OPINION: Death and the legacy of Fela Kuti
Death, many people say, can be the biggest career move and for proof they point to Michael Jackson who was mired in debt at the time of his death but whose estate is now worth millions and millions more than he made while alive.
Death has always fascinated pop culture, especially when the dead is famous or infamous and young to boot. Think Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jean-Michel Basquiat. These rock stars captured the popular imagination, blazed bright like a meteor then fizzled out like shooting stars.
The phenomenon of dying young has been so analysed that someone came up with the 27 Club – a constellation of famous people who died at the age of 27 from drug overdose, alcohol addiction, car or plane crashes as well as suicide or homicide.
Most of them are white (Hendrix and Basquiat no), most of them American. But has death ever boosted the career or renown of an African celebrity? The answer is yes and the most famous must be Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the iconic musician, jazz aficionado and fiery activist who was a thorn in the flesh of successive military regimes.
Fela died 22 years ago at age 59. He was nowhere near 27 and by that time had adult children – Yeni, Femi and Shola (who died young). He was world-renowned and celebrated and hounded at home. His residence was famously known as Kalakuta Republic (named after the prison cell he occupied while incarcerated at Kirikiri prisons). His cell was called Calcutta but Fela corrupted it to Kalakuta.
His residence so named was raided on February 18, 1977 by what reports say were over 1,000 soldiers. Denizens of the commune including some of his wives were beaten and raped and the building burnt down but not before his aged mother was thrown out of the window. She died from her injuries.
But the loss of his mother and his republic did not diminish Fela’s stridency. He remained militant to the very end dying from complications arising from HIV/AIDs just four months after he left prison.
He was as well known for his music as he was for his activism and today when a musician or celebrity of whatever stripe is conscious people liken him or her to Fela.
But how did death boost Fela’s career? Alive, Fela was mercurial and tempestuous. His albums were mostly one-song albums that sometimes lasted for over 20 minutes. His intros were famous for featuring call and response choruses and then long jazz pieces that seemed to go along for interminable moments. Radio stations found him a nightmare and attempts by music labels to re-master and cut short his songs for the new CD technology were rebuffed. The only close examples in contemporary western music would be ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the Queen song from the 1975 album A Night at the Opera which clocks in at 6 minutes and then Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield’s 1973 studio album which extends to 49 minutes.
Fela was, therefore, a peculiar kind of musical artist with an oeuvre that was as potent musically as it was politically. For Fela, music was a weapon and one he wielded in many ways as if it was the lasso of truth with which he whipped the military and autocrats and kleptocrats into line.
His music was critical of soldiers whom he called zombies but soldiers loved to listen to his music because it was also critical of the government and often plumbed the depths of the pervasive social malaise and political morass.
Fela’s music was a leveller and had an uncanny ability for transcending class and gender, moving fluidly between the mainland and island and breaching class strictures. Visitors to the Africa Shrine in what is now Computer Village in Ikeja, where Fela played live sets every Friday when he was not on tour would find bank CEOs and messengers dancing and smoking as they listened to Fela’s music. The shrine was a democratic locale where music was a unifying factor.
It is also important to note how Fela’s music is at home in the mouths of the rich as well as the poor with men from different sides of the track laying equal claim to the man, musician and prophet.
Fela’s death was devastating but in dying, Fela seemed to step across the threshold from legend into myth. His death many say made his children instant millionaires and then his music re-mastered and available widely on CD spawned a whole new generation of fans, many of them not yet born or mere toddlers when Fela transited from this realm.
Today, Afrobeat, the musical genre he pioneered, is played across the world from Portugal to the UK, the US to Spain. Books have been written about him, documentaries shot and a Broadway show has travelled the world presenting Fela as maverick musician, activist and prophet.
But Fela’s reputation has been cemented and augmented more by a hybrid sound, a derivative christened afrobeat and made popular by young African musical artists who have evolved a whole new sound described by the poet and music Dami Ajayi as having begun with the Kennis music group, D Remedies.
According to Dr. Ajayi – “Afrobeats is perhaps the biggest cultural export from West Africa to the rest of Africa and the world. There is little doubt that this music of both Nigerian and Ghanaian origins will continue to enjoy mainstream global prominence.
Afrobeats went mainstream in Nigeria about two decades ago when D Remedies, released their hit song, Shako Mo, under Kennis Music label. The song sampled instrumentals from MC Lyte’s Keep On Keeping On, which also, interestingly, sampled Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl. With that connection, one can easily link Afrobeat auspiciously to the late King of Pop.
Today, Afrobeats, a fusion of Hip-Hop and African rhythms, has since eschewed overt Western influences in favour of African idioms and musical traditions. Highlife, Juju, Fuji, Apala, Makossa, Sokous and Afrobeats have become cannon fodder for this music and the benefits are multidirectional. Ultimately, one can argue that Afrobeats is making the old new.”
But what has become clear is that many of the biggest Afrobeats stars have adopted Fela Kuti as both muse and creative forge. This year again as we celebrate the life and times and legacy of Fela Kuti during the weeklong Felabration at Freedom Park and beyond, we will be reminded that his death has made him more relevant than he ever was alive and a bigger musical brand to boot.
The list is long but Uzoma Ihejirika writing in thelagosreview attempts to put it all in perspective – “Founded 21 years ago by Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti, Felabration presents an opportunity to acknowledge Fela Kuti’s contribution through Afrobeat, the genre of music he pioneered. His jazz-inspired, robust sound continues to spark a creative flame in the hearts of Nigerians—both admirers and detractors— who no matter what cannot ignore Fela, the man and the musical icon.
That creative flame continues to burn in contemporary Nigeria even amongst artistes who were not born or were mere children when Fela became an ancestor. These artistes have made the Afrobeat genre a foundation upon which to speak about their fears, their frustrations, and their joys.”
By Toni Kan