An Introduction to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Radical Nigerian Bandleader, Political Hero, and Creator of Afrobeat

I can­not write about Niger­ian band­leader, sax­o­phon­ist, and founder of the Afrobeat sound, Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti, with any degree of objec­tiv­i­ty, what­ev­er that might mean. Because hear­ing him counts as one of the great­est musi­cal eye-open­ers of my life: a feel­ing of pure ela­tion that still has not gone away. It was not an orig­i­nal dis­cov­ery by any means. Mil­lions of peo­ple could say the same, and far more of those peo­ple are African fans with a much bet­ter sense of Fela’s mis­sion. In the U.S., the play­ful­ly-deliv­ered but fer­vent urgency of his activist lyri­cism requires foot­notes.

Afrobeat fan­dom in many coun­tries does not have to per­son­al­ly reck­on with the his­to­ry from which Fela and his band emerged—a Nige­ria wracked in the 60s by a mil­i­tary coup, civ­il war, and rule by a suc­ces­sion of mil­i­tary jun­tas. Fela (for whom the first name nev­er seems too famil­iar, so envelop­ing was his pres­ence on stage and record) cre­at­ed the con­di­tions for a new style of African music to emerge, an earth-shat­ter­ing fusion of jazz, funk, psych rock, high life from Ghana, sal­sa, and black pow­er, anti-colo­nial, and anti-cor­rup­tion pol­i­tics.

He took up the cause of the com­mon peo­ple by singing in a pan-African Eng­lish that leapt across bor­ders and cul­tur­al divides. In 1967, the year he went to Ghana to craft his new sound and direc­tion, his cousin, Nobel-prize win­ning writer Wole Soyin­ka, was jailed for attempt­ing to avert Nigeria’s col­lapse into civ­il war. Fela returned home swing­ing three year lat­er, a bur­geon­ing super­star with a new name (drop­ping the British “Ran­some” and tak­ing on the Yoru­ba “Aniku­lapo”), a new sound, and a new vision.

Fela built a com­mune called Kalaku­ta Repub­lic, a home for his band, wives, chil­dren and entourage. The com­pound was raid­ed by the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, his night­club shut down, he was beat­en and jailed hun­dreds of times. He con­tin­ued to pub­lish columns and speak out in inter­views and per­for­mances against colo­nial hege­mo­ny and post-colo­nial abuse. He cham­pi­oned tra­di­tion­al African reli­gious prac­tices and pan-African social­ism. He harsh­ly cri­tiqued the West’s role in prop­ping up cor­rupt African gov­ern­ments and con­duct­ing what he called “psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare.”

What would Fela have thought of Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat, the doc­u­men­tary about him here in two parts? I don’t know, though he might have had some­thing to say about its source: CGTN Africa, a net­work fund­ed by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and oper­at­ed by Chi­na Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion. Debate amongst your­selves the pos­si­ble pro­pa­gan­da aims for dis­sem­i­nat­ing the film; none of them inter­fere with the vibrant por­trait that emerges of Nigeria’s most charis­mat­ic musi­cal artist, a man beloved by those clos­est to him and those far­thest away.

Find out why he so enthralls, in inter­views with his band and fam­i­ly, flam­boy­ant per­for­mance footage, and pas­sion­ate, filmed inter­views. Part guru and rad­i­cal pop­ulist hero, a band­leader and musi­cian as tire­less­ly per­fec­tion­is­tic as Duke Elling­ton or James Brown—with the crack band to match—Fela was him­self a great pro­pa­gan­dist, in the way of the great­est self-made star per­form­ers and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. With force of will, per­son­al­i­ty, end­less rehearsal, and one of the great­est drum­mers to come out of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Tony Allen, Fela made a nation­al strug­gle uni­ver­sal, draw­ing on sources from around the glob­al south and the U.S. and, since his death in 1997, inspir­ing a Broad­way musi­cal and wave upon wave of revival and redis­cov­ery of his music and the jazz/rock/Latin/traditional African fusions hap­pen­ing all over the con­ti­nent of Africa in the 60s and 70s.

No list of superla­tives can con­vey the feel­ing of lis­ten­ing to Fela’s music, the unre­lent­ing funk­i­ness that puls­es from his band’s com­plex, inter­lock­ing polyrhythms, the ser­pen­tine lines his sax­o­phone traces around right­eous vocal chants and wah gui­tars. Learn the his­to­ry of his strug­gle, by all means, and cast a wary eye at those who may use it for oth­er means. But let no extra-musi­cal con­cerns stop you from jour­ney­ing through Fela’s cat­a­log, whether as a curi­ous tourist or as some­one who under­stands first­hand the musi­cal war he waged on the zom­bie relics of empire and a mil­i­ta­rized anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment.

Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat will be added to our col­lec­tion Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Young Bob Mar­ley and The Wail­ers Per­form Live in Eng­land (1973): For His 70th Birth­day Today

Every Appear­ance James Brown Ever Made On Soul Train. So Nice, So Nice!

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Abimbola Idowu says:

    Fela, music is mod­ern Nige­ria bible, because fela talk about every­thing, you may think of, good ref­er­ences, you can only hate fela if you’re not a hon­est per­son, because all what fela said is truth,is the only prophet I know, and watched fela on pep­ple street in Africa Shrine , by myself, Eleniyan, Augus­tine, Baba70,sun re baba ‚baba yeni, baba femi, babase­un, orun re.

  • Yusuf Razaq says:

    Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti was the,is the, will always be the founder of mod­ern African music.

  • Dap says:

    I love fela’ music much, espe­cial­ly the saxophone/horns arrange­ment..

  • Johnson Ariyo Oga says:

    I love Fela crazi­ly for his bold­ness in speak­ing the truth and for his quest to fight for the com­mon man .
    Fela above all , is a proud African man who cher­ish­es the African cul­ture and tra­di­tion .He tru­ely inspires me when I lis­ten to his music.He tells you of our her­itage and who we are as Africans and that point needs to be kept alive always. Fela is a good ora­tor a prophet as such , should be remem­bered for his works and belief.

  • Ifeanyi says:

    Hate him,Like him, He was and he remains leg­end 💪 Only fear­less human beings that says it how it it and how it sup­pose to be with­out think­ing what’s going to be the out­come of it! Rest on my hero!!!

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