The Man Who Had Death In His Pouch by Timilehin Salu
By Timilehin Salu
Fela was a Nigerian musician born on 15th October 1938 in Abeokuta, Ogun State to Reverend Oludotun Israel and Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. He was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti.
Fela attended Abeokuta Grammar School and was later sent to study Medicine in London. In London, his rebellious and artistic spirit came out, and he decided to study Music instead of Medicine. He enrolled in the Trinity College of Music and formed a band named the Koola Lobitos where his band played highlife.
After marrying his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor in 1960, he moved back to Nigeria in 1963.
In 1969, Fela took the band to the United States where they spent 10 months in Los Angeles. While they were there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The experience would heavily influence his music and political views and he decided to switch him message from mainstream to a more conscious form of music addressing colonialism, oppression and tyranny by the ruling class in 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.
Fela soon dropped “Ransome” from his surname because it was a slave name and replaced it with “Anikulapo”, a Yoruba phrase meaning “one who has captured death and put it in his pouch”, to convey a sense of invincibility.
He became a fierce critic of the Nigerian Military Government who he regularly criticised in harsh terms in his songs including “Zombie”, “Unknown Soldier”, “Coffin for Head of State”.
Fela's music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. He made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous. He is credited as the originator of the popular Afro beat genre, a blend of traditional Yoruba and Afro-Cuban music with funk and jazz. He is known for the signature length of his songs often reaching 10-15 minutes long before the actual lyrics to the song.
Around the 1970’s, Fela had begun reading esoteric literature promoting the belief that African history had been distorted and misrepresented by Western academics, and his interpretation of these ideas and transformation of them into musical themes became his main concern. Reflecting this embrace of Pan-African revisionism, he now called his group Egypt 80
In 1970, he founded the Kalakuta Republic commune. "Kalakuta", derived from the word “Calcutta, was the name of the cell he was kept in at Alagbon Police station during his numerous arrests. It was named after the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta dungeon in India. He declared Kalakuta Republic independent of the Nigerian government saying… “I wanted to identify the ways of myself as someone who didn’t agree with that Federal Republic of Nigeria created by British man. I was in non-agreement.”
When he abandoned Christianity as a relic of colonialism and embraced local traditional religion, the Afro-Spot where he usually performed started to be known as the Afrika Shrine and him as its Chief Priest.
He was popular for his constant faceoff with the military government and regularly suffered beatings and frequent incarceration by the military government on mostly frivolous charges. In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari's government, of which Fela was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a charge of currency smuggling which Amnesty International and others denounced as politically motivated. After 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida. On his release he divorced his 12 remaining wives, saying that "marriage brings jealousy and selfishness". He also composed Beast of No Nation in which he mocked Buhari for launching a public “discipline” campaign which was used to brutalise citizens.
The paradoxical character of Fela was there even at his death. In the weeks leading up to his death, Fela's condition deteriorated while he refused to accept treatment from Western-trained doctors. His last record, "Condom Scallywag and Scatter" deplored condoms as un-African. Aids, he declared, was a white man's disease. In the end, Fela, the one who had begun to live out the true meaning of his name “Anikulapo” when he dodged death severally at the hands of the military, succumbed to the disease on 2 August 1997.
Now in the 21st century, a large number of successful artists in Nigeria including Burna Boy, Falz the Bahd Guy and Wizkid have at various times portrayed the lifestyle of Fela in their music.
It is therefore no surprise that decades after his death, His music still symbolises the spirit of truth for a vast number of struggling people in Africa and beyond.
How Fela Kuti came to be celebrated by those he sang against-
Fela Kuti remembered: 'He was a tornado of a man, but he loved humanity'
Fela Kuti: Chronicle of A Life Foretold