact that Egyptian civilization belongs to the African. So that was the reason why I changed the name of my band to Egypt '80." Kuti continued to record albums and tour the country. He further infuriated the political establishment by implicating ITT Corporation's vice-president, Moshood Abiola and Nigeria's Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo in the hot-selling 25-minute political screed entitled "I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)."
1980s and beyond
In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari's government, of which Kuti was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a charge of currency smuggling. Amnesty International and others denounced the charges as politically motivated. Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience, and other human rights groups also took up his case. After 20 months, General Ibrahim Babangida released him from prison. On his release, Fela divorced his 12 remaining wives, citing "marriage brings jealousy and selfishness."
Kuti continued to release albums with Egypt '80 and toured in the United States and Europe while continuing to be politically active. In 1986 Kuti performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of Amnesty International's A Conspiracy of Hope concert along with Bono, Carlos Santana, and the Neville Brothers. In 1989, Kuti and Egypt '80 released the anti-apartheid Beasts of No Nation that depicted U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and South African State President Pieter Willem Botha on its cover. The title of the composition evolved out of a statement by Botha: "This uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the best in us."
Kuti's album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually, he ceased releasing albums altogether. On 21 January 1993,, he and four members of Afrika '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, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, already a prominent AIDS activist and former Minister of Health, announced his younger brother's death a day earlier from complications related to AIDS. Kuti had been an AIDS denialist, and his widow maintained that he did not die of AIDS. More than one million people attended Kuti's funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound, supervised by his son Femi. 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.
The musical style of Kuti is called Afrobeat, a style he largely created, which is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanaian highlife, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native "tinker pan". Tony Allen (Kuti's drummer of twenty years) was instrumental in the creation of Afrobeat. Kuti once stated that "there would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen".
Afrobeat is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A riff-based "endless groove" is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted West African-style guitar, and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song. Commonly, interlocking melodic riffs and rhythms are introduced one by one, building the groove bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer. The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs and main melodic themes.
Kuti's band was notable for featuring two baritone saxophones, whereas most groups were using only one of this instrument. This is a common technique in African and African-influenced musical styles and can be seen in funk and hip hop. His bands at times even performed with two bassists at the same time both playing interlocking melodies and rhythms. There were always two or more guitarists. The electric West African style guitar in Afrobeat bands is paramount but is used to give basic structure, playing a repeating chordal/melodic statement, riff, or groove.
Some elements often present in Kuti's music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. His songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reached 20 or even 30 minutes, while some unreleased tracks would last up to 45 minutes when performed live. This was one of many reasons that his music never reached a substantial degree of popularity outside Africa. His LP records frequently had one 30-minute track per side. Typically there is an "Instrumental Introduction" jam part of the song, perhaps 10–15 minutes long, before Kuti starts singing the "main" part of the song, featuring his lyrics and singing, in which the song continues for another 10–15 minutes. Therefore, on some recordings, one may see his songs divided into two parts, Part 1 being instrumental and Part 2 involving both music and singing.
Kuti's songs were mostly sung in Nigerian pidgin English, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. His main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet, electric guitar, and took the occasional drum solo. Kuti refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which also hindered his popularity outside Africa.
Kuti was known for his showmanship, and his concerts were often quite outlandish and wild. He referred to his stage act as the "Underground Spiritual Game". Many expected him to perform shows like those in the Western world. But during the 1980s, Kuti was not interested in putting on a "show". His European performance was a representation of what was relevant at the time and his other inspirations. He attempted to make a movie but lost all the materials to the fire that was set to his house by the military government in power. He thought that art, and thus his own music, should have political meaning.
Kuti was a part of an Afro-Centric consciousness movement that was founded on and delivered through his music. In an interview included in Hank Bordowitz's Noise of the World, Kuti stated: "Music is supposed to have an effect. If you're playing music and people don't feel something, you're not doing shit. That's what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life, against a bad life. When you're listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you're not having a better life, it must have an effect on you."
