THE GREAT African-American writer James Baldwin once wrote, “Artists are here to disturb.”
If that statement can be applied to anyone, it would have to be applied to the musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
He was a composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, vocalist and dancer.
He was harassed, beaten, tortured and jailed for his political beliefs, and twice he was a candidate for the Nigerian presidency.
The authorities regarded him as public enemy number one. But most importantly he was a hero to millions of Africans.
I saw Fela perform nearly 20 years ago, and to this day it remains one of my most powerful musical experiences.
Now’s a good time to take a look at his life and work. Two brilliant new CDs, The Best of Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon and The Underground Spiritual Game, have just been released, and over the next month the Barbican in London is hosting a series of concerts interpreting the man and his music.
Fela was born in 1938 into a rich family.
Nigeria at that time was part of the British Empire. Later in life songs like “Colonial Mentality” (1977) and “Why Black Man Dey Suffer” (1971), which EMI refused to release on political grounds, demonstrated Fela’s opposition to colonialism and imperialism.
In 1960 Nigeria had gained its independence but, as Fela noted, “despite our freedom, despite my country’s oil wealth, we are still governed by a gang of thieves”.
But it was an extended tour and stay in the US in 1969 that would transform Fela’s musical and political beliefs. He found inspiration in the funk music of James Brown, and was introduced to the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.
He became a supporter of the Black Power movement, and a proponent of pan-Africanism and the ideas expounded by Kwame Nkrumah.
There was another side, a nastier side, to Fela. He believed in male superiority, and his pan-Africanism meant that he championed despots like Uganda’s Idi Amin.
On returning to Nigeria, Fela single-handedly developed and popularised a new, innovative musical style he named Afrobeat.
Afrobeat was a fusion of Fela’s native popular and traditional music cultures with the funk, soul and jazz of the US.
Over the next 37 years Fela and his bands would go onto make 77 albums. As well as creating wonderful dance music he took up the cudgels against the system.
In songs like “Zombie” (1977) and “Unknown Soldier” (1980) he used his music to attack the Nigerian police and military.
Through tracks like “International Thief Thief” (1981) and “Authority Stealing” (1982) he lampooned the huge multinational corporations.
He created his own counter-cultural enclave—the Afrika-Shine nightclub. Based in the heart of a working class neighbourhood of Lagos, it became a no-go area for the state—a place were his band could play their music and a place to discuss politics.
The first time he performed “Zombie” 1,000 troops attacked his cultural centre, beating all its occupants.
His mother was thrown from a first floor window and later died from her injuries.
Fela’s 1980 album, Coffin for Head of State, is his moving testament to this atrocity.
Despite periods of political persecution, Fela continued to make wonderful music. His political commitment never waned.
Sadly Fela Kuti died in August 1997. He was another victim of AIDS, a disease that is needlessly laying waste to Africa’s poor.
In an unbelievable display of love and respect for him, over a million people attended his funeral. A cultural icon, a political icon—Fela was both and so much more.
For more about the Barbican’s Fela Kuti concerts go to www.barbican.org.uk/felakuti/