Today, we celebrate the birth, life and times of one of the greatest musicians to ever march this green earth, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He would have turned 77 years old.
Few have managed to weaponize music into protest anthems quite as Kuti did. A perfect example would be his seminal record, Zombie. The record is a scathing indictment of the Nigerian government. The title track is 14 mins of outright rebellion in a manner unmatched by any other (aside from Crass’ anarchist punk masterpiece “The Feeding of the 5000”, that is.) Fela launches into the track head first, merging a kaleidoscope of jazz and funk patterns with an overwhelming flurry of Afrobeat poly-rhythms, to craft a visceral, frenetic, hip-swaying message. And when Fela barks out his mocking military orders to the response of “Zombie!” by his band, it comes as no surprise why this record had caused the backlash it did.
The Nigerian government’s reaction to Zombie was comprehensive and brutal. Fela’s Kalakuta Republic – his residential commune and “nation within a nation” – was destroyed. His studio where his master tapes and equipment were stored was burned to the ground. The murder of his mother followed, along with the public desecration of her corpse by the military. A live performance of Zombie lead to riots in Ghana, and he was expelled from country. Eventually, his band dissolved.
Kuti’s art unabashedly imitated his life. Off stage, he defied the colonial powers ruling Nigeria, and he railed against politicians who sold themselves for positions of power. He gave his fortune to the poor, and he sang to ease their pain. He cooked for lines and lines of his hungry fellow citizens, and his house was open to anyone who needed a shelter to escape oppression. Continual government raids on his commune and being beaten to near death couldn’t silence him. He put it all on the line for his music; for his voice to be heard; to make a difference.
His legacy is secure: Fela Kuti was a supremely revolutionary musician who defined Afrobeat as a genre and spread its fire from Africa to the entire world. Despite passing away nearly 20 years ago, his influence and impact continue to reverberate. Fela Kuti was, without a doubt, the absolute essence of punk ideals.
We’ve made two playlists to highlight the career of a man who gave his every breath to music: the first one features seminal moments in his career, and the second showcases some of our favourite edits, remixes, and covers. We hope you give them a listen, and we’re certain you’ll enjoy.
Illustration by Thiago Vasconcelos.