#AfroNation: Fela’s Vagabonds In Power

To even begin to try to comprehend Fela, perhaps an impossible ask in itself, you have to understand and accept…

“If you don’t understand my language, I’m sorry, I can’t help you. If you do not want to hear, other people want to hear,” Fela was typically unapologetic as he castigated a heckler in his crisp ‘Queen’s English’ at a concert in West Berlin in 1973. It’s the intro to his hit, ‘V.I.P (Vagabonds in Power)’ recorded live at the height of his musical power. Direct. Brazen. Brave. Complex. Complicated. A force of very nature, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was extraordinary by any standard – more than a man, more than a myth, Fela the man is perhaps best described as a lifetime in his own legend.

And legend is an apt description. You know something is up, when artists like Skepta, Jay Z, Will Smith, Common, Kelis, Dead Prez, Sade and many more – as well as the likes of Damon Albarn and Paul McCartney – regularly namecheck Fela in awe. As does EVERY SINGLE Afrobeats artist. Ever! Fela, unique among musicians perhaps, singlehandedly founded a musical genre: Afrobeat, and Afrobeats are literally his musical and cultural grandchildren.

“Let’s get now into an underground spiritual game…” Fela

Everything is connected to everything else. There is a rhythm to life – a beat that pulsates through us all. And some shit is deep – indications of ‘a higher science’, as Rastas would say, perhaps. For instance, there’s a legend in music:

Sometime around 1935 or 1936, Robert Johnson went to a crossroads in Mississippi around midnight, and sold his soul to Mr Legba, the Devil, to learn how to play a mean guitar – the Blues were born. You can trace pop music (and indeed black music as we know it) to the Blues, and particularly Robert Johnson’s legendary recordings of 1936/37. Johnson was murdered in a bar brawl in 1938, recording only 29 songs, giving the legend wings, as it were. Blues gave birth to Rock, which gave birth to pop – Blues also gave birth to Soul when mixed with Gospel and Jazz, and Soul led to Funk, which led to Hip Hop, when mixed with Reggae – and then Dance, then D&B, then Grime. Interestingly, it’s always been seen as ‘the devil’s music’ – a corrupter of youth and women.

The urban legend above is also telling in other, more ineffable cultural ways. And culture, transmitted by music, by the rhythm, amongst other things, is central to Fela’s narrative. In fact his middle name Anikulapo, quite literally means “He who carries death in his pouch”. Culture, and its mixing and development are also central to this story. Mr Legba is a corruption of Elegba – the Yoruba trickster deity of the crossroads. Elegba – he who stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine – is also invoked in the Caribbean during Carnival. When Wizkid sings about ‘Ojuelegba’, it was not just in homage to his Lagos neighbourhood; it also literally means ‘through the eyes of Elegba’. The same refrain and melody was sung by Fela in the chorus of his 1990 hit, ‘Confusion Break Bone’. It’s important to take on board right here right now: that to even begin to try to comprehend Fela, perhaps an impossible ask in itself, you have to understand and accept that deities, spiritualism, and ‘higher science’ were all very real to him. And you did not come more real than Fela.

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Abeoukuta literally means, ‘under the rock’ – as the town literally sits under a great big rock; not a mountain but a rock. The Egba – as the people of Abeoukuta are called – are one of the main groups of the Yoruba tribe; characterised as being somewhat stubborn, perhaps because they’re also mixed with returnee former slaves. The Ransome-Kuti’s – with their anglicised name, fall firmly into this category; which, because of how Colonial Nigeria was set up, meant that they were western educated because they were Christians.

Fela came from one of the most prominent Egba and Nigerian families – indeed much has been written about his mother: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, correctly dubbed ‘mother of Nigeria’. The prototypical African feminist – Funmilayo was the first African woman to drive a car; was a political leader who led a market woman’s rebellion against the King of Abeoukuta which led to his exile; was friends with independence Africa’s great and good – especially Kwame Nkrumah, who led the first successful independence struggle (which she was an active participant in) to become founding president of Ghana in 1957, and basically invented Pan-Africanism. She was the first African woman to officially visit the Soviet Union and Communist China – meeting the Soviet leadership and Chairman Mao. Indeed, his mother was a HUGE influence on his life – let’s say Fela had a complicated relationship with, and was very much influenced, by women. But always remember, he was first and foremost a mummy’s boy. His relationship with his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, is less written about, and perhaps somewhat more complex and defining of Fela, who rarely gave interviews about his father.

