Fusion Of Genius And Passion: Is Fela Kuti The World’s All Time Greatest Musician?

The civilized world and the developing world alike are now just re-discovering the music of Nigeria’s musical legend Fela Kuti. Born on October 15, 1938 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, as Olufela, Oludotun, Olusegun Ransome Kuti. Fela deleted “Ransome” from his name, because the name is a hangover from slavery, imperialism and or colonial mentality and Fela substituted same with Anikulapo, which translates to “one who has death in his pouch in the Yoruba language. Fela Kuti has actually demonstrated that he conquered and thrived over death. Since the physical death of Fela Kuti on August 2nd, 1997, the legend has grown from being a protest musician cum political dissident who enjoyed irritating and hounding Nigerian and African dictators generally, Fela Kuti has become a global phenomenon. Just like Fela Kuti prophesied through his name Anikulapo, Fela has thrived over death. Fela has remained alive globally via his music.

The musical genre known as Afro Beat invented by Fela Kuti has become indigenous to America as it has since become indigenous to Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, Ghana just indicate your guess. A Sudanese was blasting Fela Kuti’s music away in his SUV in a major American city and when I engaged him in a conversation he spent quality time to give me a narrative on his perspective of the music of Fela.Kuti. I tried to tease my Northern Sudanese friend that he is supposed to be a Janjaweed and not a ”real African” My friend got the joke and quickly opined that the distinction between Arab Sudan and African Sudan is merely rhetoric and that the two Sudans are as African as can be and that Fela Kuti belongs to all Africans, and specifically Fela Kuti belongs to both Southern Sudan (now an independent nation) and Northern Sudan. I was like “Shuuoooh”. (Respect to my Warri friends)

White and African Americans have rediscovered Fela Kuti and his evergreen music and the story of Fela’s genius, legacy and music is now being told by Broadway. Fela’s music is now been perceived by some of the drivers of American musical cum cultural evolution as the substratum of the future of music. Many Ghanaians, Cameroonians and Ethiopians would readily argue with you that Fela Kuti is too big to be localized as a Nigerian. They would argue that Fela Kuti was a citizen of the whole of Africa. It would seem that the Americans have now made Fela Kuti a citizen of the world.

Fela Kuti was an unusually massively talented multi-instrumentalist and extremely creative vocalist. Fela successfully fused classical European musical content with African instrumental component. Fela Kuti evolved his music from regular entertainment to music that chronicled and told the story of the everyday African. Very early in his career, Fela Kuti became very wealthy however, he sacrificed all his material wealth in the pursuit of his passion cum life mission as he graduated from mundane musical entertainment to transforming his musical productivity into an instrumentality that gave voice to the struggles of the ordinary African.

Fela Kuti sang about the suffering and oppression of the African masses. Fela was the embodiment and the poster child of constructive, credible and responsible criticism. Fela Kuti was very comfortable with constructively criticizing any Government in power as he was at home with speaking the truth to Africans who were not comfortable in their natural complexions.

At a great cost to his very life, the death of his mother and the loss of his legendary Kalakuta republic, Fela Kuti kept the faith to his last breath and his last day on earth. Fela Kuti’s music was the music of the people. The problems and struggles of the African masses dictated Fela Kuti’s songs. There is virtually no problem troubling Africans today that Fela Kuti did not sing about. When Fela Kuti died, the huge city of Lagos with roughly about twenty million inhabitants came to a halt. All over Africa, the death of Fela Kuti sent a wave of spiritual electricity through the land. Governments did not declare public holidays, but the masses recognized in a sublime and transcendental way that their hero, their legend has evolved through the frontiers of space and time. Yes, Fela Kuti died but then again Fela Kuti lives on.