Kuti's music and activism were inspired by his surroundings. In interview footage found in Faces of Africa on CGTN Africa, he spoke of comparison between English love songs and his own music: "Yes, if you are in England, the music can be an instrument of enjoyment. You can sing about love, you can sing about whom you are going to bed next. But in my own environment, my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system on our people. So there is no music enjoyment. There is nothing like love. There is something like the struggle for people's existence."
Political views and activism
Kuti was highly engaged in political activism in Africa from the 1970s until his death. He criticized the corruption of Nigerian Government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people. Corruption was one of the worst political problems facing Africa in the 70s, if not the worst, and Nigeria was among the most corrupt countries. Its government was responsible for election rigging and coups that ultimately worsened poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, and political instability, further promoting corruption and thuggery. Kuti's protest songs covered themes inspired by the realities of corruption and socio-economic inequality in Africa. Kuti's political statements could be heard throughout Africa.
Kuti's open vocalization of the violent and oppressive regime controlling Nigeria did not come without consequence. He was arrested on over 200 different occasions and spent time in jail, including his longest stint of 20 months after his arrest in 1984. On top of the jail time, the corrupt government would send soldiers to beat Kuti, his family and friends, and destroy wherever he lived and whatever instruments or recordings he had.
In the 1970s, Kuti began to run outspoken political columns in the advertising space of daily and weekly newspapers such as The Daily Times and The Punch, bypassing editorial censorship in Nigeria's predominantly state-controlled media. Published throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the title "Chief Priest Say," these columns were extensions of Kuti's famous Yabi Sessions — consciousness-raising word-sound rituals, with himself as chief priest, conducted at his Lagos nightclub. Organized around a militantly Afrocentric rendering of history and the essence of black beauty, "Chief Priest Say" focused on the role of cultural hegemony in the continuing subjugation of Africans. Kuti addressed many topics, from fierce denunciations of the Nigerian Government's criminal behavior, Islam and Christianity's exploitative nature, and evil multinational corporations; to deconstructions of Western medicine, Black Muslims, sex, pollution, and poverty. "Chief Priest Say" was canceled, first by The Daily Times then, by The Punch. Many have speculated that the papers' editors were increasingly pressured to stop publication, including by violence.
Kuti was outspoken; the lyrics of his songs expressed his inner thoughts. His rise in popularity throughout the 1970s signaled a change in the relation between music as an art form and Nigerian socio-political discourse. In 1984, he critiqued and insulted the authoritarian then-president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. "Beast Of No Nation", one of his most popular songs, refers to Buhari as an "animal in a madman's body"; in Nigerian Pidgin: "No be outside Buhari dey ee / na craze man be dat / animal in craze man skini." Kuti strongly believed in Africa and always preached peace among its people. He thought the most important way for them to fight European cultural imperialism was to support traditional religions and lifestyles in their continent. The American Black Power movement also influenced Kuti's political views; he supported Pan-Africanism and socialism and called for a united, democratic African republic. Examples of the African leaders he supported during his lifetime include Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara. Kuti was a candid supporter of human rights, and many of his songs are direct attacks against dictatorships, specifically the militaristic governments of Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also a social commentator and criticized fellow Africans (especially the upper class) for betraying traditional African culture.
In 1978 Kuti became a polygamist when he married twenty-seven women at once. The highly publicized wedding served many purposes. The wedding marked the one year anniversary of Kuti and his queens surviving the Nigerian government's attack on the Kalakuta Republic in 1977. The nuptials also formalized Kuti's relationships with the women living with him; this legal status prevented the Nigerian government from raiding Kuti's compound on the grounds that Kuti had kidnapped the women. Kuti also described polygyny as logical and convenient: "A man goes for many women in the first place. Like in Europe, when a man is married when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and sleeps around. He should bring the women in the house, man, to live with him, and stop running around the streets!" Some characterize his views towards women as a misogynist and typically cite songs like "Mattress" as further evidence. In a more complex example, he mocks African women's aspiration to European standards of ladyhood while extolling the values of the market woman in "Lady". However, Kuti also critiqued what he considered aberrant displays of African masculinity. In his songs "J.J.D. (Johnny Just Drop)" and "Gentleman," Kuti mocks African men's culturally and politically inappropriate adopting of European standards and declares himself "African man: Original."
