The Pioneer Of Afro-Beat

Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti

Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti was a Nigerian musician, bandleader, composer, political activist, and Pan-Africanist. He is regarded as the pioneer of Afrobeat, a Nigerian music genre that combines West African music with American funk and jazz.

At the height of his popularity, he was referred to as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers”. AllMusic described him as “a musical and sociopolitical voice” of international significance.


Kuti was the son of Nigerian women’s rights activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. After early experiences abroad, he and his band Africa 70 (featuring drummer and musical director Tony Allen) shot to stardom in Nigeria during the 1970s, during which he was an outspoken critic and target of Nigeria’s military juntas. In 1970, he founded the Kalakuta Republic commune, which declared itself independent from military rule.

The commune was destroyed in a 1978 raid that injured Kuti and his mother. He was jailed by the government of Muhammadu Buhari in 1984, but released after 20 months. He continued to record and perform through the 1980s and 1990s. Since his death in 1997, reissues and compilations of his music have been overseen by his son, Femi Kuti.

Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born into the Ransome-Kuti family, an upper-middle-class Nigerian family, on 15 October 1938 in Abeokuta (the modern-day capital of Ogun State), which at the time was a city in the British Colony of Nigeria, His mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was an anti-colonial feminist, and his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was an Anglican minister, school principal, and the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. Kuti’s parents both played active roles in the anti-colonial movement in Nigeria, most notably the Abeokuta Women’s Riots which was led by his mother in 1946.

His brothers Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, both medical doctors, were well known nationally. Kuti Is a cousin to the writer and laureate Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize for Literature winner. They are both descendants of Josiah Ransome-Kuti, who is Kuti’s paternal grandfather and Soyinka’s maternal great-grandfather.

Kuti attended Abeokuta Grammar School. In 1958, he was sent to London to study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music, with the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos and played a fusion of jazz and highlife. In 1960, Kuti married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, with whom he had three children (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).

In 1963, Kuti moved back to the newly independent Federation of Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos, and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All-Stars.

He called his style Afrobeat, a combination of Fuji music, funk, jazz, highlife, salsa, calypso, and traditional Yoruba music. In 1969, Kuti took the band to the United States and spent ten months in Los Angeles. While there, he discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith (now known as Sandra Izsadore or Sandra Akanke Isidore) a partisan of the Black Panther Party. This experience heavily influenced his music and political views.

He renamed the band Nigeria 70. Soon after, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Kuti and his band were in the US without work permits. The band performed a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.

After Kuti and his band returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed (the) Africa ’70 as lyrical themes changed from love to social issues. He formed the Kalakuta Republic—a commune, recording studio, and home for many people connected to the band—which he later declared independent from the Nigerian state.

Kuti set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and later the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated at personalised Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honor of his nation’s ancestral faith. He also changed his name to Anikulapo (meaning “He who carries death in his pouch”, with the interpretation: “I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”). He stopped using the hyphenated surname “Ransome” because he considered it a slave name.

Kuti’s music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general. He decided to sing in Pidgin English so that individuals all over Africa could enjoy his music, where the local languages they speak are diverse and numerous.

As popular as Kuti’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic were frequent. During 1972, Ginger Baker recorded Stratavarious, with Kuti appearing alongside vocalist and guitarist Bobby Tench. Around this time, Kuti became even more involved with the Yoruba religion.

In 1977, Kuti and Africa 70 released the album Zombie, which heavily criticized Nigerian soldiers, and used the zombie metaphor to describe the Nigerian military’s methods. The album was a massive success and infuriated the government, who raided the Kalakuta Republic with 1,000 soldiers. During the raid, Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother (the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria) was fatally injured after being thrown from a window.

The commune was burnt down, and Kuti’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Kuti claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for a commanding officer’s intervention as he was being beaten.

Kuti’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, and to write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier,” referencing the official inquiry that claimed an unknown soldier had destroyed the commune.

Kuti and his band took up residence in Crossroads Hotel after the Shrine had been destroyed along with the commune. In 1978, he married 27 women, many of whom were dancers, composers, and singers with whom he worked.

The marriage served not only to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic but also to protect Kuti and his wives from authorities’ false claims that Kuti was kidnapping women. Later, he adopted a rotation system of maintaining 12 simultaneous wives. There were also two concerts in the year: the first was in Accra, in which rioting broke out during the song “Zombie”, which caused Kuti to be banned from entering Ghana; the second was after the Berlin Jazz Festival when most of Kuti’s musicians deserted him due to rumours that he planned to use all of the proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.

In 1978, Fela performed at the Berliner Jazztage in Berlin with his band Africa 70. Disapointed by their fees, Tony Allen, the band leader and almost all the musicians resigned. Since then, Baryton player Lekan Animashaun became band leader and Fela created a new group named Egypt80. In 1979, Kuti formed his political party, which he called Movement of the People (MOP), to “clean up society like a mop”, but it quickly became inactive due to his confrontations with the government of the day. MOP preached Nkrumahism and Africanism.

In 1980 Fela signed an exclusive management with French producer Martin Meissonnier who secured a record deal with Arista records London through A&R Tarquin Gotch. The first album came out in February 1981 under the title of “Black President” with the track “ITT” and on the B-Side “Colonial Mentality” and an edited version of “Sorrow teas and Blood” (these two tracks recorded with Africa 70 and Tony Allen were unreleased in Europe). Following the release, Fela performed his first European tour (4 concerts in a week) with a suite of 70 people.

