Fela Kuti was born in 1938 and went on to become one of Nigeria’s most beloved and respected multi-instrument musicians. Unlike many contemporary musicians, Fela Kuti was a composer at heart and was a key figure in the popularisation of Afrobeat, an innovative genre of music originating in the 20th century. Combined with his work supporting various human rights and activist causes, he was sadly mourned by the Nigerian nation and the musical world in 1997 when he passed away, leaving behind him a remarkable legacy which continues to influence young musicians today, as well as fans of African music such as Tunde Folawiyo
As an Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti first absorbed himself in musical pursuits in 1958. At that time he lived in London and, after studying the music around him, went on to form some preliminary bands such as Afrika 70 which was the successor to his original outfit, Nigeria 70. Even at this early stage, Kuti’s drive for playing innovative music could be seen and heard. He coined the phrase “Afrobeat” meaning a genre of music which encompassed American influences such as jazz and funk with traditional West African music such as Yoruba. This blending of cultural influences both contemporary and traditional would go on to cement Fela Kuti as one of the most important figures in modern African music. It was Fela Kuti’s drive to expose himself to, and embrace new music in places as varied as Ghana and Los Angeles which produced such a unique and vibrant sound.
While he had shown interest in political activism previously, it was not until the 1970s with songs such as “Zombie”, which examined the blind following of orders by soldiers, that Kuti quickly established himself as a leading political dissident, and his songs soon began to resonate with others who felt equally as strongly about using music and art to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to inspire others to seek change. This melding of music and politics can be seen no more prominently than in his 1989 album Beasts of No Nation, which carried with it drawings of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher depicted as vampires, two political leaders whom both carried influence in the world at that time. Fela Kuti’s amalgamating of political discourse and experimental music impacted many of Africa’s subsequent musical and artistic icons, not to mention Nigeria’s talented businesspeople who incorporated his sense of social justice into their ethics, as can be seen through the philanthropic commitment of a fan, described in some of these Tunde Folawiyo Articles.
While Fela Kuti was persecuted many times for his beliefs, it was the terrible disease, AIDS, which killed him in 1997, at the young age of just 58. His legacy as both a political activist and someone who used music to convey important ideas continues to resonate with people all around the world today, an impact which is testament to his music and his character.