Civil Rights Activist, Pianist, Drummer, Songwriter (1938–1997)
“If you see me strictly as a musician it’s okay. I don’t want to say that it is wrong to see me that way. I don’t want to say that it is right to see me that way. I want to leave everything to the individual to see me the way they think is right. That’s the best way.” —Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost. Kuti was arrested 200 times and endured numerous beatings, but continued to write political lyrics, producing 50 albums before he died on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Musician and political activist Fela Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Kuti was the son of a Protestant minister, Reverend Ransome-Kuti. His mother, Funmilayo, was a political activist.
As a child, Kuti learned piano and drums, and led his school choir. In the 1950s, Kuti told his parents that he was moving to London, England, to study medicine, but wound up attending the Trinity College of Music instead. While at Trinity, Kuti studied classical music and developed an awareness of American jazz.
Activism Through Music
In 1963, Kuti formed a band called Koola Lobitos. He would later change the band’s name to Afrika 70, and again to Egypt 80. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered and popularized his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Afrobeat is a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music. In addition to their distinctive mixed-genre style, Kuti’s songs were considered unique in comparison to more commercially popular songs due to their length—ranging anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour long. Kuti sang in a combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Kuti’s rebellious song lyrics established him as political dissident. As a result, Afrobeat has come to be associated with making political, social and cultural statements about greed and corruption. One of Kuti’s songs, “Zombie,” questions Nigerian soldiers’ blind obedience to carrying out orders. Another, “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” seeks to empower the disenfranchised masses to rise up against the government.
In 1989, three years after touring the United States, Kuti released an album called Beasts of No Nation. The album cover portrays world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (among others) as cartoon vampires baring bloody fangs.
Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost to Kuti, who was arrested by the Nigerian government 200 times, and was subject to numerous beatings that left him with lifelong scars. Rather than abandon his cause, however, Kuti used these experiences as inspiration to write more lyrics. He produced roughly 50 albums over the course of his musical career, including songs for Les Negresses under the pseudonym Sodi in 1992.
Fela Kuti was a polygamist. A woman named Remi was the first of Kuti’s wives. In 1978, Kuti married 27 more women in a single wedding ceremony. He would eventually divorce them all. Kuti’s children with Remi included a son, Femi, and daughters Yeni and Sola. Sola died of cancer not long after her father’s death in 1997. All three offspring were members of the Positive Force, a band they founded in the 1980s.
Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. Roughly 1 million people attended his funeral procession, which began at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at Kuti’s home, Kalakuta, in Ikeja, Nigeria, where he was laid to rest in the front yard.