Sep 26, 2018
Fela Kuti: Musical Genius And Activist
Sunday 18 October was the final day of Felabration; a weeklong annual musical jamboree to celebrate the life, times, music, and ideology of the phenomenon called Fela. Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti on 15 October 1938, this scion of the popular Ransome-Kuti family of Abeokuta was a singer/songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist. They gained worldwide popularity as a foremost Nigerian family. The family has put the country on the world map, being as popular for their musical heritage, as they are for their political activism. Fela’s musical genius was never in doubt, and even in death, eighteen years on; his great body of work is still being studied, enjoyed, and reworked, finding a presence in every corner of the globe. An off Broadway production of Fela Anikulapo- Kuti’s life titled Fela, and a full length documentary titled Finding Fela have even been produced.
A cursory look at his family tree reveals that Fela was not an accident, in his case the apple did not fall far from the proverbial tree. This son and grandson of Anglican priests (popularly known as the musical priests) simply carried on the family tradition. The story begins with the Reverend Canon Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti; an Anglican priest responsible for composing many of the hymns sung in the Anglican Church, both within and outside Nigeria. He recorded a series of songs in the Yoruba tongue for the Zonophone record label in London. JJ it was who took the name Ransome, in honour of the missionary who converted him.
Next comes the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a priest like his father, he was an educationist who went to become the Principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, and also president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. His wife Funmilayo was an activist, and women’s rights campaigner, who received the Lenin peace prize in 1970. Mrs. Funmilayo Kuti’s marriage into the family brought political activism into the Kuti family. The couple had four children; Olikoye, Bekolari, Fela, and Dolupo. Olikoye; a renowned doctor, and Professor was at various times Minister of Health, and Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Beko also became a doctor, and was Secretary-General of the Nigerian Medical Association.
As was usual with the offspring of the upper middle class Nigerian families of his day, Fela was a young colonial Nigerian male music graduate of an English university, playing a fusion of Jazz and highlife music charting a course for himself. In 1969, he went to Los Angeles on tour with his band, and met Sandra Smith, now Izsadore. Smith belonged to the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, and was overjoyed to meet Fela as she hoped to learn more about African history from him. To her surprise and dismay, she discovered that he knew next to nothing about the history of Africa, thereafter she took him under her wing and opened his eyes to the vista of African consciousness, and the black power movement. They became lovers, and by the time Fela returned to Nigeria nine months later, his psyche, and music had changed. He left Nigeria a colonial relic, but returned a proud black man.
As radical as he was talented, Fela discarded the family name Ransome, saying it was a “Slave name”, taking on Anikulapo, which means “He who has death in his pocket”. He also turned his back on the Anglican, nay Christian faith of his fore bearers, preferring to return to his African roots. For the rest of his life, Fela would practice the African traditional religion. He entered the Guinness book of records for wedding twenty seven women in one day. The wedding was blessed by the chief ifa priest of Lagos. Fela was often vilified for licentiousness, but as his son, Seun puts it, “Fela was just a very open person, and lived his life as he wished. Many men were guilty of the things he did, they only tried to hide theirs. Many men have children showing up after they are dead and gone. Quite a number of people from all works of life smoke Marijuana, but prefer to hide it.”
Continuing the family tradition, albeit in his own way; Fela trained his eldest son in the age old way of the apprentice learning at the feet of the master. Residents of the John Olugbo axis of Ikeja, Lagos in the early eighties remember a father teaching his young son to play the keyboard; he would play a note, and ask the lad to do the same. It was no joke, only the already famous Fela taking the time to teach his heir the rudiments of the family business; unknowingly preparing him for the international stage and stardom. Although his father had a degree in music, Femi’s success and subsequent superstardom without a music degree are testimony to the genius of the afrobeat icon. Speaking to the Nation Femi said, “When my first international hit album broke, Fela asked me, ‘ Do you now see what I have been trying to teach you all these years? You can now feed yourself through music’. And I agreed.”
