A very special, beautiful thing happened in the African Hall of the Abuja International Conference Centre on the night the Grand Return of the Nigerian Music Awards presented Fela Kuti with a posthumous award and mini-documentary honoring/celebrating his status as the most important and influential musician that Mama Africa has produced since the invention of the phonograph. The honor was waaay overdue, yet funnily enough, maybe not. “I think 10 years is just a drop in time,” says distant relative Wuji Jacobs. “I think that Fela’s real contribution to African music will really come to the fore many years down the line when people really begin to study his music in colleges and in schools.” Hey, it’s gonna be like that for a man who is affectionately known to a nation of still-adoring millions as Abami Eda a.k.a. “the strange one,” “the weird one,” “the one-who-was-born-twice.”
Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Abeokuta, Nigeria, on October 15, 1938. He died as Fela Anikulapo Kuti on August 2, 1997 in Lagos of, as his brother Dr. Bekololari (“Beko”) Ransome-Kuti stated at a press conference the next day, “many complications arising from the Acquired Immuno-Defi ciency Syndrome.” On one level, ain’t no big difference between this obituary and hundreds of thousands of other African males, no doubt. The difference, the reason why we’re here of course, is what went down during the last 28 years of Fela’s life—the Afrobeat music genre he invented, the bands (Koola Lobitos, Africa ’70, Egypt ’80) he formed to play it, the sociopolitical firestorms he agitated for and endured, including the violent, state-sanctioned rape and pillaging of his Kalakuta Republic compound, a scandalous mass marriage to 27 women, and four trumped-up incarcerations, the hedonistic, ganja-fueled lifestyle he flaunted— and the post-death effects of it all in Nigeria and the rest of the world a decade on.
Personally, I’ve thought about this legacy-of-Fela thing an awful lot. Back in the day, I dug Fela for his outlaw, maverick ways. I mean, this cat talked the talk and walked the walk. Took many a licking and suffering for his art and never, ever backed down. But as time has passed and I’ve gotten older and wiser, doubts have crept in. Like the woman thing (his polygamy seemed tinged with more than a touch of misogyny). Or the fact that his uncompromising, “for the people” political thing began to look more like some selfish, self-aggrandizing, egocentric b.s. He never publicly admitted he had AIDS, which would have been the real “for-the-people’s-enlightenment” move. Or the infuriating fact that once he recorded a song, he never played it live again, shooting a middle finger to all of us Fela freaks who loved, bought and big-upped his music. And the idea that maybe Afrobeat is too damn, um, Fela-centric to matter in this world that’s so in love with songs about bitches, gangstas, holla back girls, emo dudes, coldplays and bringing sexy back. Glad to say I’m right…and wrong…
“Talking about Fela’s legacy on the treatment of women in Nigeria socially and morally is like talking about the chicken and the egg, asking which came first,” says Lemi Ghariokwu, creator of the majority of Fela’s iconic, agitprop album covers. “The women in Fela’s commune, Kalakuta Republic, were very, very free, bordering at times on being loose depending on one’s take on the matter of freedom and self expressiveness.” Hmmmm. Fela married 27 of those “very, very free” women a year after the military razed Kalakuta—simultaneously. Legend says he did it to give them ‘respect’ in a society that labeled them loose women. A “revolutionary” act? To me, it’s always smacked of a bored, self-indulgent rock star getting off on messing with The Establishment by marrying his groupies. Hell, after all, Fela posed them topless on a couple of Africa ’70 LP jackets—and in ’86, he divorced them en masse as suddenly as he’d