Decades after his death, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afrobeat impresario remains a revered icon among his teeming devotees worldwide, Yinka Olatunbosun reports
Fela was a legend of strong music pedigree. His grandfather, Rev. Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, a great musician who composed the Egba National Anthem reportedly fought for use of umbrella – yes, umbrella by citizens of Ilaro which was only the preserve of the traditional ruler. Fela’s father, Rev. Isreal Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was a prominent educator and the first President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers while his mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria and the first African woman to visit China, USSR, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and East Germany during the cold war. She is the heroine that agitated for the universal suffrage of Nigerian women.
Against this background, Fela demonstrated his love for music quite early as a student of Abeokuta Grammar School-initially preferring to play piano and organ by familiarity rather than learning the rudiments. Fela would later form “The Planless Society,” which floated a school newspaper to criticise school activities and air social commentaries. Obsessed with nightlife, Fela found a soulmate in J.K. Braimah with whom there was “no limit’’.
Fela sharpened his musical skills with Victor Olaiya’s Cool Cats Band before he proceeded to study at the Trinity College of Music in London where he played with the Koola Lobitos, experimenting with jazz and other music genres. He became influenced by Ambrose Campbell, Joe Harrriot, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock among others. In 1961, he married Remilekun Taylor and returned to Nigeria in 1963 to play jazz although highlife was the dominant music of the period.
According to Fela’s first manager and foremost music journalist, Benson Idonije in his memoir titled, Dis Fela Sef, it was Fela’s mother who brought two of his singles to the Broadcasting House in Ikoyi for airplay. It was a tough call as most of the radio presenters favoured highlife. Idonije recalled how Fela lived the busy life in Lagos and loathed marijuana. His debut interview on radio was on NBC Jazz Club with Idonije and a long-lasting bond was formed between them. Idonije who is grandfather to Burna Boy, managed Fela’s band, Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet.
Fela’s revolutionary ideas about music was first glimpsed when he turned down the job opportunity in the Nigerian Army as the band’s Director of Music. His argument was that the military, after the nation’s independence should have composed songs that reflect our cultural values and indigenous rhythms. This idea made him look like a confrontational job seeker. Away with the military, he took a job at the NBC as music Producer while running his music band.
His music made a detour when his mother suggested that he returned to highlife, spawning hits like “Onidodo@ and “Ololufe”. One of the band’s cheery moments was being selected to back up Millicent Small, an international singer with the smash hit, “My girl Lollipop”.
Back at NBC, it became clear that Fela’s unconventional lifestyle was interfering with his job. His was always late for work, with the burden of hangover from night clubbing. He embarked on a music tour in Ghana on “sick leave’’ to push the frontiers of his music, defying queries at work. The Koola Lobitos metamorphosed into Nigeria ’70, Afrika ’70 and Egypt ’80.
With Lekan Animashaun on baritone saxophone, Tony Allen on drums, Fayewun on Trumpet, Wmonah on guitar, Ngomalooh on acoustic bass and Ojo Okejo on guitar, Fela confidently tested the critic’s bite, in Daily Times review, his artistry was praised but its commercial success was questioned.
A turning point came to Fela music when he went to the US in the late 60s- the peak of civil rights’ movement. He met Sandra Izsadore who educated his mind with African history and philosophy. A fired up Fela returned to Nigeria in 1970, and Afrobeat was born with the “Jeun Koku” creating the much-anticipated mass appeal. He changed his name from “Ransome” to “Anikulapo” (the one who has death in his pouch).
In a desperate search for foreign recognition, Fela signed on with EMI and milked the moment. Fela introduced pidgin English to his lyrics, added chorus girls and entrenched the call and response patterns. He began to develop very militant music materials alongside philosophical and political affiliations such as Nigerian Association of Patriotic Writers and Artists (NAPWA), Young African Pioneers (YAP), and later floated the political party, Movement of the People (MOP), which was not registered. Fela nursed the ambition of becoming the President.
Fela became a multi-instrumentalist upon the disappointing exit of his tenor saxophone player, Igo Chico. He created hits such as “Yellow Fever”, “Roforofo fight” and “Palava”. In time, Fela became famous not just for his musicianship and activism but for his marijuana imagery. His rebellious stance was the media’s interest and instead of reflecting his strict rule over his Kalakuta commune, the media sensationalized the news of sexual prowess and conflict with the law.
From Sunday yabis to vocal attacks on oppressive government, Zombie, one of his best-selling albums of all time was released. The scathing lyrics brought some consequences- an outright ban on the sale and distribution and later the destruction of Kalakuta Republic on February 18, 1977 by unknown soldiers. Idonije had argued in his book that the Kalakuta destruction was a consequence of numerous remote causes given the magnitude of the assault and that it couldn’t have been Zombie. With his mother reportedly thrown out from the window, his women brutally battered and, in some cases, raped, Fela decidedly married his 27 wives under controversial circumstances.
Fela made the front page of National Newspapers with his exploits against the military government. Fela, like Politics, Business or Sports was a designated beat for some journalists at the period. A fierce provocateur, Fela daringly marched to the dreaded Dodan Barracks with his family carrying a coffin and a heavy heart following the death of his mother in 1978.
Though Fela was not a pro-democracy activist, his Afrikan Shrine was the rallying point for human right activists. Fela was not a member of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) and was mostly alone in his struggle and trials which he channeled forceful through his message and instrumentations till his death on August 2, 1997. He left no topic untouched in his music- corruption, religious bigotry, corporate scandals and capitalism were all subjects of his music.
A dishonour to the music activism that Fela and other reggae musicians after him propagated still persists today. Any music that criticizes the government is liable to be erased from the airwaves. Ask African China, Idris Abdulkareem and lately, Falz the Badh Guy.
Meanwhile, his posthumous fame was heightened by the Bill T. Jones’ directed Fela! On Broadway and the viral nature of Afrobeat’s influence in popular music greats like Jay-Z, Beyonce, Lauryn Hill and legions of young Nigerian artists who have stirred heated debates with the addition of “s” to Afrobeats. Unknown to them, the international music community had added the letter “s” to clearly distinguish between the music of Fela’s ingenuity and commercial music influenced by Afrobeat. Hopefully, Afrobeat will get a Grammy category and Nigeria will not miss the chance to produce a full length-movie to crystallise the whole story of Fela and how Nigeria has lost a fearless provocateur.