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was the matriarch of the clan, and was a great source of inspiration to her large brood. Her granddaughter; Yeni Kuti vividly captures this when she said, “My grandmother is my role model. She inspired me a lot. She once teased Femi about his laziness in rehearsing his saxophone, wondering how he could succeed as a musician without rigorously rehearsing. Femi never missed daily rehearsal ever since.” Fela was a very hardworking musician as visitors to the shrine can testify. During his lifetime, Fela was known to play his saxophone into the wee hours of the morning; meticulously blowing his sax day in day in day out, year in year out. This acerbic tongued Egba woman was also known to be self-sacrificing as she was part of the group that campaigned for the abolition of women paying tax at the time. Why? Women were already overstretched, supporting their husbands in taking care of their families. As the wife of a middle class reverend gentleman, and educationist, she was financially comfortable enough to have buried her head in the sand, but chose to fight on the side of the oppressed.
A chip off the old block, Fela’s music was often critical of the different corrupt, and profligate Nigerian regimes; whether military or civilian. He churned out hit after hit; songs as aesthetically pleasing, entertaining, and thought provoking as they were full of acidic wit. Songs like Unknown Soldier, Soldier go soldier come, and Zombie ruled the airwaves during the military era, oftentimes causing him to be brutally beaten, his house and properties burned, in addition to being thrown behind bars. He quickly got used to going to prison. As his daughter Yeni puts it, “It was a challenging time for us because when we left home for school in the morning, we did not know if we would meet him on our return, or even when next we would see him”.
Dede Mabiaku paints a more graphic picture of the ire Fela’s songs drew from previous governments when he said, “How many people even know that the last time Kalakuta was burned that they beat the merciless bombastic element out of everyone there, to the extent that his mother was thrown out of the window, that is true, to the extent that they even tore somebody’s stomach open, and he held his guts in with his hands. Nobody told you about that, they wanted to jab Fela with a bayonet, and somebody flung one of the boys on top of him, so the bayonet pierced the guy’s stomach, and his guts came out. Let me paint a picture for you, they held his guts in hands to the hospital (the guy is still alive today). But that was not the issue, they stripped Fela naked, flogged him silly, broke his leg. He was bleeding all over profusely from being caned with whips, down to his privy . . . .”
Surprisingly, with their political activism, and patriotism one would have thought that one or the other member of the family would vie for political office. But as Yeni puts it, “As long as the political terrain of Nigeria remains as it currently is, I can never play politics.”She goes on to say, “I would never want to do anything to disgrace the name of my family.”
A down to earth and humble lot, they made friends with people from different strata of the social divide. Charles Oputa, a much younger artist to Fela has this to say about Fela, “When my friend; Tina Onwudiwe graciously paid two years rent for an apartment in the Gbagada area of Lagos for me, in a bid to encourage my movement to Lagos from Oguta, I was overjoyed.” Can you guess the superstar who visited him the day of his housewarming party? Yes, Fela. Charlie Boy continues, “When he showed up at my apartment that day. I was so shocked, because I usually visited him at the shrine, Fela was not known to visit musicians, and I felt honored to be the only one he visited.” That was not all, Oputa quipped, “Fela stayed the whole day, chatting and goofing around. I finally had to tell him, ‘Fela, a beg I wan sleep’ before he left late that night.”
Are the Kuti’s a lucky family, or is there something in their gene pool responsible for their success? What character traits stood them in good stead to continually conquer whatever stage they found themselves? What reasons can be adduced for their success? As Seun Kuti puts it, “Our direct fore bearers were so accomplished that we have to work hard to live up to their standards.” Speaking about the man Fela, Dede Mabiaku; his protégé has this to say about his late mentor, “He was a perfectionist. He was one who believed that if something had to be done, it had to be done the right way. Fela scored his songs by himself, he scored notes for everyone and the instruments; for the guitar, the drums, the horns, the tenor, the alto sax, and gave everybody. So you had to rehearse it to his dictates”.
Tracing directly from JJ Ransome Kuti, to Reverend Oludotun Ransome- Kuti and beyond, the musical line directly continues through the late Fela, to his sons Femi, and Seun who have continued the family tradition on the world stage; the former with his Positive Force Band, and the latter as the helmsman of Fela’s band. Femi’s son; Made is the fifth generation of the musical family, and is presently in the UK studying music at his grandfather’s alma mater.
Like him or hate him, Fela was not a man you could ignore. When he died of an AIDS related complaint in 1997, Lagos state stood still to say goodbye to the man who bestrode the Nigerian musical, and sociopolitical terrain like a colossus. More than a million people comprising fans, friends, well-wishers, and even critics turned up for his funeral at the old shrine premises; Nigeria had never seen anything like it, and probably never will.