Born in Abeokuta on 15th October 1938 as Olufela, Olusegun, Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, he was to be known by one name only: Fela."My father was very strict, I thought he was wicked. He kicked my ass so many times. It was tough in school under our father. That's how he understood life should be, cause he read the Bible: 'Spare the rod and spoil the child.' My mother, she was wicked too. She kicked my ass so much man -- systematic ass kicking. [But] on the whole, they were beautiful parents, they taught me heavy things. They made me see life in perspective. I think if they had not brought me up with these experiences, I do not think I would have been what I am today. So the upbringing was not negative."
By the age of eight, he began playing the piano and organ. He became his schools pianist, playing at morning assemblies. As a young teen, he played in a band called Cool Cats. His rebellious side was also beginning to emerge: at age sixteen he formed a club called 'The Planless Society', with just seven members, its sole aim was to violate all school rules. Fela also edited the journal of the club; 'The Planless Times Publication'. This was swiftly banned by the school authorities.
His political side was equally being nurtured by his activist mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She was a key figure in the nationalist struggle and took Fela to political rallies. When Fela was 18, she introduced him to Kwame Nkrumah, Fela has since said that the experience 'changed his life'.
In 1958, at the age of nineteen, Fela went to Britain to further his education. He studied Classical Music at the Trinity College of Music, concentrating on wood wind instruments. He also formed a jazz band with his best friend Jimo Kombi Braimah (J.K), called Koola Lobitos.
By 1961, he had met and married his first wife Remi Taylor. By 1963, he was back in Nigeria working at the then Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer. This stint didn't last long, he chose to concentrate on his re-formed band Koola Lobitos. As 'highlife' was the 'in' sound at the time, Fela decided to play something completely different calling it 'highlife jazz'.
In 1967, he made a trip to Ghana to get more gigs and began to contemplate a complete turn around of his music. He settled on root African music, which he christened Afrobeat. He returned to Nigeria and established a club called Afrospot. With the Biafran war in full force he decided to leave the country again, this time to America. Fela has said of this time, "I wasn't politically minded at all. I made my comments as a citizen. I was just another musician, playing with Koola Lobitos and singing love songs, songs about rain, about people...what did I know?"
America in 1969 was at the peak of its Civil Rights movement. Fela met and fell in love with Sandra Smith (now Sandra Isidore), whom was to leave an indelible mark on him. She introduced him to the ideologies of the Black Panthers, the reform of the Civil Rights activists and gave him books written by Black radicals. Fela has said of this indoctrination, "Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She was the one who opened my eyes." "He was very important to many people," says Sandra Isadore. "Right now, I think about those people that he left behind. Those in the compound that he gave employment to. Those that he took in off the streets. Those that would not have had a place to stay or a job or a future had it not been for Fela. Fela was a very generous man. This is the man that I know. He gave opportunities to many. At the same time, he was like a common man. He was very simple. He didn't need a lot of flair. I know it sounds strange, but . . . when he came [to America], I said 'Fela, you're a star, I should hire a limousine.' He said, 'No. Can all my band members go in the limo?' If everybody couldn't go in the limousine, then he couldn't have it. He would not be separated. He didn't put himself above any of them or anyone." He lived more life in 58 years than most could in 116. "Fela will make no apologies for nothing," says Sandra. "He lived his life his way, the way he wanted to live it. It can definitely be said he had a full life. He twisted his shoes his way, nobody told him what to do. I fought with him on many occasions. It was not easy dealing with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. From the very beginning it was a fight, but it was fun. It's the end of an era for me."
Fela also composed what he called 'his first African hit song' titled, 'My Lady Frustration', under a new band name; Nigeria 70. This was well received by American audiences.
It is best to listen to Fela himself as he describes the process of his transformation after one evening of argument. Says Fela: "... I must have said something because she said, `Fela, don't say that. Africans taught the white man. Look, the Africans have history", I said, `They don't have... No history man. We are slaves'. She got up and brought me a book. She said I should read it". "Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know. She is the one who spoke to me about Africa. For the first time I heard things I'd never heard before about Africa". Thus, the genesis of the myth. The new knowledge that Fela acquired, he would try henceforth to translate it into the medium of his music. He would set a whole generation ablaze. And because such fires of enlightenment held dangerous implications for those, outside and within, who would rather keep Africa enslaved, singing senseless hossanhas, Fela had turned himself unwittingly into a marked man. "I came back home with the intent to change the whole system. I didn't know I was going to have... such horrors! I didn't know they gonna give me such opposition because of my new Africanism. How could I have known? As soon as I got back home, I started to preach.... and my music did start changing according to how I experienced the life and culture of my people". The first task then, after the lessons of Sandra had sunk in, was to find a new and appropriate mode of music to express his new understanding. Clearly the imitations of jazz and highlife of the Koola Lobitos had become inadequate, and so had the usual soporific lyrics of pop music. The now enlightened musician sought around for a new source of inspiration. James Brown, Victor Olaiya had become turned, in the new dispensation, to obsolete gods. Fela searched for something more ancient and yet more modern, closer to Africa and more authentic. He was later to find a model at last in the music of Ambrose Campbell, that that genius who has influenced more than a generation of African musicians.
