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- Posted on Jun 11th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
In his lifetime, the ferociously uncompromising Fela Kuti was as politically outspoken as any musician has ever been. In Nigeria, his homeland, he formed a compound of followers and declared it an independent state. The backlash from the military government eventually cost the bandleader the life of his own mother.
Born Olufela Olusegon Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Nigeria in 1938, the man known as Fela was raised by a politically active mother and a father who, like his own father, was a Protestant minister. As a boy, Fela would run for miles to attend traditional Yoruban celebrations, inspiring his lifetime belief in the power of authentic African culture.
At 20, he followed in his older siblings' footsteps, heading to London to study. But while his older brothers became prominent doctors, Fela enrolled at Trinity College of Music, forming a traditional high-life band there. After returning to Nigeria, he began to develop a new style of rhythmic jazz he called Afrobeat.
Fela and his band spent most of 1969 in Los Angeles, where the leader was turned on to the philosophies of the Black Panthers and the American Black Power movement. Inspired in part by the thrilling horns of James Brown's band, he recorded the first of dozens of albums of hypnotic, increasingly lengthy funky jams. Until then he'd been "using jazz to play African music," he told one interviewer, "when really I should be using African music to play jazz."
Back in Nigeria, Fela's opposition to corrupt African governments, both military and civilian, quickly grew from opinion to activism. In 1974 he fenced off his compound and declared it the independent Kalakuta Republic. As his following spread, so did the harassment Fela's followers endured. Around this time he changed his middle name to Anikulapo ("He who carries death in his pouch"), rejecting the given name Ransome as a slave name.
After performing an incendiary version of 'Zombie,' his song about military dictatorship and its effect on rank-and-file soldiers, at a black-pride festival in Lagos in 1977, Fela's camp came under siege by more than a thousand soldiers. Followers and Fela himself were badly beaten, buildings burned, and the singer's elderly mother was thrown from a first-floor window. The injuries she sustained left her in a coma; she died several weeks later.
Incensed, Fela's response was to deliver his mother's coffin to the acting president, a military general with whom the bandleader had once attended primary school. The incident is recounted in Fela's song 'Coffin for Head of State.'
Having lost the compound, Fela and his entourage lived for a time in a hotel, then squatted for months in Decca Records' Lagos offices. On the one-year anniversary of the attack, Fela took 27 women as his wives.
But his communal ideal was not without internal strife. During a trip to a Berlin festival, many members of Fela's huge band defected, protesting rumors that the bandleader intended to earmark all earnings from the trip for his planned presidential campaign.
Running as head of his own party, the Movement of the People, Fela was disqualified from the presidential race in 1979. Four years later, after another failed candidacy, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison on what he claimed was a fabricated money-smuggling charge. Undaunted, he found a wider international audience as the pop world began to adopt the human-rights demands Fela had long advocated.
Since Fela's death of AIDS-related causes in 1997, at least two of his many offspring, sons Femi and Seun Kuti, have carried on his musical legacy. When their father died, his body was displayed in a transparent casket. Hundreds of thousands of mourners came to the memorial. This time, the coffin held the unofficial head of state.