Revolutionary music. Afrobeat. I recently thought about Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti, the 58-year-old father of Afrobeat, and one of the most significant musicians of the 20th century. Unfortunately, little mention is made in the United States about the life of Fela, whose influence never fully reached American soil. As we remember the enigmatic and charming styles of so many musicians, from Bob Marley to James Brown to Marvin Gaye, I can't help but to think about the influence Fela would have on our lives through his music and legacy.
Fela Anikulaplo-Kuti was a Nigerian musician whose work established the Afro-beat genre of music. He lived and worked in London, Los Angeles and Nigeria, forming several different musical groups and uniting African people on an international scale.
As a spokesman for the Nigerian people, Fela became a revolutionary political influence, running for the presidency twice. Standing against the oppressive and corrupt Nigerian government resulted in beatings and imprisonment. After nearly two years he was released, and continued to tour through Europe and the US, spreading his revolutionary message through the acceptance of the Afrobeat genre. Fela passed away in 1997, and his life and work is now being celebrated by Knitting Factory Records in a reissue series this year.
At a moment when mainstream hip-hop music is at a creative nadir, Fela’s artistic integrity provides a wonderful blueprint. Unlike many contemporary artists, Kuti was relatively unaffected by the mainstream market. Kuti rarely made radio consumable songs –few of his songs lasted less than 10 minutes– and he frequently refused to perform music that he had previously recorded. This is a stark contrast from today’s artists, whose creativity is often constrained by personal and corporate profit motives.
Over 30 years ago, Fela released an album titled "Black President" (swag huh?) - Fela also had over 25 wives and was arrested nearly 200 times in his life - not swag. But his love for Africa could not be disputed. Africa had fallen mostly into the hands of uncaring thieves and scoundrels who were unmindful of wrecking society in order to sustain insolent lifestyles. To reclaim Africa’s stolen dignity became Fela’s obsession.
As his career progressed, Kuti became increasingly focused on making music that challenged the colonial power structure. More important, he consistently attempted to link his musical activism to real, on the ground political struggles. Unlike many contemporary artists (and academics), Kuti recognized that political activism must extend beyond the song, the t-shirt, or the slogan. While his success in this arena is questionable –his ability to galvanize and mobilize his generation is still highly instructive for today’s generation.
But as musical legend, he lives on. Fela! opens on Broadway in Fall 2009. The musical received good reviews when produced off-Broadway.
Fela's entire music collection will be re-mastered and offered to the public in early 2010. Read here to learn more about Fela, King of Afrobeat.