Keyed up with all his new ideas, he returned to Nigeria. By 1971, he had changed the name of his band from Nigeria 70 to Africa 70, and his night club from Afrospot to the Shrine. His music equally reflected the change surging through his mental state of mind. He at last had his first National hit record with 'Jeun Koku' (Eat and Die), with the new direction of his music. Fela also wrote (he paid for the space) for the Daily Times, a column titled 'Chief Priest Says'. Here, he blatantly composed vitriolic speeches against the Nigerian government. This laid a firm foundation for future clashes between the two.
That was the beginning of his trouble with the authorities. In Nigeria, power has always been, since Independence at least, in the hands of a certain elite, made up of men who got their wealth through being the local agents of white companies. Fela's message, that we should stop serving the whites, that we should develop our own black resources instead, was a direct threat to this ruling class. His message, that we should turn away from the colonial religions, because they had been and were still the instruments of enslaving our minds, turned the numerous Christians and Muslims against him. His message finally, that men should be free, and that uninhibited sex was a natural and joyful expression of that freedom, frightened parents, teachers and priests. Fela had come to challenge the system in short, and the system has always had its police ready to crush such challenges. With unprecedented savagery, the ruling class launched its forces against the rebels of the Shrine.
The year 1975, saw the change of his 'slave' name from Ransome to Anikulapo ( meaning 'one who has death in his pocket'). Of the numerous altercations Fela has had with the Nigerian government, 18th February 1977 will forever remain a milestone in his life. His family house, called Kalakuta Republic was besieged by Nigerian soldiers. The house was consequently set on fire. The damage ensued cannot be quantified, however, valuable possessions; like a tape of his forthcoming film 'Black President' perished. Dozens sustained malleable injuries. His 78 year-old mother whom was thrown out of a window, died months later as a result. Fela himself ended up with a cracked skull, amongst other injuries which affected his capabilities on the trumpet and saxophone. He never recovered financially either. He also served time in jail for his role of 'safe guarding his person and property'. This incident led to the now very famous songs 'Unknown Soldier' and 'Sorrow, Tears & Blood', released in 1977 and 1979 respectively.
In 1978, in a total act of defiance against moral and social issues, Fela married 27 women in one traditional ceremony. This event was televised around the nation. Two days prior, which was to be the original ceremony, his long-standing lawyer Tunji Braithwaite, denounced the union(s) just minutes before it was to take place in front of the nations press and reporters. Many years later, in 1986, When Fela later divorced his wives, he explained that "I do not believe any more in the marriage institution. The marriage institution for the progress of the mind is evil. I learned that from prison. Why do people marry? Is it to be together? Is it to have children? People marry because they are jealous. People marry because they are possessive. People marry because they are selfish. All this comes to the very ugly fact that people want to own and control other people's bodies. I think the mind of human beings should develop to the point where that jealous feelings should be completely eradicated."
"Oooooooooooooooooh", recalls Fela. "I was beaten by police! So much... How can a human being stand so much beating with club
and not die?"
The irony of it was in fact that the attack, brutal as it was, was to prove the mildest compared with future assaults. The Shrine would be repeatedly raided, the members of the Africa 70 jailed, brutalized and maimed, but the place would go on irresponsibly, even changing its name to Kalakuta Republic, until that fateful day in 1977 when the military junta in Lagos sent a thousand soldiers to raze it down. The details of that savage day are too known and too frightful to bear repeating here. But the spirit of the Shrine did not die. In so brutally and repeatedly subjecting Fela to persecution, the authorities helped to raise his name to the level of myth. They used so much force and savagery that their victims came to be celebrated as martyrs. And the military found that, though they had power to crush bones and burn houses, they could not even dent the indomitable spirit of Fela and his followers. And it was a memorable expression of that defiance and indomitable courage that on September 10, 1979, the day before Obasanjo handed power over to the civilians, Fela and his people defied all the guards to lay the coffin of his mother right on the doorstep of Dodan Barracks, as a statement of the ultimate futility of state power over the liberty of the human mind.
