In the late 20th century, a few contemporary musicians decided to use their art to enlighten, liberate and empower the masses, and to effect societal change. You know the names: Bobs Dylan and Marley, John Lennon, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, Thomas Mapfumo, Oumou Sangare, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and James Brown (for “Say It Loud [I’m Black And I’m Proud]” alone).
Right about now you’re thinking, “Hey! You forgot Fela!” Au contraire, mes amis. No dis to the folks above, but Fela Anikulapo Kuti cipher was/is on a whole ’notha level of spirit-cosmic realness. They may have been censored, harassed or jailed for their stand, but Fela damn near got terminated with extreme prejudice by the government on several occasions.
See, every anarchic polemic Fela spit, he strutted in real time; every social convention-flaunting lyric he sang, he lived 24/7. The cat built a compound in Lagos he called Kalakuta Republic. The home of his 24 wives, his Africa ’70 band and a revolving crew of gangs, hustlers, international visitors and down-on-their-luck schlubs. Fela declared Kalakuta an independent nation beyond the jurisdiction of Nigerian law
This is how deep Fela Kuti was: In 1977, soldiers infuriated by Fela’s military mocking hit “Zombie” raided Kalakuta and burned it to the ground. They also damn near beat Fela to death and threw his 78-year-old mother Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti (the Mother of Nigerian women’s suffrage) out of a window. She died a few days later. On October 1, 1979—Independence Day—a bus containing Fela and 57 of his posse ran a machine gun gauntlet to get to the military government’s HQ, Dodan Barracks. They placed a replica of his mom’s coffin on the building’s steps, then split. Two years later, Fela released the searing “Coffin for Head Of State.”
Though he had been jailed briefly on several occasions for herb (immortalized on “Expensive Shit”), after Kalakuta, Nigeria’s various military governments, led by the same generals Fela often excoriated, fucked with him ’til the day he died in ’97. But Fela never backed down from the Program. Never stopped giving them the finger, He was still the Black President and the People’s Champion. A million people came out for his funeral procession. Shut Lagos down.
“Forget all your worries and dance/Forget all your problems and dance/ Forget all your sorrows and dance…”—“Them Belly Full,” Bob Marley
Remember that last spoken line in King Kong, “It was beauty that killed the beast”? Quiet as it’s kept, it wasn’t Fela’s words or straight-up gangsta steez that made him so dangerous. Naw, it was always all about his music: Afrobeat. To the powers that be, Fela’s Afrobeat sound was profoundly subversive. Afrobeat’s six-degrees-of-cosmopolitan-African-Diaspora gestalt (fusion of highlife, ju-ju, hard bop and James Brownian funk) was simply too late-20th century international contemporary, too progressive on the cultural p.o.v. tip and too damn socio-politically transgressive for militarists intent on perpetrating the British colonial era scenario as status quo.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
See, Afrobeat commanded a population crippled, divided and stymied by tribal nepotism, religious fanaticism, economic Darwinism and state-sanctioned oppression to keep their head to the sky and dance together as One Nation Under A Groove. More importantly, it gave Fela’s homiez a self-empowering sense of cultural pride. Afrobeat was FUBU (For Us, By Us), Nigerian music that could hang with the best groove and party shits Afro-America could throw down. Yeah, it was that beautiful, incorruptible music that made Fela’s words land like boulders upside the beasts’ heads.
Three decades after he invented Afrobeat, Fela Kuti’s legacy resonates in the oeuvres of P-Funk, Talking Heads,<