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Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti: Blackness as Rebellion, Rebellion as Aesthetics


This Nigerian musician continues to be a reference of congruence and passion, both in his political thought and, overall, in his incredible music.

Both for Nigeria and the United States, for African music and music in general, Fela Kuti (1938-1997) was controversial. He came from a middle class family in his country of birth; his parents were linked to political activism (his mother was an anti-colonialist feminist, and his father, among other things, was a reverend and the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers), so it came as no surprise when he was sent to London to study medicine, where he ended up studying music. There he formed his first band: the Koola Lobitos, a fusion of highlife and jazz. Later, once he was married, he returned to his native country in 1963, regrouping the recently mentioned band, and devoting himself to radio production. At this moment in his life, Fela Kuti was not Fela Kuti yet (he would adopt the Anikulapo nickname, which in Yoruba means “the one who carries death in his bag”, removing the paternal Ransome, adducing it was a slave name). This is essential in the formation of his musical convictions, meaning, political as well, which are indiscernible from him.

In 1967 he travelled to Ghana in search of new musical influences that synthetized his own music better. At that point his music goes on to be denominated Afrobeat. His coming and going went on, and in 1969 he settled in the United States, where he embarked on a 10 month tour to make his music known. During that period he made contact with the Black Panther Party, the rebels that fought for the black population’s civil rights in different cities in the United States.

Fela Kuti is able to make crossroad between politics and aesthetic, that is to say, with his music, understanding well the different ways of distributing sensibility in people —outside of the institutional frame— that he was interested in making aware of (or denouncing), always from his music charged with lyrics of insurgence, of dissent, manifesting spontaneously as a fighter for the vindication of blackness. Kuti made his life, which actually means, his music, an uprising of the customs, as rhythmic as they are earthy, of the African people.

Indeed, as his music is fairly known, we would like to stress Fela Kuti’s political vein. After his debut, Confusion, was launched, the band, now renamed The Africa’70, returned to Nigeria. There, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist founded a community (polygamous, by the way), Kalakuta Republic where there was space to record music, as well as to maintain political discussions, and, which eventually declared independence from the Nigerian state, leading to a series of attacks and serious political problems. Fela Kuti, nonetheless, was already taking giant steps, and his music became popular in his country, Africa and in the United States. His political tendency was music, and it was, to put it simply, the ideology.

This type of thing made him popular among the people, but among his country’s politicians, (which was flowing from one military dictatorship to the next) and the North American establishment, were naturally, against him. However, and to summarise Kuti’s personality, we can say that he was for Panafricanism (a Bolivarian simile) and for socialism; he was, at the same time, an independent politician, running in 1979 for the Nigerian presidency, although his candidature was rejected; at another point in time, in the same decade, he bought ads in in Nigerian newspapers, such as The Punch to publish articles following his line of thought, meaning, polemic, always in favour of human rights and of black vindication. What might amass his political manifestations most elequently, that which condenses his personality and his strengths, is, of course his music. The black oppressed rhythms of all the vilified African brothers.

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