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Afrobeats Unveiled: Fela Kuti The Political Pulse Behind the Beat

In the labyrinthine streets of Lagos, there lived a man who challenged a system of oppression with every note he played. His name was Fela Kuti, a thorn in the side of the Nigerian establishment and a musical legend in the making. Eventually, he would go on to inspire a new generation of musicians and change the course of music history forever. 

One fateful night in 1974, the Nigerian police descended upon his commune, the Kalakuta Republic compound, with a cunning plan: planting a joint of marijuana on him - which at the time was punishable by a hanging death - the police sought to silence him for good. Kuti, as the quick-thinking rebel he was, swallowed the joint whole. He was taken into custody as the police awaited the moment for the damning evidence to emerge. Yet, when the time came, his excrement miraculously contained nothing incriminating. The authorities had no choice but to release him.

Upon his release, Fela released a song titled "Expensive Shit," revealing how he had ingeniously, once again, outwitted the oppressive Nigerian government. With the help of fellow inmates, he secretly excreted the evidence and substituted it with another inmate's feces. Moreover, taking the opportunity to expose the government's relentless persecution of him and further criticize its rampant corruption.  

This story serves as just one testament to the resilience and unwavering determination of Fela Kuti. His story, his music, and his very existence would leave a mark on the African continent, inspiring generations to come. His legacy and his music would inspire a new genre of music, which less than a century later would spread around the globe.

In today's musical landscape, when looking at the top charts, whether it's the Billboard Hot 100 or any other global music ranking, it is rare to go without encountering Afrobeats. Originating from Nigeria, it is infused with a rich blend of West African music styles alongside influences from funk, jazz, and other genres. Afrobeats has steadily risen into popularity, transcending the boundaries of the African Diaspora to firmly establish itself in mainstream media. But what sets Afrobeats apart? And perhaps more intriguingly, what are the political undercurrents that lie at its origins?

Many music historians trace the roots of the Afrobeat sound to the early 1920s in Ghana and Nigeria. However, most regard the 19060s as the birth of the genre Afrobeat, which would eventually evolve into the popular genre today, Afrobeats. 

Afrobeat was arguably birthed and popularized by the late Nigerian musician, bandleader, and composer Fela Aníkúlápó Kútì, better known as Fela Kuti. Born on October 15th, 1938, to an anti-colonialist feminist and labor activist mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, and an Anglican minister father, Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Fela's upbringing laid the groundwork for his musical exploration. Beginning at the Abeokuta Grammar School, where his father served as principal, Fela began his musical journey. His eventual classical music studies at Trinity College London in 1959 further shaped his musical identity and ideological outlook.

During his time in London, Fela immersed himself in diverse musical genres, honing his skills by playing piano in jazz and rock bands. It was during this period that he became aware of many European’s disdain for African culture, particularly in the aftermath of colonial rule. This awakening strengthened Fela's connection to his African heritage, compelling him to challenge and dismantle his own colonial mindset. Moreover, it ignited a desire within him to empower others to break free from the systems of oppression brought on by colonialism, whether on a mental, social, or political level. Additionally, it inspired him to advocate for a return to the traditional systems of African society, which had been deemed inferior for generations.

In 1969, Fela embarked on a tour of the United States, where he encountered and established connections with numerous African Americans. It was during this journey that he delved into the structural and historical factors contributing to the economic and political marginalization of Black people in the United States. Fela drew parallels between the effects of American racism, stemming from generations of slavery, and the colonial racism found in Nigeria. Additionally, he had the opportunity to explore the writings of influential figures such as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and other impactful Black writers of the era.

Inspired by the activism of the Black American movement in confronting systemic oppression, Fela felt compelled to make a difference in his own country. Motivated by the example of activists fighting apartheid in South Africa through music, such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, Fela saw the potential of music as a tool for change.

It was during his time in the U.S. that Fela composed his debut instrumental African song, titled “My Lady’s Frustration”. Encouraged by the positive reaction from the crowd, Fela decided to continue exploring this unique sound, recognizing its potential significance.

He coined the term Afrobeat for his music - as it incorporated many different sounds from around the continent. Typically, a piece would start with a gentle introduction, gradually building up as each section of the band joined sequentially. The percussion and bass usually took the lead, followed by the keys and other accompanying instruments, and the horns usually came in last. Each band member had a simple yet repetitive riff, and when combined, the result was a dense and pulsating sound.

Fela’s experiences, and especially his Fela U.S. tour, deeply influenced him and left a lasting impact on his music, leading to its increasing politicization. With his ensemble, known alternately as Nigeria 70 or Africa 70, he boldly spoke out against the Nigerian government under military dictatorship and its military juntas, which held power in Nigeria from 1966 to 1999.

Fela sang his songs in Pidgin English, a blend of traditional English and West African dialects, predominantly Yoruba in his case. This language choice allowed him to communicate with the anglophone West African underclass, resonating with those who were unemployed, disadvantaged, and oppressed.

At the peak of his fame, Fela was known as the most renowned artist on the African continent, capturing attention on the global stage. Some of his iconic tracks, such as “Zombie,” “Shakara,” “Expensive Shit,” and my personal favorite, “Lady,” catapulted him to widespread recognition. Moreover, many of these compositions served as a vehicle for political commentary and social change. 

Fela’s activism was not without severe consequences, as Nigeria's military government responded by consistently targeting him. They regularly raided the nightclub where he frequently performed, the Shrine, in attempts to silence his voice, often with the aim of imprisoning him.

In 1977, the military carried out a brutal raid on the communal compound known as the independent Kalakuta Republic, which Fela had established. This raid occurred shortly after the release of his album "Zombie," in which he scathingly criticized the military's actions. Describing them as a "mindless horde," Fela portrayed them as blindly following orders and brutalizing the public. During the raid, soldiers viciously attacked everyone in the compound, wielding batons and guns, resulting in severe injuries. Tragically, some of Fela's wives were subjected to sexual assault, and his elderly mother was thrown out of a window from the second floor, unfortunately dying from her injuries the following year. Although Fela sustained a fractured skull and was arrested, he eventually recovered and was released.

In his later years, Fela continued his political activism. In 1979, he founded the Movement of the People and ran for the presidency of Nigeria, though unsuccessful. Tragically, he passed away in 1997, having contracted HIV during the early stages of the African AIDS epidemic.

Despite his death, Fela Kuti's legacy transcends beyond his lifetime. His music and message resonate across generations, inspiring countless individuals to advocate for justice and equality. Some popular modern-day Afrobeats artists that pay homage to Kuti include Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Ayra Starr.

Afrobeat has since evolved into the genre of Afrobeats, yet it retains some of its political origins. Fela Kuti, hailed as the genre's patriarch, is revered as a Nigerian legend and will forever be a trailblazer in music history.


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