The Good Reverend Ransome-Kuti was one of the most important educators in Africa – indeed is responsible for Nigeria (and every other former British Colony in West Africa) having a university at independence in 1960, as opposed to a single Uni for all the West Africa Colonies. The Good Reverend was also the legendary Principal of Abeoukuta Grammar School, whose Alumni include Noble Literature Laureate, Wole Soyinka – Fela’s first cousin, as well as Fela himself, and several other prominent Nigerians. Soyinka describes the Good Reverend Kuti, who was popularly known as Daodu, beautifully in his 1981 autobiographical novel, Akè. The Good Reverend taught Fela music – how to play piano, and to read and write music when he was still a boy.

Of course, Christian education in Africa in the 1940’s and 50’s basically meant, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ And the Good Reverend was a passionate proponent of this doctrine. No doubt Fela’s first beatings were at the hands of his father. It was good preparation for life ahead. The beatings were perhaps not helped by Fela and his friends forming a gang called the ‘Planless Society’ while still at school. You can imagine the Good Reverend’s reaction. Let’s just say, Fela was a bad student. When the Good Reverend died in 1955, with Funmilayo heavily involved in politics, the 17 year old Fela kinda ran wilder still.

JK Briamah, Fela’s boyhood friend, and co-founder of the ‘Planless Society’ recalls jokingly in a 2007 interview, “Fela couldn’t talk to girls back then. Man, I had to hold his prick for him to fuck the first time.” So not the Fela we came to know later. JK was also a crossroads in Fela’s journey – he taught Fela the rudiments of being a performer. JK, a few years older than Fela, already had a reputation as a singer on the Lagos music scene. And, as the Ransome-Kuti’s owned substantial property in Lagos, Fela was soon exploring the city’s music scene – no doubt discovering more about girls, along the way.

In 1958, Fela was due to go and join both his younger and older brothers – Beko and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti respectively – in the UK to study medicine. We should be eternally grateful to Beko for pointing out to Fela that medicine was very, very hard; and he should perhaps study music. Of course, Fela then proceeded to do just that, concealing this change in career from his mum.

Trinity College of Music, London is about as establishment as you get in music. And while Fela may have been an indifferent student, he became a great musician because he went there. He took up the trumpet, got into Jazz – no doubt tried to blow like Miles Davis and Dizzie Gillespie – and, like a good musician, spent most of his time playing with his band, the Koola Lobitos, around London. He wore a garish faux-fur coat, barely passed composition and learned more about women. Koola Lobitos played a mix of Jazz and West African Highlife – with Fela recording his first material in London. He also became a fixture on London’s music scene – meeting many musicians, the most significant being Ginger Baker who later became a Rock god in the band, Cream. Fela also fell in love. He married his wife, Remi, mother of his first three kids in 1960 in London. And became a family man in 1961, when his daughter Yeni was born – followed swiftly in 1962 by Femi, his first son; and another daughter, Sola in 1963. Fela graduated from Trinity somewhere in the middle of his class.

Fela returned to Nigeria in 1963, becoming a producer with the Nigerian equivalent of the BBC – the Nigeria Broadcasting Cooperation. This proper job-type job didn’t last very long, Fela was a proper musician by then, and soon became a bandleader – reforming Koola Lobitos with a new line up, including Tony Allen on drums and Lekan Animashaun on baritone sax, playing a mix of Highlife and American influenced R&B. Lagos was calling – and Lagos is a big character in Fela’s story, and a major crossroads in his life. He never lived anywhere else. With the advantage of being spoilt rich kid, Fela could pursue his ambition as a musician – his mother having finally accepted that a Trinity trained musician was good enough for a scion of the Ransome-Kuti family, and her favourite child.

Being a professional musician is not easy anywhere. And Lagos is the 1960’s was a place in flux.

