Six years ago this week over a million Nigerians took to the streets to mourn the death of Fela Kuti, the great bandleader and political dissident who had succumbed to AIDS. He is viewed by many as the greatest African musician of the last half-century.
By the time of his death in 1997 he had released 77 albums. He once established a short-lived independent country within Nigeria named the Kalakuta Republic. He was arrested some 356 times for his political dissidence.
In one case 1,000 troops under the dictator Obasanjo, now president again, stormed his compound with mortar fire. They repeatedly attacked, beat and raped members of Fela’s extended family. They threw his mother and brother from a window. Fela was hospitalized. His mother eventually died of her injuries. She was a well-known anti-colonialist and feminist. She started the Nigerian Women’s union and was an inspiration for Fela throughout his life. Following her death in 1978 Fela brought a replica of her coffin to Obasanjo’s house.
Fela established a new form of music, Afrobeat, which combined the funkiness of James Brown, the politics of Kwame Nkrumah, the soulfulness of John Coltrane with a base rooted in traditional African music.
He once married 27 women in one night.
Though only five foot seven, Fela was a larger than life figure unlike any other musician the world has seen.
His nickname was the Black President. Many in Nigeria believed Fela may have become the country’s first civilian leader if he had lived. Instead AIDS took his life at the age of 57. While there had long been rumors he was sick, Fela never publicly acknowledged he had AIDS, a disease that has killed millions upon millions of Africans.
In the years after his death, his son Femi Kuti, an Afrobeat star in his own right, soon took up AIDS awareness as one of his main causes.
Last year he helped arrange the release of the AIDS benefit album Red Hot and Riot which featured a slew of western musicians paying homage to Fela. On it were the hip hop stars Mos Def and Common. Jazz legend Archie Shepp. Soul singer Macy Gray. And Brooklyn-based Afrobeat act Antibales who have helped lead a revival of Fela’s music here.
In the United States, Fela’s popularity has soared since his death. Dozens of his long out-of-print records have been reissued on CD. A new generation of Afrobeat bands have emerged. And in New York a major multimedia art exhibit on Fela’s life opened last month at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.
Yesterday, I spoke to Fela’s son Femi Kuti and to Michael Veal, an ethnomusicologist at Yale University who wrote a biography on Fela titled, Fela: The Life and Times of a Musical Icon.
I spoke first with Femi, who was speaking to us from his nightclub The Shrine in Lagos Nigeria.
- Femi Kuti, Grammy Award-nominated Afrobeat singer who still lives in Nigeria. He has become a prominent AIDS activist since his father died in 1997.
- Michael Veal, ethnomusicologist professor at Yale University and author of the book Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. He used to jam with Fela’s band Egypt 80.
- “Music is the Weapon” excerpts from a documentary directed by Stéphan Tchal-Gadjieff and Jean Jacques Flori.