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Fela Kuti, The Black President

Getty / Michael Ochs Archives / Waring Abbott

Fela Kuti, The Black President

Perhaps no musician has paid as high a price for his political views as Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, but then few have dared confront oppressive regimes so fearlessly.

In 1977, enraged by Kuti’s song “Zombie” which excoriated the Nigerian military for blindly doing the bidding of tyrants, 1,000 troops showed up at his compound, burned his house down, destroyed his recording studio, severely beat him and threw his 78-year-old mother out a window. When she later died of her injuries, Kuti delivered her coffin to President General Olusegun Obasanjo’s barracks – a gesture he followed up with the song “Coffin for Head of State.”

People routinely were killed for much less, but Fela Kuti backed down for no one, be they murderous generals or Paul McCartney.

Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1938, he came from a well-educated and respected family. His father was a Protestant Minister and first head of the Nigerian Teachers Union. Two brothers were doctors. His mother had travelled to Russia and China and was the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car. His first cousin, Wole Soyinka, would become the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At age 20, Kuti was sent to London to become a doctor like his brothers, but he instead elected to study music at Trinity College. There he formed his first band, Koola Lobito, who specialized in melding jazz and highlife – a genre originating in Liberia that emphasized horns and multiple guitars. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and reformed the band while he worked as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcast Company.

As many black Americans in the 1960s were actively seeking out African culture as a way to reclaim their heritage and self-identity, it’s somewhat ironic that Fela Kuti’s watershed moment of political consciousness came during a 1969 trip to America, where he was exposed to the Black Power movement and thinkers like Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X.

Upon returning to Lagos, he renamed his band Africa ’70, coined the term Afrobeat, and began recording a string of hits with newly politicized lyrics, including those criticizing Africans of the ruling elite for aping Western ways (he’d decided to sing in Pidgin English so that his lyrics could be understood by audiences throughout the continent). He started a commune called the Afro-Spot, that bandmates, family and some 100 others would call home. In a move some interpreted as an ironic commentary on Africa’s fractiousness, he declared the commune an independent state and renamed it the Kalakuta Republic (Swahili for the ‘Rascally Republic’). Around this time, he also dropped the “Ransome” from his name, saying it was a slave name. Fela Kuti would henceforth go by many self-appointed monikers – The Black President, The One Who Emanates Greatness, He Who Carries Death in His Pocket, and Chief Priest.

In 1972, Paul McCartney decided to record his next album in Lagos and saw Kuti – now 33 and an established star in Africa though still virtually unknown in the Western world – perform live. He later told The Guardian that Kuti’s outfit was “'the best band I've ever seen live...I just couldn't stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience.” McCartney tried to approach some of Kuti’s musicians about recording with him, but when Kuti got wind of it he stormed into the studio and accused McCartney of trying “steal the black man’s music.” Kuti later rebuffed Motown executives looking to sign him to a million-dollar deal because his personal magician, Professor Hindu, said the spirits believed it was a bad idea.

It wasn’t just Western exposure or American money he rebuffed, either. Those on the left who may have lionized him for his anti-imperial, anti-oppression, Pan-African views had to contend with some of his less easily-digestible beliefs. A practicing polygamist, in 1978 he had 27 wives (in the 1980s he divorced the 12 that still remained, saying marriage made for “jealousy and selfishness”). Kuti also believed the use of condoms was “un-African” and called AIDS a “white man’s disease.”

When his younger brother announced in August of 1997 that Fela Kuti had died at age 59 from just this disease, the nation was shocked. For two days, the streets of Lagos were filled with more than a million mourners and the country virtually shut down. Ironically, Kuti’s most lasting political contribution may have been in bringing greater AIDS awareness to Nigeria.

Today his music is more popular worldwide than it ever was during his lifetime. His legacy is carried on by his son Femi Kuti, a popular Afrobeat artist who tours the world with his band Positive Force and continues fighting for many of the same political causes his father believed in. His youngest son, Seun Kuti, now fronts Fela’s former band Egypt 80, three quarters of whose members not only played with Fela but were arrested along with him during crackdowns by Nigerian despots.

Decades after Fela Kuti first began thumbing his nose at authority, the Afrobeat goes on.