The King Of African Counterculture

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-97) was a musical revolutionary who achieved a level of stardom in his native Nigeria barely imaginable. A charismatic and controversial bandleader with raw sex appeal, Fela was a powerful activist and arguably Africa’s most pioneering and influential musician. He invented a new musical genre, Afrobeat that merged Nigerian highlife music, Yoruba percussion and American funk and jazz into one infectious groove. Injecting politically charged lyrics on top of the multi-layered rhythms, his music became a call to arms against tyranny and injustice.

A fearless champion of the oppressed, he was an outspoken critic of the corruption and repressive policies that left millions of Nigerians without basic human rights. He held despotic leaders up to intense scrutiny and identified the societal problems not only of his native Nigeria but also of the world, revealing them boldly in his performances and recordings. Fela paid the price for his truculent critiques through frequent police harassment, beatings, and incarceration; military raids of Kalakuta in 1974 and1977 destroyed his compound, brutalized its inhabitants, and left Fela hospitalized and imprisoned. An alleged currency-smuggling violation while trying to board a plane for his 1984 American tour led to his arrest and imprisonment for over eighteen months.


Fela Kuti in concertDespite numerous attacks on his body, compound and character, Fela remained undeterred in spreading his music and message. He recorded more than seventy albums and delivered several electrifying performances a week at his nightclub in Lagos, the Afrika Shrine. It was not only the hottest club with the funkiest music in Africa, but a place of political empowerment and spiritual uplift where the Yoruba Orisha (gods) and heroes of the African Diaspora such as Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, and Fela’s mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the leader of the Nigerian national and feminist movements, were venerated.

But Fela was much more than a rock star and political dissident. He was also a pan-African philosopher and utopian visionary. Fela proclaimed his compound, where he resided with his extended family, band mates and street toughs, an independent nation for the marginalized masses, free from the laws and jurisdiction of the Nigerian government. He called this counterculture haven the Kalakuta Republic, named after a prison cell he once occupied, meaning ‘rascal’ in Swahili. Physically, Fela marked his political turf by installing a barbed-wire fence around the compound, but conceptually, he created an alternate universe where diversity and rascality prevailed and radical ideas flowed freely. It was a safe refuge for the marginalized masses and disenchanted youth, and a revolutionary haven of political empowerment, spliff smoking, sex, and some of the funkiest music around. But Fela’s concept of a revolutionary community was more than a symbolic form of dissent; for many, this pan-African utopia was a way of life as well as a state of mind.

At the height of his popularity in the mid-1970s, Fela took to calling himself the ‘Black President,’ a moniker worthy of his pan-African appeal and political ambitions. When he passed away at the age of fifty-eight following a prolonged battle with AIDS, more than a million people attended his processional funeral through the streets of Lagos. Fela has since achieved an iconic status that situates him alongside such counter-cultural figures as Bob Marley and Che Guevara. His music has been sampled, covered, and paid tribute to by an unbelievable array of artists and he is cherished by such diverse musicians as Brian Eno, Sir Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Gilberto Gil and Mos Def.

Today, Fela’s significance is being experienced musically, politically, and culturally, building an Afrobeat community around the world. Fela’s music has become a new vehicle of identity and change as people move both physically and virtually through the Diaspora. His legacy has opened new spaces for artists to bolster political resistance, yet it is also a complicated one, open to multiple interpretations. Fela’s life was one of excess: he lived in a commune, smoked copious amounts of ganja, travelled with an entourage, had twenty-eight wives and a following of millions. He was Africa’s most notorious rock star and one of the continent’s most outspoken and dedicated political critics. In many ways Fela’s legacy is both sobering and inspirational, but despite the controversies surrounding him, no one can deny his bravery in the face of government brutality or the fact that he created some of the best dance music ever recorded. His life and struggles are truly as relevant today as ever.

An historical figure as rich in complexity as Fela necessitated investigation through a wide range of voices and creative media. So, back in 1999 I started to research and organize what came to be called The Fela Project, consisting of the art exhibition Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the published collection of essays, interviews and memoirs, entitled, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway, an informational website and a series of related events and programmes.

Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was the first museum exhibition of its kind, with largely new work from thirty-four contemporary visual artists, documentary photography and video, a major catalogue and an extensive exploration in sound of Fela’s musical history and legacy. The selection of music in the listening programme was compiled by myself and my colleague and friend, Piotr Orlov and was unprecedented both in terms of examining Fela’s music, and also in its inclusion in an art exhibition. It was represented in a timeline from the 1950s to 2003, providing a context for the cultural and political environment in which Fela’s Afrobeat was created and developed, with synergistic music of the eras during which Fela composed and the musical realms in which his legacy has been disseminated.

Much has been written about the exhibition, so I will say little more except that the artists and venues were truly wonderful, as was the public response. It opened to the largest crowd ever recorded at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in July 2003 and brought in similar numbers throughout its tenures at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, the Barbican in London and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. While the critical and popular press was very positive, I am most proud of the way in which the exhibition proved to be accessible, relevant and interesting to new audiences who rarely, or in some cases, never had been to a museum before. To turn new people on to Fela and to help break down some of the walls of elitism of today’s art institutions was more than I and the artists who created work for the exhibition could have asked for.

The book, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway, published by Palgrave Macmillan, has been somewhat overlooked amidst all of the hype and press that the exhibition and musical concerts generated. But it and the exhibition catalogue are what will endure and I strongly urge people to take a look at this compendium of essays, memoirs and interviews that attempt to balance personal reflection with critical exploration and scholarly analysis. The writers who contributed to Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway comprise a collection of incredibly diverse voices, and through their many perspectives you will experience Fela’s legacy and meet the man – a man of the people, a political gadfly, a musical revolutionary, a spiritual leader, a distant father, a loyal son, a husband to 28, and a lover to more. You will hear how he challenged dictators, composed more than 77 hit albums, and was king of a commune. You will hear how he was a leader to millions and yet was led astray. You will hear about Nigeria, the tales of Fela’s life and the diasporic reverberations of his actions and music. In the end it is up to you to listen with an open mind and let in the politico-sonic explosion that was Fela Kuti. In a world of largely negative images, Fela shines brightly as a positive force. I urge you to learn more.

  1. Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway is published by Palgrave Macmillan
  2. More information on Twrvor’s project can be found at http://www.felaproject.net

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