In 1979, Fela formed the aptly titled Movement of the People (M.O.P) political party. His slogans of campaign were tantamount to his maverick life style. His bid for presidency was without success, as his party was disqualified from the elections. This is also the year, Fela proceeded to deride the then head of state; Olusegun Obasanjo, by presenting him with his late mothers coffin. This dire straits was detailed in his hit song 'Coffin for Head of State'.
The Nigerian government, perhaps exasperated by the sole antics of Fela, had previously nominated him as a member of the Police Public relations committee. In 1981, Fela scorned this nomination by removing the berets of two police traffic wardens. Suffice to say, he was once again arrested and detained for his actions. Fela also changed the name of his band from Africa 70 to Egypt 80.
On leaving the country for a tour of America in 1984, Fela was arrested at Murtala Mohammed International Airport, for failing to declare the sum of £1,600. He was found guilty of currency trafficking and sentenced to a term of ten years imprisonment. He was released after serving 20 months, by the Chief of General Staff; Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe, whom saw Fela's conviction as a 'disgrace to the Federal Government!' Fela himself said of the incident,"...the authorities didn't want us to go to the US to play, but I never expected them to do anything as low as this."
Now a free man once again. He toured America, introducing his music to a new generation. He performed at a Amnesty International benefit in New Jersey, alongside the likes of U2 and Peter Gabriel. Thus, the Mayor of Berkeley, California named 14 November 1986 'Fela Kuti Day'. On returning to Nigeria, he released, amongst others, the diatribe 'Teacher don't teach me nonsense' and 'I go shout plenty' anti-apartheid albums - a direct attack on the Botha, Reagan and Thatcher leadership(s).
As to Pan-Africanism, Fela often espoused its tenets. "That is the only way the Africans can benefit from their environment," he said in 1986. "The way Africa is cut up now and the way the individual African governments behave in Africa is negative to progress. This is why we see the unified Africa as the ultimate. Because Africa is not unified, that is why South Africa can operate [in apartheid]."
Over the following years Fela continued to lock horns with whichever government was in power. In 1993, he was arrested and charged with murder over the death of one his 'boys' at the Shrine. He was later exonerated of any wrong doing after serving several months in jail. in 1996, two unknown gunmen opened fire on his residential home. Fela was unhurt but six people sustained serious gunshot wounds.
The year 1997 marked the beginning of the end: Fela played his last public paying show on 7th March at the Muson Center. By April, he was again in the clutches of the police. Yet another raid on the shrine culminated in Fela being detained for possession of and trafficking in drugs. He was paraded on national television in hand and foot shackles. Major General Musa Bamaiyi claimed Fela was being detained mainly for rehabilitation purposes, so Fela can be 'weaned off a drug he has been addicted to over the years'
By the time he was released two weeks later, his lawyer Femi Falana had filed a 10million Naira law suit against National Drug Law Enforcement Agency. Fela's shrine had been occupied by the NDLEA. In mid-July, Fela collapsed at his home and was rushed to hospital. Towards the end of the month, speculation had reached fever pitch over his health. A national newspaper announced his death - this prompted Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti to issue a press release, on the 24th July to quell such rumors; "He is responding to treatment", he announced.
Fela's view of death and fear itself were among his defining characteristics. He told biographer Carlos Moore in This Bitch Of A Life: "Death doesn't worry me man. When my mother died it was because she finished her time on earth. I know that when I die I'll see her again, so how can I fear death? . . . So what is this motherfucking world about? . . . I believe there is a plan . . . I believe there is no accident in our lives. What I am experiencing today completely vindicates the African religions. . . I will do my part . . . then I'll just go, man. . .Just go!"
On the 2nd August 1997, at 5:30pm approximately, Olufela Anikulapo-Kuti died from heart failure arising from complications of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. As Fela had said; "when you think you die, you're not dead. Its a transition." - With his faithful Nigerian Green Grass accompanying him on his journey, he may well be in transition, smoking away, looking and just laughing
To the Pan-African world, Fela was a towering figure who arguably combined elements of pure artistry, political perseverance, and a mystic, spiritual consciousness in a way that no other individual ever has. Musically, he achieved a level comparable to Miles Davis, James Brown, Thelonius Monk, and Bob Marley. At times, he was a Peter Tosh or a Sun Ra, yet more. Politically, he subscribed to the point of view of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, and Kwame Ture. Spiritually, less is known about Fela, except that his spiritual vision grew from the African tradition and his belief in the sublime power of musicians.