The tour starting in Paris on march 15th 1981 with a huge crowd estimated at 10000 people,] then Brussels, Wien and Strasbourg. “Black President was followed by another album was recorded in Paris in july 1981: “Original Sufferhead”, with “Power Show” on the B-side. Fela also recorded the track “Perambulator” in Paris.

Arista gave his back freedom to Fela at the end of 1981. French Filmmaker Jean Jacques Flori came to Lagos early 1982 to direct the now classic film “Music is a Weapon”. The filmed was broadcast first on Antenne 2 (French TV in 1982). The film producer Stephane Tchalgaldjieff didn’t like the film and decided to re edit it for an international release.

In 1983, Kuti nominated himself for president in Nigeria’s first elections in decades, but his candidature was refused. At this time, Kuti created a new band, Egypt 80, which reflected the view that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African and must be claimed as such.

Kuti stated in an interview: “Stressing the point that I have to make Africans aware of the fact that Egyptian civilization belongs to the African. So that was the reason why I changed the name of my band to Egypt 80.” Kuti continued to record albums and tour the country. He further infuriated the political establishment by implicating ITT Corporation’s vice-president, Moshood Abiola, and Obasanjo in the popular 25-minute political screed entitled “I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”.

In 1984, Muhammadu Buhari’s government, of which Kuti was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a charge of currency smuggling. Amnesty International and others denounced the charges as politically motivated. Amnesty designated him a prisoner of conscience, and other human rights groups also took up his case. After 20 months, General Ibrahim Babangida released him from prison. On his release, Kuti divorced his 12 remaining wives, citing “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness” since his wives would regularly compete for superiority.

Kuti continued to release albums with Egypt 80 and toured in the United States and Europe while continuing to be politically active. In 1986, he performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey as part of Amnesty International’s A Conspiracy of Hope concert along with Bono, Carlos Santana, and the Neville Brothers.

In 1989, Kuti and Egypt 80 released the anti-apartheid album Beasts of No Nation that depicted U.S. President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and South African State President Pieter Willem Botha on its cover. The title of the composition evolved out of a statement by Botha: “This uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us.”

Kuti’s album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually, he ceased releasing albums altogether. On 21 January 1993, he and four members of Africa 70 were arrested and were later charged on 25 January for the murder of an electrician. Rumours also speculated that he was suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatment. However, there had been no confirmed statement from Kuti about this speculation.

Kuti’s musical style is called Afrobeat. It is a style he largely created, and is a complex fusion of jazz, funk, highlife, and traditional Nigerian, African chants and rhythms. It contains elements of psychedelic soul and has similarities to James Brown’s music. Afrobeat also borrows heavily from the native “tinker pan”. Tony Allen, Kuti’s drummer of twenty years, was instrumental in the creation of Afrobeat. Kuti once stated that “there would be no Afrobeat without Tony Allen”.

Kuti’s band was notable for featuring two baritone saxophones when most groups only used one. This is a common technique in African and African-influenced musical styles and can be seen in funk and hip hop. His bands sometimes performed with two bassists at the same time both playing interlocking melodies and rhythms. There were always two or more guitarists. The electric West African style guitar in Afrobeat bands is a key part of the sound, and is used to give basic structure, playing a repeating chordal/melodic statement, riff, or groove.

Some elements often present in Kuti’s music are the call-and-response within the chorus and figurative but simple lyrics. His songs were also very long, at least 10–15 minutes in length, and many reached 20 or 30 minutes, while some unreleased tracks would last up to 45 minutes when performed live.

Their length was one of many reasons that his music never reached a substantial degree of popularity outside Africa. His LP records frequently had one 30-minute track per side. Typically there is an “instrumental introduction” jam section of the song roughly 10–15 minutes long before Kuti starts singing the “main” part of the song, featuring his lyrics and singing, for another 10–15 minutes. On some recordings, his songs are divided into two parts: Part 1 being the instrumental, and Part 2 adding in vocals.

Kuti’s songs are mostly sung in Nigerian Pidgin English, although he also performed a few songs in the Yoruba language. His main instruments were the saxophone and the keyboards, but he also played the trumpet, electric guitar, and the occasional drum solo. Kuti refused to perform songs again after he had already recorded them, which hindered his popularity outside Africa.

The subject of Kuti’s songs tended to be very complex. They regularly challenged common received notions in the manner of political commentary through song. Many of his songs also expressed a form of parody and satire. The main theme he conveyed through his music was the search for justice through exploration of political and social topics that affected the common people.

Kuti is remembered as an influential icon who voiced his opinions on matters that affected the nation through his music. Since 1998, the Felabration festival, an idea pioneered by his daughter Yeni Kuti is held each year at the New Afrika Shrine to celebrate the life of this music legend and his birthday. Since Kuti’s death in 1997, there has been a revival of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another re-release of his catalog controlled by UMG, Broadway, and off-Broadway shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who carry the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.

In 1999, Universal Music France, under Francis Kertekian, remastered the 45 albums that it owned and released them on 26 compact discs. These titles were licensed globally, except in Nigeria and Japan, where other companies owned Kuti’s music. In 2005, the American operations of UMG licensed all of its world-music titles to the UK-based label Wrasse Records, which repackaged the same 26 discs for distribution in the United States (where they replaced the titles issues by MCA) and the UK.

In 2009, Universal created a new deal for the US and Europe, with Knitting Factory Records and PIAS respectively, which included the release of the Broadway cast recording of the musical Fela! In 2013, FKO Ltd., the entity that owned the rights to all of Kuti’s compositions, was acquired by BMG Rights Management.

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