Fela; the man who had death in his pocket by RapJointLagos.
When Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died in August 1997, Nigeria lost one of its most controversial and inspirational cultural figures, today RapJointLagos maps the extraordinary trajectory of Fela's life, detailing the emergence of his patented brand of Afrobeat, his anarchic lifestyle, and the ongoing battles with the Nigerian authorities. Some of this feature was originally published in The Wire 169 (March 1998) on thewire.co.uk.
Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti (born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti; 15 October 1938 – 2 August 1997) also known as Abami Eda was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, political activist, and Pan-Africanist. He is regarded as the pioneer of Afrobeat, an African music genre that combines traditional Yoruba with funk and jazz.
No one who knew him well was surprised when Nigeria's greatest musician Fela Ransome-Kuti changed the first part of his double-barrelled surname to Anikulapo in the mid-1970s. He was just being consistent. Throughout his career, up to that point, Fela had constantly changed his mode of living and transformed the nature of his music. Eventually this process of change was to become the force that motivated his entire life.
The renaming was instructive. Anikulapo means 'I have death in my pocket', which is to say, as he often did, 'I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me'. When he died in August of 1997 at the age of 58, Fela appeared to fulfil the prophecy implicit in that earlier name change; and the manner of his dying was as dramatic and unruly as the manner of his living.
Once in the UK Fela enrolled In the Trinity School of Music. The trumpet was his preferred instrument, as most of Nigeria's leading highlife band leaders were trumpeters and at least two of them, Rex Jim Lawson and Victor Olaiya, were early heroes of Fela's.
During his stay in London, Fela also listened to Afro-Cuban music, and began performing in venues frequented by African students and workers with a group of dedicated Nigerian musicians which included the pianist Wole Bucknor, who became the Musical Director of the Nigerian Navy Band, and the fine jazz drummer Bayo Martins.
Fela returned to Nigeria in the mid-60s, and was employed by Nigeria's National Broadcasting Corporation, but he seemed to have little interest in working there. He formed his first professional group, The Koala Lobitos, and in their earliest performances the musical influences which had exercised Fela's imagination in the UK came to the fore.
In 1968 Fela went on a maverick tour to Ghana, the acknowledged home of highlife. He was accompanied and guided on the tour by Benson Idonije, a well-known Nigerian producer who was responsible for the presentation of jazz on Radio Nigeria.
The tour took place in 1969, and turned out to be a frustrating sequence of triumphs and disasters. It was halted when it was discovered that the promoter had not obtained the proper work permits for all the group's members. In addition, some members absconded, and in a legal fight with some of the local promoters, Fela seized a collection of hired instruments and shipped them back to Nigeria.
It was on this trip that he realised how valuable an understanding of Africa's history could be to the expansion of music's outreach, and it was during this trip too that he was able to record some of his latest compositions with a new group of musicians who interpreted his musical vision with a greater level of commitment and ability. He called this group Nigeria 70.
On his return to Nigeria Fela renamed the group a second time, calling it Africa 70. He hired the Kakadu (Parrot) nightclub in Yaba, a suburb of Lagos, renamed it the Afro-Spot, and instigated a programme of three live sessions a week that were to produce some of the most extraordinary events in African musical history.
By now Fela was virtually composing his songs in public. Each week at the Afro-Spot new works were premiered, and Fela would talk the audience through the meaning of the lyrics and work the group through the arrangement on stage. In this way classics such as "Lady", "Go-Slow", "Water No Get Enemy", "Chop And Quench", "Palava" and "Shakara-Oloje" emerged to become part of the urban folklore of Lagos.
Fela's recording strategy was a particularly unique one at this point. Almost monthly he would go into the EMI studios in Apapa and produce extended versions of two of the group's most popular and topical compositions. EMI would release the songs immediately, their remarkable sales fuelled by the fact that a few weeks after they were issued on vinyl, Fela would stop singing them in his club.
Some time In 1974, Fela moved from his Surulere base to the former Ambassador Club, a famous nightspot owned by the Lagos-based Ibo businessman and entertainment tycoon, Chief Kanu. This club was rechristened the African Shrine, and it was here that Fela began to incorporate ritualistic elements into his performances. Eventually Fela himself was declared High Priest of the Shrine, and each of his performances was prefaced with an elaborate ritual ceremony, replete with face painting, libation pouring, wild dancing and special prayers offered to the ubiquitous 'God of Africa'.