Being a professional musician is not easy anywhere. And Lagos in the 1960’s was a place in flux. Newly independent Nigeria was not exactly a stable place – and politics was always at the fore in the then capital of the country – and by 1967, after two military coups and a Civil War which lasted till 1970, things changed dramatically. Lagos is also a party city – with a very vibrant social scene. Not that Fela was much interested in politics then – or rather, was not active. He certainly mixed with politicians of the more revolutionary hue, even met Dr Nkrumah, and would have known several important Nigerian politicians, through his mother. As a musician, composer and performer, however, Fela was strictly into making people dance and singing about love. And to do so, the band had to play a mixture of Highlife standards, American R&B, and increasingly, Funk. Basically, they played a lot of gigs and became a really tight band.

Fela really started living in a commune, not as a member but as its head and leader, at around this time. He had pretty much taken over a school the family owned in Surulere, near Ojuelegba in Lagos. Oh, and Fela learned even more about women, and got introduced to Marijuana, or Igbo, as it’s called in Nigeria. On a trip to Ghana in 1967, Fela named his music Afrobeat. But it’s fair to say that stylistically, it was still a far cry from the sound he later developed. He sang in Yoruba mostly, and still about love, life and mundane everyday things. A chance to go play in Los Angeles soon changed all of that.

“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m Proud…” James Brown.

It’s a bit of a contradiction that Fela had to go to the City of Angels to discover he was a black man, in the political sense. It may sound obvious, but being black in Lagos is nothing special. LA in 1969 was not just a hotbed of political activism – it was also a major crossroads for Fela. This was America of Hippies, of feminism, of racial confrontation, of the Vietnam War and confrontation with the Soviet Menace. And, yeah, a woman was involved. Sandra Smith (Isadore) was an empowered black sista – a Black Panther Party activist and organiser; active on LA’s vibrant music scene. She was also fly – and they were soon lovers. She got Fela reading books like ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and Frantz Fannon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’; and into politics and activism. She told him it was a waste of time to sing about love and stuff, when the struggle was happening now. She also made him question the ‘African bad’ attitude he, like most educated Colonial Africans, had ingrained in him.

The band also recorded in LA, an album that was later released as ‘Fela Kuti: The 1969 Los Angeles Sessions’. This album though a mix of Highlife, Jazz and Funk also contains what some music scholars describe as the first Afrobeat songs, ‘My Lady’s Frustration’, a song about Sandra and their relationship. Fela also recorded his first overtly nationalist Nigerian composition, ‘Viva Nigeria’ – a plea to end the civil war and keep Nigeria one. When Fela and the band overstayed their tourist visas and US Immigration came looking for them, with money tight, Lagos beckoned.

Fela Kuti & The Nigeria 70, as he had renamed the band, hit Lagos like a tsunami. And Fela stated writing songs with a definite political edge, including: ‘Why Blackman dey Suffer’(1971) and ‘Shakara/Lady’. His shows had also taken a more radical edge – including the scantily clad dancers; and the overt social and political commentary, called Yabis in Nigeria. Fela was scathing about the Nigerian monied classes, and the political situation in the country. Ginger Baker moved to Nigeria in 1970, bringing the first 16 track recording studio – which captured the sound of Fela (and the now named Afrika 70) beautifully. They played regularly at the Crossroads Hotel in Surulere – which he called The Shrine, no coincidence, perhaps – and were masters of the groove.

When the Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney was looking for somewhere to record his debut solo album. Lagos seemed the least obvious, so perhaps most natural choice. The subsequent album, ‘Band on the Run’ was recorded in Lagos in 1972, and was supposed to feature Fela – who McCartney was desperate to work with. Fela, who initially accused McCartney of trying to ‘steal the Blackman’s music’ refused to work with him. Yes, Fela turned down a Beatle – widely recognised (along with John Lennon) as the most important songwriter(s) in popular music, ever. McCartney describes himself as ‘weeping with joy’ the first time he heard Fela and the Afrika 70 play. That’s how powerful they were.

“Music is the weapon…” Fela

Then Fela got busted for possession of Marijuana. His commune had continued to grow, as he attracted kids who wanted to play music, young people running away from home, young women who wanted to become dancers and models, radicals of all shapes and hue. A den of iniquity, is how the Good Reverend would have described it, no doubt. Basically a right proper mix of Hippie commune in an African military dictatorship. You likely can’t imagine it. He had declared his commune the independent Kalakuta Republic – not exactly a great idea in a country that had just fought a particularly vicious civil war to remain one that left at least a million dead. And then there was the prolific and copious pot smoking. Fela used to go to his shows – a few hundred metres away at the Crossroads Hotel – like an African potentate, with his entire community mixed with visiting hangers on and passers-by in tow, riding donkey and smoking a gigantic spliff. Literally stopping Lagos traffic or ‘go-slow’ – which he would mischievously blame as the reason he was running so late. He wasn’t exactly subtle, non-provocative, and trying to fly under the radar.

