I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Music is Always Political, Especially if it's Fela Kuti

by Blake Lewis
March 10, 2014

Fela Kuti (Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti) was born in Nigeria in 1938 into a politically active middle class family, his father, a minister was the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, his mother a prominent anti-colonial and socialist political activist and feminist, and his two brothers, are now well respected doctors in Nigeria. In 1958 he was sent to London to study medicine, however, he enrolled at Trinity College of Music instead, where he studied piano, composing and theory. In London, he formed his first band Koola Lobitos, popular on the R&B club scene. He returned to Nigeria in the early sixties, reforming Koola Lobitos with drummer Tony Allen, together they were the chief architects and founders of Afrobeat – a style of music that combined jazz, highlife and traditional African rhythms, in this case, those of the Yoruba tribe, to which Fela Kuti belonged.

In 1969, Fela took Koola Lobitos to the USA, spending around ten months in Los Angeles. It was here that he became influenced by associates and members of the Black Panther Party, from here his music took a turn to a more political stance and he renamed the band Nigeria 70. With the immigration authorities coming down on them, the band hastily recorded a session that was later released as ‘The 69 Los Angeles Sessions’.

Returning to Nigeria, Fela again renamed the band, this time to Africa 70. His political views became entwined in his music and performances and recordings. He refused to compromise with record company interests, the notion of cutting his tracks down to a three minute radio friendly format was not an option to him; it undermined the very point of his music. This stance, and the fact that many tracks by Africa 70 were up around thirty minutes long, and that he also refused to play songs live that he had already recorded, all made the spread of his music and mainstream success (outside Africa) incredibly problematic.

However, this didn’t hinder the influence he had on the rest of the world, musicians from England and the US came to Lagos to see what was going on. When Paul McCartney went to Lagos to record a new album, Fela publicly denounced him at an Africa 70 performance, accusing McCartney of coming to ‘steal the black mans music’. James Brown and his band were highly received on their African tour by Fela, and he worked with Ginger Baker, the drummer from Cream.

In the early 70s Fela Kuti made a decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his lyrics could be understood across the African continent, instead of his message only being understood by the regional dialects and languages. He established a nightclub called the Shrine where he and the Africa 70 would play regularly. He also set up the Kalakuta Republic which incorporated a communal home for family and band members, a recording studio, and included a free health clinic. He also declared it independent from Nigeria, an insult to Nigeria’s government.

Nigeria had won its independence from Great Britain in 1960, after many years of anti-colonialism movement, however there was widespread corruption throughout business and government and the military held great influence over politics. This was an aspect of Nigerian culture that Fela was outspoken against. On their 1977 album ‘Zombie’, he and the Africa 70, attacked the military and their methods. In retaliation the military attacked the compound, beating the inhabitants and wrecking the studio, instruments and master tapes, then setting fire to the building. Fela’s mother died as a result of her injuries caused by the soldiers, inciting him to write the song ‘Coffin for the Head of State. The album, however, was a smash hit. The government issued a statement saying that responsibility for the attack was solely that of one ‘unknown’ soldier, whereas in actual fact there were up to one thousand soldiers involved in the raid. Fela relocated to Ghana, however less than a year later was deported and after a concert in Accra, where rioting broke out after a performance of ‘Zombie’, was banned from re-entering.

Despite almost constant harassment by officials, Fela and The Africa 70 continued to record and release albums prolifically. In 1976 and 1977 alone, they released nine albums – each year. Fela Kuti could have left Nigeria and set up somewhere else, but he had decided to wholly embrace his Africanism, in fact, to promote it and nurture it among other Africans, and more importantly to challenge the culture of the government and the military in his homeland. In the late 70s he changed the name of the band to Egypt 80, continued recording albums and touring throughout the eighties although not as prolifically as in the 70s. However the political content in his lyrics remained as outspoken as ever. The 1989 album ‘Beasts of No Nation’ cover features depictions of Reagan, Thatcher, PW Botha and other officials with devil horns and bloodied rats teeth on the cover.

By the mid-1990s Fela had stopped recording and releasing records, he had been imprisoned twice on currency smuggling and drug charges, of which Amnesty International and other organisations officially denounced. On August the 3rd 1997, Fela Kuti died of an AIDS related illness, which apparently, he had been refusing to accept treatment or medication for. A million people turned up to his funeral in Lagos.

In an interview at Glastonbury Festival in 1984 he said “It’s very difficult for me not to have music that is not politics, even if it is not politics it will have to be music that is very culturally aware, for people to see the beauty of the African concept”.

Blake Lewis