Fela Kuti could have chosen to live a very materially embellished, opulence aggrandized lifestyle. Pursuant to his mission on earth, Fela chose to live among and for his constituency, the masses. Fela Kuti’s intelligence and deeply mesmerizing intellectual elegance pulsates through his pleadings and prayers via his music. Fela Kuti was one of the world’s best multi-instrumentalists. Fela Kuti was one of the best vocalists to ever traverse the sands of planet earth. Fela Kuti trained at the Trinity College of Music in London and he is generally regarded as the best and most famous graduate of the Trinity College of Music in London.  Fela Kuti’s sibling Koye Kuti was a Professor of Medicine and his younger sibling Beko Kuti was also a Medical Doctor. Fela is reported to have abandoned the idea of studying Medicine like his two brothers and instead opted for Music in London. Fela’s parents were among the first Africans to receive western education. Fela Kuti’s father was the principal of Abeokuta Grammar School, when being a School Principal was almost the exclusive preserve of Europeans in Africa. Fela Kuti could have been any professional in any profession of his choice; then again, Fela was driven by his passion for the African masses and his musical genius. Fela Kuti lived his purpose and fulfilled his mission.

What makes Fela Kuti the worls’s greatest musician of all time, is the fact that he abandoned his own self -interests and in every sense of the world assumed the struggles, pains and sufferings of the ordinary folks, that constituted his constituency.  Fela Kuti even abandoned the Queen’s English and sang his songs in Pidgin English to ensure proper, total and very effective communication with the masses, who constituted his primary constituency.

During the era of the military’s total domination of Nigeria’s socio-economic and political affairs, Fela Kuti constituted himself into Nigeria’s one man opposition political party that operated as a check and balance institution to the Nigerian military government. At a time many would not dare walk on the same street as a military man, Fela Kuti took it upon himself to engage in regular constructive criticism of Nigerian military governments through his music.

Many people the world over perceive Fela Kuti as a Prophet. The things that gave Fela cause for alarm and concern and that he sang about have all come to pass in Africa generally and in Nigerian specifically. Fela Kuti was also a Moral teacher and Instructor on Ethics. Fela Kuti regularly delivered well researched and factually unassailable lectures to African governments conveyed via the vehicle of his music. Fela Kuti kept reminding African governments of their obligations, responsibilities and duties, till his last day on earth. No duty that any African government owed to the people was too insignificant for Fela Kuti to sing about.

Fela Kuti via his music was very devoted to seeking changes and improvement in the living conditions, economic and social challenges that confronted the poorest of the poor in Africa. Fela Kuti was totally committed to the cause of the poor in African. Fela Kuti was very sensitive to the sensibilities of the African masses. Indeed Fela Kuti was of the truest friends of the African masses.

Fela Kuti was very sensitive and fiercely protective of the dignity of the poor. Fela Kuti did not tolerate any attempt by any African government to infringe on the rights of the African people. Fela Kuti’s knowledge of human rights was as deep as it was appealing. Fela Kuti was also a great humorist. The great musician’s ability to bring over-bearing dictators down from their very high horses and make them regular mortals through his unique style of “yabis” was, not only fascinating but enthralling and captivating. Fela Kuti was special.

Fela Kuti’s knowledge of global affairs, international relations, global politics cum global economics, moral ethos, African and European spirituality, law, psychology, classical European music, African music et al can be very easily gleaned from his very many musical productions. The legendary Fela Kuti’s pan Africanist credentials were paraded for the world to see when Fela released his immortal song BONN (Beast of No Nation) Fela turned the statement by former minority rule South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who on June 16, 1976 threatened that “This uprising will bring out the beast in us” when high School students were protesting the apartheid government’s promotion of Afrikaans language over other languages in South Africa by making the former the compulsory language for teaching and learning in all South African schools. On that occasion that Apartheid police killed 176 innocent and unarmed students in South Africa. Fela Kuti reminded the whole world about that incident and all the related events by singing about same in BONN (Beast of No Nation)

Check out Fela Kuti’s constructive criticism of the United Nations in BONN (Beast of No Nation). Fela Kuti’s logic, verbal fluidity, beautiful prosaic intermingling and matting of the Queen’s English and South Western Nigerian version of Nigerian Pidgin English, masterfully deployed to drive his argument home. Fela Kuti like a very experienced and deeply knowledgeable attorney questioned the white elephant lie that is the United Nations by buttressing his case with multiple examples of the conflict scenarios inherent in the UNO and further questioned the common sense and logicality of the veto power wielded by a few powerful nations.