This set a pattern that pretty much continued for the rest of his life. The government would attack him, Fela would get off the charges, and describe the incident in a song.

African military regimes are equally unsubtle as a rule. And generally operate outside the law. Well, they are the law, so whatever they say goes. When Fela was busted for possession of ganja, the police took the added step of planting a joint on him to seal things. It carried a very, very heavy sentence. Fela promptly ate the joint, was arrested, and ordered to shit so the court could have evidence of his crime. Fela was already a legend to the people of Nigeria and the Lagos underworld. So it was not in the least surprising when the shit he presented to the court was as pristine as the driven snow. The result was his smash hit, ‘Expensive Shit’ – released in 1975. This set a pattern that pretty much continued for the rest of his life. The government would attack him, Fela would get off the charges, and describe the incident in a song. And the songs were increasingly becoming hits across Nigeria, Africa, and the world.

When his fellow Egba, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo (later democratic President from 1999 to 2007) became leader of the Nigerian military Junta and de facto dictator, things took a distinct turn for the worse. Let’s say Fela and Obasanjo had beef from back in the hometown times. Plus Fela was a son of a patrician family, OBJ was a lowly peasant who wasn’t smart (or rich) enough to go to university direct, and had to join the army instead. This was Nigeria in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – these attitudes were not uncommon. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Fela’s song, ‘Zombie’ (released in 1977). The song, with its magical groove, mocks the military in general as mindless zombies who only obey orders. Fela debuted the song at the World Press Conference announcing the line-up of FESTAC ’77 – the second international festival of black and African culture that the Nigerian military junta was hosting as part of its eventual transition to civilian democratic rule. The regime’s second in command – Major-General Shehu Musa Yaradua, whose younger brother became president after OBJ in 2007 – was the guest of honour, sitting stone faced as the front of the auditorium as the performance was broadcast live around the world. Fela’s card was marked. It was simply a matter of time.

After FESTAC – and the international visitors and press had left Nigeria and the big attraction, Fela’s alternative festival, as he had refused to perform at the official one – the military struck. Kalakuta Republic was razed to the ground by 1000 soldiers. A lot of stuff was destroyed in that raid – including recordings, and the soundtrack to the autobiographical movie Fela was making, ‘Black President’. No orders, no paper trail, no justice. 1000 ‘Unknown Soldiers’ had destroyed a compound in the middle of Lagos in broad daylight, as the official government inquiry found. Fela termed it, ‘government magic’. Funmilayo, Fela’s mother and the mother of Nigeria, was thrown out of a second floor window during the raid. She never recovered, dying in April 1978. The albums, ‘Unknown Soldier’ and ‘Coffin for Head of State’ – when Fela took his mother’s coffin to Dodan Barracks, the seat of military power and left it at the gates – describe the effect of these events on Fela. Anger. Rage. Sadness. It’s fair to say he was never the same again. And neither was his music. It took on a darker, more sombre edge.

Fela was like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and John Lennon rolled into one. But he was more than that. He was braver than all three put together. Fela was arrested and jailed – by various Nigerian regimes (both by the military ones and the civilian Second Republic from 1979 to 1983) – over 300 times. He was only ever found guilty once – for ‘currency smuggling’, while attempting to take just over $1000 on a trip with his 22 strong band in 1984 – by the military dictatorship of current Nigerian President, (the then Major-General) Buhari. This is Nigeria, there’s a lot of recycling in politics. Fela never stopped his Yabis. Fela was also the Black President way before anyone had heard of Obama – not that he actually became President of Nigeria, despite starting his own political party and running. And let’s be honest, Fela was a great musician; but he would have been a God awful president.

