NATIVE ROOTS: The birth of Afro-beat
How Fela Anikulapo-Kuti came to dominate the conversation around Nigerian music
How Fela Anikulapo-Kuti came to dominate the conversation around Nigerian music
As an artist and public personality, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti has come to dominate the conversation around Nigerian music. His music, personal skirmishes with government and other artists and his activism form a dense web of truth and propaganda that has continues to grow two decades after his death, centring firmly in conversations about the present and the future of music.
As the son of the ‘Lion of Lisabi’ Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela seemed destined to walk the knife’s edge of patriotism and rebellion. Funmilayo was the country’s first suffragette, advocating for women to get the right to vote in the pre-independence government and challenging harmful pre-independence laws. Her advocacy would provide early exposure for Fela and his brothers Olikoye and Beko to the injustices that would inform his music in the coming decades.
But for most of his youth and adolescence, Fela lived in relative privilege. He was largely insulated by his father, Israel Kuti from the increasingly powerful confrontations Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was having with the British colonial government and the complicit local monarchs who enforced the British’s oppressive demands. Her fight against arbitrary taxation in Egbaland, her fight for Independence from the British and her ties with China and the Communist Eastern Bloc created a vortex of social commentary around the Ransome-Kuti family. These confrontations would peak in 1955, the year Fela’s father died from cancer-related complications with the Nigerian government refusing to renew Funmilayo’s passport and the American government denying her a visa to visit the country because she was considered a communist ally. As with many families of privilege, Fela was sent to the United Kingdom to study medicine partly because of their superior education (the first University teaching hospitals wouldn’t be established in Nigeria until the 60’s) and partly because of the rising tensions around Funmilayo.
It is at this point that Fela’s interest in music begins to manifest. Israel Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s father had served for most of his life as a pastor in his local congregation and was renowned for his talent as a pianist. Fela was exposed to classical music and grew a taste for creating music of his own. With his father dead and his mother embroiled in politics; there was little to stop Fela from switching his major from medicine to music at the Trinity College of Music.
That decade saw African American musicians rise into prominence and new genres like jazz, blues and the early iterations of rock and roll gain mass acceptance. After several decades of music from black creators being stifled or branded as intellectually inferior to classical music, the new wave was liberating to creators in more ways than anyone could have predicted. The focus of the music was political and vulgar, the visual images progressive. Moving to the UK exposed Fela to these new sounds and the independence that came with creating and performing original music. In comparison, the strict diet of classical compositions at Trinity felt creatively stifling to Fela, and the college’s insistence on teaching the works of European composers held little interest for the man who at that time was already an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. The only recourse for him was to begin to make music of his own.
At 24, Fela would start the Koola Lobitos, his first musical band. Heavily referencing British Jazz and American pop music of the 50’s, and focused on live music, Fela’s band became a fan favorite in the British music scene, with Fela gaining special attention for his skills as a trumpeter. Fela would work with Koola Lobitos for a year, refining then becoming disillusioned with the music he was making in the United Kingdom. Back in Nigeria, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti had successfully mid-wifed suffrage rights for women alongside the demands for Independence and was the leader of the Egba Women’s Union, which in 1961 was 20,000 women strong. The promise of a new Nigeria seemed too strong to ignore, and Fela and Beko Ransome-Kuti both returned to the country to pursue professional careers in their fields.
At the time of Fela’s return, Independence had brought with it, an outpouring of Ghanaian immigrants. Ghana had gained Independence 3 years before Nigeria, and its position as the first West African nation to gain Independence meant famous Americans visited the nation and brought with them an urgency for local musicians to embrace contemporary western music. By 1963 when Fela returned to Nigeria, the initial hope for Ghana had been replaced with harsh economic policies and raised taxes and a president looking to consolidate his hold on the country. Nkrumah’s strict economic policies had forced many influential Ghanaians to flee to Nigeria. Musicians among the emigrants would bring highlife, a hybrid musical genre that incorporated traditional Ghanaian music with American jazz to Nigeria and start Nigeria’s highlife revolution.