In BONN (Beast of No Nation) Fela Kuti’s sublime intelligence was on full blast. Fela rebuked the Nigerian military government lead by General Buhari and General Idiagbon for calling Nigerians reprehensible and degrading names. Fela Kuti delivered a lecture on human rights in a manner that was masterfully professorial. Fela Kuti made references to the slave trade and the social contract theory vis a vis the role of the government as a junior partner in that arrangement. A servant or agent i.e government cannot be as disrespectful as the Nigerian government to the senior partner (We the People) in a contractual arrangement.

In “Why Black Man They Suffer” Fela Kuti lectured about the way the white man came to Africa and possess the land. Fela Kuti taught that the White man carried away resources and even Africans away from Africa to foreign lands. Fela Kuti alluded that the reason Africa is under-developed and stagnated is because her wealth was transferred to foreign lands by the white man.

Fela Kuti was Africa’s most formidable and most persistent anti- corruption crusader. In an overwhelming number of his songs Fela Kuti lamented the corruption of African leaders generally and Nigerian leaders in particular. Fela Kuti in similar vein sang about the sufferings and struggles of Africans to drive home the point that corruption in Africa has left the African severely impoverished with no infrastructures and basic necessities. The passion and genius with which Fela narrates in-details the schemes of those who connive to defraud African nations of their commonwealth is legendary. In “ITT” which is one of Fela Kuti’s most popular songs, Fela Kuti sworn to the credibility and integrity of his fight against corruption by swearing by many African gods and thereafter proceeded to deliver a detailed narrative of how the scheme between well placed Africans and their foreign partners in crime work in the evil machinations and designs to defraud and loot the common wealth of Africans. Fela Kuti was as bold and daring as can be. Fela Kuti’s determination to fight for a just and egalitarian society in Africa knows no boundaries and has no limitations. The struggle was Fela Kuti’s life.  Fela did not forget to sing about the dire and dastardly consequences of the massive plundering of the people’s commonwealth on the people. 

In “Coffin for Head of State” Fela Kuti criticized African religious leaders who take advantage of the faithful and live sumptuously lavish lifestyles while their flock wallow in poverty. Fela Kuti rebuked the practice of turning religious organizations into profiteering organizations. In “Coffin for Head of State”, Fela Kuti was as logical as can be in constructively criticizing government leaders who hide under religious piety, while they engage in massive abuse of public office.

In “Suffering and Smiling” Fela Kuti sang about the terrible living condition of the average African. Fela Kuti lamented the lack of basic necessities and the extreme poverty that Africans endure daily.  From extremely uncomfortable public transportation to the all -round lack of basic infrastructure and essential necessities of life, yet Africans smile through all the humiliating but avoidable poverty, Fela Kuti wailed and grieved over the humiliation of lack of water, lack of money, extremely over-crowded public transportation, the public brutalization of civilians in public places by the military among many other negative conditions troubling Africans.

In “Original Suffer Head” Fela Kuti’s musical and intellectual genius were fully unlocked and deployed. Fela Kuti threw into the mix, his passion for the poor. The end result is a transcendental chronicle of the hardships that constitutes encumbrances to the joy and happiness of Africans. Fela Kuti reminded everyone that water is everywhere in Africa and sunlight is in abundance in Africa, yet there is crippling lack of water and energy in Africa. Fela Kuti reminded everyone that crude oil and other sources of energy are in abundance in Africa, yet there is crippling lack of energy in Africa. Fela Kuti also grieved over the fact that despite the abundance of food in Africa, starvation is the order of the day. Fela Kuti also lamented the lack of habitable homes in Africa. The great musical genius wondered why the folks in the Western world are thriving and enjoying a great life while Africans are subjected to extreme and brutally crushing poverty. Fela observed that African big men are not subjected to the same conditions as the rest of the populace.

