Fela: The Beat Lives On

Revolutionary Worker #920, Aug. 17, 1997

You can see Fela in your mind--on stage, painted up for war, backed by dancers and musicians--conjuring up a dense rhythmic wall of acid words, smoke and soaring saxophone riffs. He who so often dared to mock and roast "dem oppressors."

Nah, he couldn't be dead. Wasn't that man too stubborn, too ornery, to die?

And yet there it was--his brother announced Fela had died on August 2 in Lagos, Nigeria. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was 58. The cause of death was reported to be heart failure, accompanied by many complications arising from AIDS.

The people of his home country Nigeria were reportedly deep in mourning. Fela was a fearless voice of the masses--in a world where speaking out can get you killed.

The authorities had tried to coopt him--but that had never worked. Fela sought greatness, but never official approval. More often, the authorities tried to break him--over and over again.

Fela had been arrested hundreds of times. His home--the commune/nightclub/studio compound known as Kalakuta Republic-- had been burned to the ground in 1977, his entourage brutalized, his mother murdered, his records banned. And still he had not been broken. The Nigerian government imprisoned him for a year and a half in the 1980s. And still he came back with his brash and pounding music.

From an Internet message: "Sad that it is oh friends, the great Fela has passed on. Words cannot express...."


"The 58-year-old Fela, as he was known by fans worldwide, had the groove sense of James Brown, Prince's poised skills as an arranger, the articulate indignation of Pete Seeger, the galvanizing charisma of Bob Marley, and--for a time--the inescapable popularity of Bruce Springsteen at his peak."--critic Tom Moon, the Philadelphia Inquirer

"If your condition still dey make you shake,
And you still dey no talk the way you feel,
Make you open your two ears very well
To dey hear the true talk way I dey talk."
--Fela Anilkulapo-Kuti

Fela was born in 1938 in western Nigeria and from his earliest memories felt touched by a willful, rebel quality, "I've know for a long time, since I was a child in school, that I would be great. I started to realize this after I found myself always in trouble. I kept asking myself: `Why am I in this trouble? Why am I so uncompromising?' "

He came from a family filled with a sense of purpose and anti-colonial resistance. Fela's father, Rev. I.O. Ransome-Kuti, was a minister and school principal. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a powerful organizer who led protests of market women in the 1940s and '50s, founded the Nigerian Women's Union, and met Mao Tsetung on a trip to revolutionary China.

Fela was deep into music. He dropped out of medical studies in England during the early '60s to breathe the fresh wind of modern jazz. He and other young Africans began to play music that blended the urgency and soloing concepts of jazz with aspects of highlife, a popular West African dance music. Back in Nigeria in 1963, Fela announced he would pioneer his own fusion that he called Afrobeat.

In 1969, Fela and his band borrowed money to began a U.S. "tour" --without a promoter or even proper visas. The trip was a financial disaster. But in Los Angeles, Fela found the Black Liberation Movement. A woman he met there, Sandra Isadore, introduced him to many things, including Black Panther politics and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Fela: "This is a MAN! I wanted to be like Malcolm X. Fuck it! Shit! I wanted to BE Malcolm X!"

It infuriated Fela that true history had been so hidden from him: "I saw that colonial education and upbringing, which America was involved in too, was very badly wild. History starts with Mungo Park `discovering' the Niger! This pushed me so much I said I wanted to die in the struggle."

Fela set about transforming his music. "I started to look for my own rhythms." "I said to myself, `How do Africans sing songs? They sing in chants.'<|>" He adopted a beat made popular by another Nigerian musician, Ambrose Cambell, to be the foundation of the music, and replaced his melody singing with an African chanting, call-and-response style. Fela borrowed and blended restlessly--not just from from the traditional music of his own Yoruba people, but from African peoples all over the continent and musical innovations from all over the world.

Fela said: "It was America that brought me back to myself." Imperialism had created an opening for the masses of oppressed and oppressor countries to hook up and blast back something new--something all the more powerful because it connected Africa with the 400-year experience of Black diaspora.


After almost a year in the U.S, Fela and his band, now renamed Africa 70, hit Nigeria. It was 1970 and they were hot!

Nigeria's capital, Lagos, was a cauldron of musical fusions--its streets pulsed with soul, reggae, high life, juju and countless other mixes. Fela's music caught fire.

Somehow Fela had harnessed the reeling funk of James Brown to the locomotive of his ever-undulating African beat. On that platform, he built a wall of raging horns and jazz solos. Afrobeat was born!

African percussion, shekere and congas, stretched out an elastic, polyrhythmic groove. Other instruments wove an appearing-and-disappearing head in and out, punctuated by keyboards and sax junkets, often performed by Fela himself.

The vocals usually entered the mix last--as Fela swaggered in with his streetwise confidence. He usually sang in "pidgin," a Creole patois taken from English, African and other languages. It's the language that people throughout Western Africa use to bridge the tangle of "tribal" and colonial boundaries. Fela was dissed for using pidgin--some thought the language was "demeaning" and "only for illiterates." But Fela was wielding a language of the people, rich in ways to ridicule the puffed-up "proper English" elites.

And as for the subject of his music...! It was raw--so bold it took people's breath away. Fela dared say what millions wanted to hear said. The songs bristled with hatred and mockery for the little men in power with their large epaulets and even larger pockets. Fela called these military yes-men "Zombies" to their faces, men who "no go talk unless you tell am to talk/no go come unless you tell am to come/no go think unless you tell am to think.

He called out the imperialist corporations like ITT, "International T'ief T'ief." He labeled the Thatchers and Reagans "Beast of No Nation."

