Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti pioneered his unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a substantial cost. Kuti was arrested 200 times and endured many beatings, but proceeded to write political lyrics, performing 50 records before he died on August 2, 1997, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Musician and activist Fela Kuti established Afrobeat music and were repeatedly arrested and beaten for writing lyrics that questioned the Nigerian government.
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 Congregational minister, Reverend Ransome-Kuti. His mother, Funmilayo, was a political activist.
As a child, Kuti studied 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 created a band called Koola Lobitos. He would later become the band’s name to Afrika 70, and repeatedly to Egypt 80. Beginning in the 1960s, Kuti explored and popularized his unique style of music called “Afrobeat.” Afrobeat is a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music. In extension to their distinctive mixed-genre style, Kuti’s songs were considered unique in comparison to more commercially favorite songs due to their length—ranging everywhere from 15 minutes to an hour long. Kuti sang in a combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba. In the 1970s and ’80s, Kuti’s revolutionary song lyrics established him as the 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 against the government.
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In 1989, three years after traveling the United States, Kuti released an album called Beasts of No Nation. The album cover represents 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 substantial cost to Kuti, who was arrested by the Nigerian government 200 times, and was subject to many beatings that left him with lifelong scars. Rather than abandon his cause, however, Kuti used these occurrences as inspiration to write more lyrics. He presented roughly 50 albums through 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 ultimately let them all. Kuti’s children with Remi included a son, Femi, and daughters Yeni and Sola. Sola held of cancer not long after her father’s death in 1997. All three offspring were teams of the Positive Force, a band they founded in the 1980s.
Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related difficulties on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. Roughly 1 million people visited his funeral parade, 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.