The state began to fight back against both his political criticisms and what some government officials referred to as his 'immoral' lifestyle, and in what would turn out to be just the first of many raids on his club and commune, durning the raid Fela was arrested and taken to the notorious Alagbon Close jail, where he was hailed as a hero by the prisoners and installed as 'president' of one of the toughest cells, named after the infamous dark hole of Calcutta but pronounced 'Kalakuta'. On his release he immortalised this experience in the extraordinary protest song "Kalakuta Show", and renamed his commune the Kalakuta Republic. This marked a major turning point in his life, and in many ways may have sealed his fate.
Fela's domestic lifestyle, and his battles with the Nigerian authorities, became major selling points for Nigerian tabloids. The anti-military pieces "Zombie" and "Unknown Soldier" were seminal products of this period. They indicated that Fela was unbowed in the face of sustained attacks from the police and military.
Fela's increasing popularity, seemed to anger the government even more, and towards the end of 1976, after Fela had returned to Lagos following one of his major national tours, one of the most vicious attacks on his home took place.
The timing of the raid was strategic. Nigeria was about to host the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts (FESTAC 77), and the government obviously wanted to silence Fela before the expected large contingent of international visitors arrived in Lagos for the festival. If this was the intention, it backfired badly. The raid was covered widely in the media, and the songs Fela wrote by way of response emerged as some of his most popular international hits. In fact, during the festival the African Shrine was packed almost every night, proving more popular than any of the official FESTAC events, so much so that most nights Fela and Egypt 80 had to play four shows instead of the normal one or two.
In early 1978, a few months after FESTAC, Fela's home was raided again, and this time the raid was carried out entirely by the military - with tragic consequences. During the raid, Fela's mother, Funmilayo, who was then around 75 years old, was thrown from a first floor window by "an unknown soldier". In addition, Funmilayo's house, and an adjoining clinic belonging to Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, were both burned to the ground.
In 1983 Fela announced that he would be standing for President in the forthcoming Nigerian elections on the ticket of his own party, the Movement of the People (MOP), in order to "clean up society like a mop". Following the elections, the military overthrew the new civilian government and the attacks on Fela increased again. He was accused by one agency of flouting the country's currency laws because he returned from an overseas visit with about 1000 US dollars. He was arrested, charged, and kept in detention for almost two years. He was released in 1986 after yet another coup had occurred.
His composition "Beast Of No Nation" evolved out of a statement by South Africa's President PW Botha: "This uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us." The song was powerfully argued and the music showed that Fela had not lost his sense of rhythmic vitality in his approach to composition. Many of his last songs written between 1993-96 represent some of his best work, containing large scale orchestrated arrangements with more freedom for melodic interpretation. Even as Fela was revising his lifestyle, the authorities were closing in. A few weeks before his death, his health shot to pieces by years of official and personal physical abuse, he was paraded in chains on state television in Lagos by yet another security agency, the Anti-Drug Squad. Even in these harrowing circumstances, Fela maintained his dignity, challenging the director of the agency openly, and declaring that he did smoke marijuana and considered it not only his right but a privilege ordained for humanity by the "God of Africa".
Fela died on 2 August 1997. Some members of his family announced that he was suffering from AIDS, and have demanded that the Nigerian government establish a campaign to officially recognise the AIDS issue as a potentially catastrophic one for the whole of Africa. Fela's funeral developed into a festival of joy and anger unprecedented in Lagos. Three days of processions culminated in a public service which brought the city of well over five million people to a standstill - obviously, Fela's spirit still ran deep in the hearts of the masses.
In an interview in 2019, Dede Mabiaku, close friend of late Nigerian Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, has said that the legendary artiste died from a lethal injection by the Nigerian Government and not from HIV/AIDS as speculated.
It is no exaggeration to say that Fela's memory will always symbolise the spirit of truth for a vast number of struggling people in Africa and beyond.
Copyright © Lindsay Barrett 1998.