Kuti was also an outspoken critic of the United States. At a meeting during his 1981 Amsterdam tour, he "complained about the psychological warfare that American organizations like ITT and the CIA waged against developing nations in terms of language." Because terms such as Third World, undeveloped, or—even worse—non-aligned countries imply inferiority, Kuti felt they should not be used.
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Kuti is remembered as an influential icon who was brave enough to boldly voice his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music. The Felabration festival 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.
In 1999, Universal Music France, under Francis Kertekian, remastered the 45 albums that it controlled and released them on 26 compact discs. These titles were licensed globally, except in Nigeria and Japan, where other companies controlled Kuti's music. In 2005, the American operations of UMG licensed all of its world-music titles to the UK-based label Wrasse Records, which repackaged the same 26 discs for distribution in the United States (where they replaced the titles issues by MCA) and the UK. In 2009, Universal created a new deal for the US and Europe, with Knitting Factory Records and PIAS respectively, which included the release of the Broadway cast recording of the musical Fela!. In 2013, FKO Ltd., the entity that owned the rights to all of Kuti's compositions, was acquired by BMG Rights Management.
American singer Bilal recorded a remake of Kuti's 1977 song "Sorrow Tears and Blood" for his second album, Love for Sale, featuring a guest rap by Common. Bilal cited Kuti's mix of jazz and folk tastes as an influence on his music.
The 2007 film The Visitor, directed by Thomas McCarthy, depicted a disconnected professor (Richard Jenkins) who wanted to play the djembe; he learns from a young Syrian (Haaz Sleiman) who tells the professor he will never truly understand African music unless he listens to Kuti. The film features clips of Kuti's "Open and Close" and "Je'nwi Temi (Don't Gag Me)".
In 2008, an off-Broadway production of Kuti's life, entitled Fela! and inspired by the 1982 book Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore, began with a collaborative workshop between the Afrobeat band Antibalas and Tony award-winner Bill T. Jones. The production was a massive success, selling out performances during its run and garnering much critical acclaim. On 22 November 2009, Fela! began a run on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Jim Lewis helped co-write the script (along with Jones) and obtained producer backing from Jay-Z and Will Smith, among others. On 4 May 2010, Fela! was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Bill T. Jones, Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Sahr Ngaujah, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White. In 2011, the London production of Fela! (staged at the Royal National Theatre) was made into a film. On 11 June 2012, it was announced that Fela! would return to Broadway for 32 performances.
On 18 August 2009, DJ J.Period released a free mixtape to the general public, entitled The Messengers. It is a collaboration with Somali-born hip-hop artist K'naan paying tribute to Kuti, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan.
Two months later, Knitting Factory Records began re-releasing the 45 titles controlled by UMG, starting with yet another re-release in the US of the compilation The Best of the Black President, which was completed and released in 2013.
Fela Son of Kuti: The Fall of Kalakuta is a stage play written by Onyekaba Cornel Best in 2010. It has had triumphant acclaim as part of that year's Felabration and returned in 2014 at the National Theatre and Freedom Park in Lagos. The play deals with events in a hideout, a day after the fall of Kalakuta.
Furthermore, a biographical film by Focus Features, directed by Steve McQueen and written by Biyi Bandele, was rumored to be in production in 2010, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. However, by 2014, the proposal was no longer produced under Focus Features, and whilst still maintaining his role as the main writer, McQueen was replaced by Andrew Dosunmu as the director. McQueen told The Hollywood Reporter that the film was "dead".
His song "Zombie" has appeared in the video game Grand Theft Auto: IV.
- Fela Fela Fela (1969)
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- See: Washington, Teresa N. (2014). The Architects of Existence: Aje in Yoruba Cosmology, Ontology, and Orature. Oya's Tornado. pp. 285n105. ISBN 978-0991073016.
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