Carlos Moore, Fela Kuti’s biographer, described this cultural icon as a “Superstar, singer, musician, Panafricanist, polygamist, mystic, legend” (Moore 2012). As a musician, Fela Kuti is known as the originator of the Afrobeat genre, an infusion of soul, funk, and Nigerian traditional music. It is not uncommon for his songs to be 15 minutes in duration, an example of how he considered his music to be a form of rebellion, by refusing to conform to Western, colonial, standards. His life journey can be described as a “transformation from British-trained Nigerian jazz trumpeter to black-nationalist countercultural dissident icon” (Moore); he was born into a middle-class family, studied music in London, and started his career as a jazz musician, touring in the US. There, he started a relationship with singer and former black panther Sandra Smith, who introduced him to the writings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and other radical thinkers. By the time he came back to Nigeria, he was radicalized. In 1975, he replaced his middle name “Ransome” with “Anikulapo”– “he who carries death in his pouch,” and started a new moniker for himself: “The Black President.” He openly opposed the Nigerian government, both through his music and in his personal life. His lyrics were often calls to political action and resistance– “Authority stealing pass armed robbery, we Africans we must do something about this nonsense” (“Authority Stealing”). He also refused to perform in FESTAC, a 1977 national celebration of Nigerian cultural hegemony. As a result, his home was raided and destroyed, he was hospitalized and imprisoned, and his mother died from raid-related injuries. Kuti created his own political party— Movement Of the People, to “clean up society like a mop” (Kuti in Barrett). His most infamous action, however, was less politically revolutionary than simply over-the-top: in one day, he married 27 women, all members of his band. Later, deciding that this was too much, he decided to live with them in rotation, with 12 at a time.
Despite his unconventional and sometimes questionable lifestyle, Fela Kuti was one of the most influential cultural icons of his time, and still today. He spoke openly about corruption, the harmful legacy of corruption, racism, and more to audiences all over the world, and in that way, was a Nigerian voice for change.
Alimi, Shina, and Iroju Opeyemi Anthony. “No Agreement Today, No Agreement Tomorrow: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti And Human Rights Activism In Nigeria.”Journal Of Pan African Studies 6.4 (2013): 74-94. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.
Moore, Carlos (2012-12-14). Fela Kuti. This Bitch of a Life! Haffmans & Tolkemitt.
Slices of Fela: Part 3. Perf. Fela Kuti. Youtube.com. Fela.net, 9 Nov. 2015. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.
Stewart, Alexander. “Make It Funky: Fela Kuti, James Brown And The Invention Of Afrobeat.” American Studies (00263079) 52.4 (2013): 99-118.Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.
All images from fela.net