A lot has been said and written about Fela. Indeed, a single book or movie could never really do him justice. He’s just too big. There’s just too much legend. A lot of the people who worked with Fela look back wistfully at the opportunities he missed – working with McCartney in the 70’s or signing with Motown in the 80’s – with a certain edge of regret. But that may be missing the point. Fela is Fela because he never compromised. He’s perhaps most famous for his polygamy – and promiscuity – and dying of AIDS, after his music. Despite having two brothers who were doctors, and a sister who was a nurse, Fela stubbornly refused to even consult a medical professional. And indeed infected a lot of people, no doubt. But the announcement by Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, who had been Minister of Health and Nigeria’s foremost AIDS activist, that his younger brother Fela had died of AIDS made it not just official – AIDS was a problem in Nigeria – it also made it accepted by the largely uneducated masses.

Like some deity – perhaps a manifestation of Elegba himself, Fela is almost beyond human comprehension – a being of spirit and rhythm.

Fela made Afrobeat, not World Music – as some lazily try to categorise his and other African music. Though he did call his later music “African Classical Music”, Fela refused to be defined by anyone else. Like some deity – perhaps a manifestation of Elegba himself, Fela is almost beyond human comprehension – a being of spirit and rhythm. And this is where Fela is perhaps the greatest, yet the most subtle inspiration for Afrobeats – as it seems set to sweep the globe.

The crucial difference between Afrobeats and World Music is that Afrobeats is validated by Africans, not Europeans or white people – it’s the music young Africans tell their stories to, listen to and dance to. Like Fela, a lot of Afrobeats founders and stars – D’Banj, Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, JJC Skills, for instance – had a stint in the UK; generally didn’t make it, then went back to Nigeria to huge success. The same is true of Nollywood – as the Nigerian film industry is called. Let’s get this right, Fela was in no way a racist – and while he certainly was flawed and had his foibles – he just felt he was a human being. Equal to anyone. As Fela used to say: “Everybody say, Yeah! Yeah!”

Fela is celebrated annually in Lagos during the week long Felabration Festival that celebrates his Birthday. The next one is in October 2017: see http://www.felabration.net/

Essential Listening:

1. ‘Expensive Shit/Water No Get Enemy’ (1975) – Fela Kuti & the Afrika 70 at the very height of their power. Tony Allen’s genius is truly shown on these grooves.
2. ‘Beast of No Nation’ (1989) – a stone groove, this was the rhythm that announced Fela’s arrival at The Shrine and on stage in later years. The song was a retelling of his very dubious conviction by the Buhari Dictatorship in 1984.
3. ‘Shakara/Lady’ (1972) – Fela really put the cat amonst the pigeons with his song about the modern African ladies, educated in Western fashion. His reputation for misoginy stems in part from this. The title track, ‘Shakara’ is a real homage and still a soundtrack to Lagos.
4. ‘Zombie’ (1977) – still as powerful as it was when it was the track of the moment in Lagos and Africa in 1977. The groove is otherworldly, and transports you to the chaos of the order of African military regimes and dictatorships.
5. ‘Upside Down’ (1976) – featuring the vocals of Sandra Isedora, this song is about how upside down attitudes in Africa are. As pointed and as powerful now as it was then, the message and the groove are still as fresh and relevant for today.
6. ‘Music of Many Colours’  (1980)- one of the few collaboration albums Fela released (the first was with Ginger Baker in the 1970’s), this album featured Roy Ayres – Funk legend and Xylophone master. Definitely an Afrobeat album, it is his most futuristic work, and perhaps shows where Fela’s music may have gone. It features two songs – ‘2000 Black’ and ‘Africa Centre of the World’.
7. ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ (1978) – Fela’s homage to the people of Nigeria, and wickedly cutting political commentary on Nigerian society and politics, the title speaks of the poor man’s lot in life. Suffering and smiling in spite of it all.
8. ‘Army Arrangement’ (1985) – Fela’s attack on the Nigerian military, system and mindset is scathing – and very much relevant to today’s Nigeria. And doubly remarkable, as it was released under a military regime.
9. ‘Sorrow, Tears and Blood’ (1977) – written in perhaps Fela’s most prolific period, this song tells of what encounters with the military were like. “Dem leave sorrow, tears and blood. Dem regular trademark.” Fela’s son Seun Anikulakpo-Kuti used to sing this as an opening act for his father when he was a boy of nine or 10.
10. ‘Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti’ (2002) – not an original Fela release, this posthumous album is a remix of his works by a constellation of music stars from around the world. It was released to both raise awareness of and funds for the fight against HIV/AIDS.