21 Years After, Why Is Fela Remembered?
Exactly twenty-one years ago, Nigeria’s Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti died, having reportedly contracted AIDS. But, his family said soldiers of the Nigerian government killed the singer and not the disease.
Months ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was at the New Afrika shrine to celebrate African culture. He praised Fela for being more than a musician, for being a politician who wanted to affect the society.
Prior to his death, Fela was well known at home and abroad not just for his spirited musical performances and stinging lyrics, but also for his political and human rights activism. They were filled with antagonistic messages directed at the government of the country. It earned him several stays in jail on different counts and charges.
Fela’s music, both inspiring and rebellious was the height of social commentary at the time. Constantly, his music frayed military nerves with his album Zombie particularly stinging. It personified soldiers as mindless creatures that blindly followed orders and were incapable of thinking on their own. It also touched on their insatiable lust of violence and destruction.
It sparked different responses from the government, with soldiers invading and razing his Kalakuta Republic. During the invasion, Fela’s mother Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was thrown from the second floor of her home. That eventually led to her death.
Fela’s reaction was unexpected, when he took his mother’s coffin to Dodan Barracks, the seat of power then, after which he released the tracks Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier.
The latter was in reference to General Olusegun Obasanjo’s claim that the invasion was by an ‘Unknown Soldier’ while the former detailed the ordeal Fela and his mother went through during the raid.
He criticized the corruption of Nigerian government officials and the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens. He spoke of colonialism as the root of the socio-economic and political problems that plagued the African people.
Fela was referred to as “Abami Eda,” which means “a strange creature”. He swapped his middle name “Ransome” for “Anikulapo” which means “one that has death his pocket”.
Fela the politician almost became fully-fledged. However, he was refused to run for the presidency under the political party he formed, Movement of the People (MOP). Fela noted that party was going to “clean up society like a mop.”
He had his stand-off with the current Nigeria president, Muhammadu Buhari in 1984. Anikulapo harshly criticized and insulted the then military head of state Buhari.
Buhari jailed him afterwards on a charge of currency smuggling. After 20 months, Fela was released from prison by General Ibrahim Babangida.
Fela was far from perfect, he often drew controversies and attracted attention by promoting indulgence in sex, misogyny, polygamy, and drugs, especially marijuana. His song ‘Lady’ reeked of misogyny.
In a book, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, written by Carlos Moore, Fela infamously compared women to mere ‘mattresses’ on which men are meant to sleep. He noted he didn’t mind hitting any of his 27 wives when they defaulted.
He compared women to Satan and disappointing claimed some girls are ready for sex as early as nine-years-old. These imperfections added that veneer of fallibility to the Abami Eda, after all, he was only human. Still, he remains in our hearts and lives in our memories.