In "Power Show" he denounced maddening and mindless abuse of power, as the government agent at the border "waste your time...change him pen...comb dem hair...pull him chair...go for shit...go shit come-back...say you no go cross...you no go cross today."

One song became an anthem: "Teacher, Don't Teach Me No Nonsense."

Another, "Coffin for Head of State," gave Nigeria's dictators a fit.

Fela said in an interview, "Do I want to leave an imprint on the world? No, not at all. You know what I want? I want the world to change!"

He added, "To think how many Africans suffer in oblivion. That makes me sad... Despite my sadness, I create joyful rhythms... I am an artist... I want people to be happy and I can do it by playing happy music. And through happy music I tell them about the sadness of others... So really I am using my music as a weapon."

Kalakuta Inferno

Fela settled in one of the poorest areas of the city, Surulele. His nightclub grew into a sprawling compound where he performed, recorded and lived with his entourage--which included over 100 people. The club, soon renamed the "Shrine" by Fela, started packing in over 800 a night, especially from the more radical youth.

Fela was releasing hit after hit, selling in the hundreds of thousands in Nigeria and throughout Western Africa. His fame spread in Europe and beyond.

Fela: "It got to be heavy-o. I was making eight albums a year. I was getting very powerful. Very listened to. Very liked. But for the authorities, very... daaaaaangerous!"

In 1974 the raids, arrests and beatings began. With vicious regularity, the Shrine would be invaded, the crowd assaulted--dozens, including Fela, jailed. The pretenses were flimsy--looking for reefer (which was smoked in great quantity) or the claims that one of Fela's dancers was "a kidnapped woman."

Fela's compound became known as the Kalakuta Republic. Kalakuta means "rascal." And around 1975 Fela changed his own name, becoming Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which means (in his words): "He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man."

In 1977 the Nigerian government, flush from skimming oil money, tried to "showcase" the country (and themselves!) with an international Black arts festival. But when Fela boycotted the event, many arriving musicians checked into Fela's counter-festival across town where he skewered and embarrassed the government.

Two weeks after everyone had left, the soldiers came for revenge.

"Dem leave sorrow, tears and blood
Dem regular trademark."

One thousand troops surrounded the Kalakuta Republic and cut the power in the whole neighborhood to get through his electrified barbed wire fence. And then they swarmed into the place, ejected foreign journalists, and set to work--sexually torturing many of the women with rifles and broken bottles, destroying the recording studio and master tapes, burning the band's bus and cars, and eventually putting the whole compound to the torch.

Fela's 77-year-old mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown out of a window and died a few months later of injuries. Everyone in the compound, including Fela, ended up in the hospital, or locked in jail for a month. Fela's hands were broken up so badly that it was years before he could play his saxophone again. An official inquiry concluded that Fela was "a hooligan" and his compound had been burned by "unknown soldiers."

Slowly, with great difficulty, Fela and his band and his dancers rebuilt. Fela's music was banned. For many years he couldn't get any above-ground record company in Nigeria (or major labels in the U.S.) to touch his music. Money was extremely hard to come by. But still, they put out new hits and eventually built another "Shrine."

Fela exposed the military attack in "Sound, Tears and Blood" and "Unknown Soldier."

Fela developed a philosophy he called "Blackism"--inspired by heroes ranging from Malcolm X to Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah to Shango (a Yoruba god) to Fela's mother. It was a personal religion heavily influenced by traditional Nigerian spiritualism and revolutionary Pan-African nationalism. Like Fela himself, it was eccentric and deliberately outrageous.

During this period Fela gained notoriety for his practices toward women. He had long gathered around himself a large entourage including many women. A year after the burning of the Kalakuta Republic, Fela married 27 of the dancers, singers and lovers who had lived with him. Publicly, he claimed he was elevating these women to the status of "queens"--honoring them for standing with him. He put forward that polygamy and inequality between men and women represented an African rejection of European norms and values. But, whatever the justifications, Fela's views on women were really just male supremacy and patriarchy. There are limits, clearly visible here, in trying to fight the modern oppressors by looking to oppressive traditions.

When military rule ended in 1979, Fela tried forming a revolutionary Pan-Africanist party, the "Movement of the People." He twice attempted to run for President of Nigeria in the elections. Illusions about Nigeria's electoral system ran straight up against reality--both times his candidacy was disqualified by the government even before the vote.

By 1983 Fela and his band toured again, playing in Europe to capacity crowds. Then came a new attack. On September 4, 1984 Fela and his band, Egypt 80, had arrived at the Lagos airport for Fela's first U.S. tour in 15 years. Fela was busted and framed on ridiculous charges of smuggling currency. A military court sentenced him to five years in prison--no jury, no appeal. In January 1985, while Fela was in prison, his house was raided again and his family assaulted.

This marked a second blatant attempt to end Fela's work and influence.

An international campaign was launched by musicians and progressive political forces throughout the world, in which the RCP,USA participated. Fela was released again in 1986. And continued his work, including an international tour in 1993. His most recent arrest came April 9 of this year--when he was already very sick. He and about 100 others were arrested when Nigerian drug agents raided his nightclub north of Lagos.


As news of Fela's death spread, hundreds reportedly gathered at his home, "The Shrine," in Ikeja, a proletarian district of Lagos. One of the city's street youth, known as "Area Boys," grabbed a western reporter. "It's not true, Fela will live forever, he can't die."

After so much stubborn struggle, after more than 50 albums, after songs that lasted an hour and concerts that lasted through the night--those crazy heartbeats are really finally silent. But meanwhile, out in the crowded streets of Lagos, the music and the struggle live on.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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