How Femi caries Fela Kuti's legacy
Fela Kuti was born in 1938 into political rebellion — his Yoruban mother an anti-colonial feminist nationalist and his father the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. He was explosively influential in promoting Nigerian libertartianism and uncompromisingly rejected the impact of colonialism on Nigerian culture — Fela’s music was determinedly influential both politically and musically.
In 1958, Fela moved to London to study music at Trinity College (originally instructed by his parents to study medicine) and it was in London where he formed his first band, Koola Lobitos. It was Femi’s second incarnation of Koola Lobitos, in Nigeria, that combined high-life, jazz and Sierra Leonean vocals — the combination that he infamously dubbed ‘Afrobeat’, establishing the musical legacy for which he is best known. It was with Koola Lobitos that he travelled to Los Angeles to record, and was introduced to Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism by way of Malcom X and Eldridge Cleaver — something that signified a turning point for Fela, who renamed the band Nigeria 70 and lyrically became more consciously political. It is the music recorded in this vein, the ’69 Los Angeles Sessions, which perhaps most famously mark Fela’s musical style — simultaneously fiery and hypnotic, often oscillating from flowing percussion to dynamic brass yet maintaining a consistent groove.
Fela returned to Nigeria to establish the infamous Shrine nightclub and Kalakuta Republic recording-studio-cum-commune that he declared independent from the country, and changed his middle name of Ransome (his self-described ‘slave name’) to ‘Anikulapo’ (‘he who carries death in his pouch’). He and his band (now Africa 70) rose to infamy in Nigeria and across West Africa, offering not only desperately enrapturing music but political rebellion for the exploited and disenfranchised. Fela prescribed the rejection of western capitalism and moral convention (controversially including monogamy, which he believed was rooted in ‘body-phobia’), favouring what he believed were traditional cultural values of pride, self-reliance and decency. He condemned ‘New Africa’ to devastating consequence — his compound was attacked by government forces in 1977, who felt threatened by the power he wielded amongst the working class Nigerians, his elderly mother thrown from a window and killed, his tapes and instruments destroyed. In 1979, Fela formed his own ‘Movement of the People (MOP)’ political party, renamed his band Egypt 80 and continued to record through fairly peaceful civilian rule in Nigeria (1980-3) yet, when military rule returned in ’83, Fela was imprisoned on charges of currency smuggling — broadly considered to be politically motivated by human rights charities who eventually freed him in ’85.
He continued recording, challenging not only African corruption but the west’s established political order too — Thatcher and Reagan — and gradually reduced his remarkable rates of production until his death in 1997. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela’s death movingly and aptly adopted Tennyson’s Ulysses for his eulogy : ‘Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa’. Fela’s impressive political and musical legacy is continued by his son Femi, who was actually a member of Egypt 80, was arrested alongside him and shares his adopted middle name. In 1995 Femi’s own band, Positive Force, released a progression of Afrobeat style to broad and universal critical acclaim. Touring America with Jane’s Addiction and collaborating with artists including Mos Def and Macy Gray, Femi’s brand of ‘neo-Afrobeat’ updates his father’s infamous and celebrated style whilst retaining its vaunted political message of liberty and independence represented through transformative musical stylings.
When asking Femi about whether he feels overshadowed by the name of his father — walking in the footsteps of one of Africa’s most famous musicians could easily be considered a difficult path to travel as an independent musician — he vehemently disagrees. ‘I think the struggle is more important than that. Justice for the African continent is more important than my music. We want reliable electricity, we want healthcare, we want to be able to drive from Lagos to Johannesburg. I’m a strong believer that Africa should be the envy of the world, but if Africa doesn’t develop fast, we will be left further behind. We are selling Africa to America and Europe, and now the Chinese are taking Africa. What’s going to be left for the African people? It’s true that Chinese built roads have done a lot of good, but it has come at price. Should we be selling our property because we want roads? I think there’s a better way to deal. We don’t have to over lease our land.’
However, Femi talks about his own activism as very different to Fela’s, as more cautious and deliberately enmeshed with western promotion of freedom in Nigeria (he is an ambassador for Amnesty International and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador). It is through this collaboration that he has built a platform upon which to promote the same battles his father fought in the 80s, with the same integrity but employing alternative tactics. When the Shrine was last forcibly closed by the Nigerian government (something which happens routinely), there was uproar from people around the world — Femi states ‘I’ve made getting signatures on a petition against the government so easy. I think the pressure comes more from outside than inside because the government is so keen to put out a positive image. If people like me say “No! You are wrong!”, it becomes a big story.’
Sadly, it seems like it will be a long time before the Nigerian government will embrace Fela as one of its visionaries. ‘The government has always been against the Fela story. If they identify with him, it shows that they are corrupt. The unfortunate fact remains that they are corrupt. Look at the most recent scandal — the petrol subsidy. The house of legislators and everybody involved in the $96 million kickback — when they identify with Fela, they are effectively saying that Fela was right in his accusations. Many of the people in the government are sons of people who my father fought against. How can they come forward and say Fela was right?’
However, the governor of Lagos is considering building a museum to Fela on Kalakuta Republic, which is still perfectly in tact — even Fela’s old bedroom, although the governor wants to ‘do it up’. Fela’s philosophies (and Afrobeat itself) still resonate within Nigerian culture, as shown by the regular attendance at the Shrine (which is always free and reaches over 3000 capacity on a Friday night), something which Femi describes as showing firm belief in his fathers ideals of justice and equality.
Through his son’s music, some of which samples and reproduces his father’s work in a beautiful fusion with American soul (Femi Kuti, D’Angelo, Macy Gray — ‘Water No Get Enemy’), a back catalogue which lives on with deserved attention and appreciation and the impact he has made on the lives of many Nigerians and libertarians around the world, Fela’s message and legacy lives on.
Published in Under The Influence Magazine: The Africa Issue