When Fela returned to Nigeria, his original plan was to make a name for himself as a professional jazz musician. He started the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet, a short-lived experiment that gave way for a revival of the Koola Lobitos with African instrumentalists and vocalists. The new wave was highlife and Fela was fascinated with it enough to and begin to create and perform music true to the genre. Much of the music released during this era was considered lost to the world, until professor Michael E. Veal, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Yale University with the help of Fela’s former manager Benson Idonije would find and restore recorded music from this era. 1963 – 1969 saw Fela experiment with a lot of music, mixing classical with contemporary. His fascination with High-Life would grow within this period, as would his dissatisfaction with the growing interest in pop music trends in the West at time.
1967 would prove a disruptive year for Fela. As national unrest grew in Nigeria, leading to the Nzeogwu coup and the subsequent coup and civil war, many of Fela’s highlife rivals and collaborators would be forced to choose between swearing loyalty to Nigeria and joining the newly seceded Biafra. Most of the musicians of South Eastern origin would choose to secede and make the exodus back to the South, causing a shift away from Highlife and towards Afro-soul and early Afropop. By this time Fela had perfected his own Frankensteinian creation, Afro-beat. Afrobeat took the technicality of classical jazz, the long solos and emphasis on showmanship from classical music and the high energy performance styles of artists like James Brown and fused them into a new monster. The war meant few people were interested in listening to his new sound and while Fela continued to perform during the war, even he became disillusioned with its fallout.
While Fela’s new sound was exciting to his fanbase, it lacked any real bite. That lack of lasting impact in Nigeria manifested in many ways, including a revolving door of leaving instrumentalists and declining record sales. In 1969, he would agree to go on a tour of the US to promote the work Koola Lobitos had become prominent for. One of the goals of the tour was to help Fela cross over into the American music scene in the ways King Sunny Ade would succeed in the 90’s. He had examples to follow, Mariam Makeba and Youssouf N’dour were already enjoying fame on the continent for their activist driven music. But success eluded Fela, as his tour only managed middling success. His time, however, there would lead him to Sandra Isidore, a musician, manager and activist who would convince Fela to embrace activism. She was affiliated to the Black Panther Party, a pro-black civil rights movement that used a mix of force and persuasion to advocate for racial equality. Fela would fall hard for the principles of the movement, change his name from Ransome to Anikulapo to reflect his new ultra-African stance and change the direction of his music to challenge global oppression.
Fela was only beginning to understand this new movement when a falling out with a music promoter would jeopardize his stay in the US. An anonymous tip to the Federal Immigration Service that Fela and his band were performing without a worker’s permit would set the agency on his tail and force him to return to Nigeria in 1970 or risk arrest and deportation. It was coincidental that the Civil War ended at this time, but with Fela’s recent radicalization, he returned distrustful of the new peace.
There was much to distrust about the new peace. The government instituted after the war was military and brutal to dissenting voices. There was a stronger emphasis on centralized power, all things the radicalized Fela saw as an attempt to erase the collective strength of the citizenry. Fela returned eager to challenge this. He renamed his new band Fela and the Nigeria 70 and began to perform the music he had managed to record before leaving Los Angeles in 69. To build a mythos around the new music he was performing, Fela changed the visual imagery of his band, favouring Afrocentric clothing over Westernized ones. He understood the only way his new movement would gather steam was if he was in control of the way the music was distributed. So Fela created his own nightlife spot called the Afro Spot (later renamed as the Afrika Shrine) where he served as the headlining act and controlled the show proceedings, which often including Yoruba religious rituals honouring the Orisa. He would also create the Kalakuta Republic, a recording studio and art commune, open to other social misfits distrustful of the government and looking for a more Afrocentric community.
With the Kalakuta Republic feeding into the Afrika Shrine and vice-versa Fela was able to create an isolated bubble where his music was created and consumed, and that period of isolation from the influence of the government would serve Fela well as he formulated the ideas that would drive his activism and his return to traditional Yoruba worship. Just a year after, Nigeria would experience its first oil boom, transforming the country from a marginally wealthy nation into one of the wealthiest on the continent. This sudden wealth would see the nation’s leader Yakubu Gowon abandon previous policies to focus on oil wealth. The country showed promise, but civil rights were being trampled on. Kalakuta Republic was one of the few places where vocal condemnation of the military regime was encouraged and Fela’s music which excellently articulated the growing pains of independence resonated across the continent and drew the attention of the black rights movements in the United States and the United Kingdom. This attention would help turn the republic into a mecca of sorts for supporters and black celebrities looking to make ‘pilgrimage’ to the motherland. Fela would also symbolically declare the Republic a sovereign nation, independent of the government and beholden only to itself.
