My earliest memory of Fela, I was eight; as usual, my stepdad had bought a copy of TELL Magazine and on the cover was an image of this slim and rather pale looking man who had been arrested by the government. Almost the entire magazine was dedicated to telling his story and being a voracious reader, I consumed the most I could at the time even though I didn’t fully understand it all. Also, my stepdad would not stop raving about him and how phenomenal he was. He would often play Fela’s song and sway to it, exclaiming at the parts that resonated with him, which was always often the entire song. Then, I did not care much about him or his music. But today, it is an entirely different story; like most people in my generation, I have grown to respect and appreciate the legend that ‘is’ Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Fela was a musical virtuoso. His style of music was original as he was fiercely original. Fela’s sound, which he christened Afrobeat, was a fusion of several genres and instruments; traditional high life, western jazz and funk, quasi-rapping Pidgin English and percolating guitars and percussion. It was an intensely rhythmic hybrid that often lasted an hour.
“Handel. Western music is Bach, Handel and Schubert. It’s good music, cleverly done. As a musician, I can see that. Classical music gives musicians a kick. But African music gives everyone a kick.” – Fela talking about his favourite musician.
Although these hour-long songs hindered him from scoring big with western music labels, Fela was unbothered. He would not conform; he was going to make music however he wanted to. Thankfully, his originality created a lasting legacy with Afrobeat becoming one of the most recognizable music genres in the world.
Fela was a voice; he did not just make music, he made music for the people. Every song was a targeted message; Zombie, Sorrow, Tears and Blood, Beasts of No Nation, International Thief Thief. Fela addressed issues of social justice, political exploitation and disenfranchisement with his music. And this made him an enemy of the state, resulting in constant arrests and harassment by the military. With over a hundred court appearances, Fela remains the most persecuted musician in the world.
But none of the government’s acts of repression stopped him. Every time he got out of jail, Fela condemned and criticized the government even more. He took his radicalism a step further by writing social and political commentaries in daily newspapers under the title “Chief Priest Say”.
“Fela’s lyrics were scathing denunciations of Nigeria’s socio-economic reality. He focused on corruption, abuse of power, mental emancipation from colonialism and the need for Nigerians to stand up for their rights.” – Remi Adekoya on Fela’s activism.
Everyone who has listened to Fela’s body of work would agree that Fela was a visionary; he predicted the future. The issues he addressed with his music; cultural imperialism, human rights abuse and the exploitation of public offices by public servants, are still prevalent.
“He is a great icon and till date, his music still stands relevant. Most of those things he said in all his songs are prevalent till date. He was a prophet. But as the saying goes, ‘a prophet is not respected in his home town’, which is exactly what played out in his life.” – Segun Arinze on Fela’s evergreen relevance.
Fela was a powerful dresser. It is no wonder his influence transcends music and activism into fashion. He was always well dressed and dapper in his tapered pants, matching shirts and shoes that were often made from fabrics patterned with African motifs.
He did not just dress ‘African’ he also campaigned for Afrocentricity with his music. In his song “Gentlemen” he chided the evolving African man for losing his identity and conforming to western influence by dressing in a suit and tie.
“Africa hot, I like am so. I know what to wear, but my friends don’t know
Him put him socks, him put him shoe
Him put him pant, him put him singlet
Him put him trouser, him put him shirt
Him put him tie, him put him coat
Him come cover all with him hat
Him be gentleman, him go sweat, all over
Him go faint right down, him go smell like shit
Him go piss for body, him no go know
Me I no be gentleman like that”
Fela was also daring and rebellious even with his clothes. He popularised and personified the act of going shirtless while performing. And was often filmed rehearsing in his underpants in his home. His wives were not left out with their eclectic makeup, hairstyles and accessories.
Fela was unequivocally sexist. While he was progressive with a lot of issues, it never included women liberation or gender equality. His stance on feminism was ironic considering the fact that his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was one of Nigeria’s early feminists. His 1972 hit, “Lady” mocked the progressive African woman, expressing his ideology of patriarchy.
“If you call am woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say, she go say, “I be lady, oh”
I want tell you about lady
She go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do himself fit do