Fela would release 11 albums from 1971 to 1975, each album becoming increasingly specific to the Nigerian experience and deepening his use of colloquial Nigerian pidgin to describe government excess and citizen complacency. Fela’s music at this time was also characterized by a dissonance towards women’s rights. Women were an integral part of Kalakuta Republic, they cared for him, participated in his musical protests and formed a significant part of his band. But they were also the butt of his jokes and were portrayed as arrogant and complicit in the ongoing corruption in Nigeria. ‘Lady’, released in 1972 as part of the Shakara album, is an enduring example of Fela’s perception of women at the time.
While Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti had been a prominent force in activism in Yoruba land, her influence was dwarfed by Fela’s outsize personality and enduring legacy. Fela’s reach was already relevant by 1976, the year former President Olusegun Obasanjo would take on power. He had spent the last half decade serving as the primary vocal opposition to the Yakubu Gowon led post-war government and two sudden successive coups not only removed him from power but threw into disarray the relative peace the country had enjoyed. In response to these events, Fela became more militant in his musical activism, actively promoting his earlier proclamations that the Kalakuta Republic was a sovereign nation and taunting the government to act on its promises. That year, he also released his most famous album Zombie, an album so visceral in its critique of government, much of the slang and descriptions in the album’s title song were quickly adopted into colloquial Nigerian pidgin and are still used unironically to this day. Pitchfork Media would retroactively name the album number 90 of the best 100 albums released anywhere in the 1970’s.
Not everyone was pleased with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s new political leanings. General Olusegun Obasanjo, newly enthroned via a coup, was eager to assert himself as leader of the country. In response to a civil dispute between Fela and a neighbour, the government would allegedly send 1000 troops to the original Kalakuta Republic, physically assault Fela and his followers and throw the venerated Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (then living with her son) out of a second story window. The action itself would create a national uproar and elevate Fela from a minor nuisance to the government to its main opposition figure. The only thing left to do was feud.
After the events of 1976, the government was wary of engaging with Fela in any meaningful way. This would turn out to be a major problem as the government began preparations to host the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77), a pan-African arts event that celebrated art from the continent. The event was originally to be held in 1975, and was postponed first by the Gowon government and then by the Murtala government. For the Obasanjo government, ensuring the festival held was their attempt to project an image of political stability and signal the end of the military upheavals in the country. Already the government had tried and failed to borrow the statue of Idia from the British Museum and had even offered to rent the artefact for 2 million dollars. When their requests were denied, the government was forced to create a replica for the event.
The government did not invite Fela to participate in the Festival, fearing anti-government propaganda. Fela slighted by the snub and furious that the government was engaging in what many considered a frivolous engagement at the expense of suffering citizens released three albums Stalemate, No Agreement and the classic Sorrow, Tears and Blood, that clearly stated what he thought of his feud with the government and the future of the nation. The Kalakuta Republic had survived a government assault and rallied stronger than ever before.
Using the Republic and Afrika Shrine as a soapbox, Fela spent the entirety of the FESTAC ‘77 celebrations berating the government interspersed with performance sets. 17,000 artists from across the continent and the world had converged on FESTAC town (a new ultra-modern town built specifically for the festival) and while the world’s eyes were on FESTAC, FESTAC’s eyes and ears were on the Afrika Shrine. Fela’s music was new, his message was unfiltered by government interference and the vibe at the Shrine was genuine. Before long, Afrika Shrine became a ‘counter FESTAC’, with attendees and exhibitors at the event shirking their duties to come to the shrine and participate in the impromptu concerts that happened there. Hugh Masekela, The Funkees, Gilberto Gil, Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder, Francois Lougah and Osibisa all performed at the Shrine, giving it international bonafides and angering the Obasanjo government even further.
‘Counter FESTAC’ marked the beginning of Fela’s most influential years as a musician and solidified Afro-beat as a global musical sensation, and the Kalakuta Republic as a creative enclave for musicians looking to revitalize their sound or connect with higher purpose. It also began the worst spate of targeted oppression against the musician and progenitor of the country’s most enduring musical genre.