 Fela also rebuked government leaders and politicians who made free and fair elections impossible allover Africa. Fela Kuti lamented the practice where only very persons would vote because people have no faith in the electoral process and have no trust in the conductors of the electioneering process; yet the results of the elections would be huge numbers, contrary to factual reality.

In “Lady” Fela Kuti engaged in a contra-distinction of the original idea of a good, well raised, well cultured African woman, who is submissive to the husband as the head of the home and presents herself as a fit and proper helper that complements the husband and helps to make the family happy, progressive and successful. Fela Kuti juxtaposed the above picture of a good African woman against the idea of “Lady” who is the poster child of an African woman who in the quest of seeking liberation and civilization captures and imbibes the aspects of foreign cultures that makes her a liability rather than an asset to her husband. Fela Kuti constructively criticized the lifestyle of “lady” that creates two masters in the home. “Lady” even wants to assume the role of head of the home and her ways seeks to destroy the fabric of the carefully woven system that helped to hold together African families for thousands of years. We must observe that Fela Kuti is not against women generally, neither is Fela Kuti against African women in particular, Fela Kuti is  against the type of woman that stands the concept of women liberation on its head, such as makes her a dizzying and dangerous threat to African marital and family institutions.

In “Colo-Mentality” Fela delivered loads and loads of his special “yabis” to that class of misguided breed of Africans who have lost all sense of African pride. Africans suffering from colonial mentality sees everything African as inferior and everything foreign as superior. Fela Kuti seriously rebuked these colonial mentality impacted folks. The great artist encouraged Africans suffering from Colonial mentality to open their eyes where ever they are and come to the realization that Africa and Africans are not inferior to any other race or people. Fela Kuti in “Colo-mentality” made subtle reference to the fact that some African folks have been released but same folks have refused to release themselves.

In “Power Show”, Fela Kuti gave a narrative of superior Public Officers and rich Nigerians who love to show off and demonstrate tendencies calculated to belittle less privileged Nigerians. Fela Kuti sermonizes that power should be used to achieve positive things for neighbors, the community and onse-self in a righteous way and not to oppress others. In “Yellow Fever” Fela Kuti played the role of a moralist. He sermonized on the need to be comfortable in one’s skin. Some Africans practically bleach their skin to look more like white people. Fela Kuti detested this trait and rebuked those Africans who engage in skin bleaching. 

In VIP Fela Kuti sang about the tendency of powerful persons in Nigeria to show off their power by intimidating and oppressing less privileged Nigerians. Fela Kuti mocked those who are not enlightened enough to realize that power should not be abused and that even everyone enjoy power in their own corner of the planet. Fela Kuti deployed his well- known sense of humor to great effect when he reminded all that “Omolanke” Pusher has power over his Omolanke anywhere. Invirtually al Fela’s songs, the great musician wondered why a “powerful” person who lives in a good home, rides the best car, eats the best food et al, can’t show some sympathy for the less privileged persons who are homeless, dehumanized and bastardized by the system.

Fela demonstrated his determination to stay on the cause of fighting for the poor, the innocent, the vulnerable and for justice and equity when he sang “Whether you or you nor like, after you hear this truth talk, if you like ee good, if your no like, you hang. If you hang you go die, you go die for nothing, we go carry your body go Police Station, you died wrongfully” Lyrics like the above reproduced, helped to re-affirm Fela’s determination to stay the course. Fela Kuti never disappointed. Till his last breath on earth, Fela kept fighting for justice for the African poor. No violence nor threat would intimidate Fela Kuti. The death of his mother and the loss of his wealth did not deter him. Fela Kuti’s travails only helped to reinforce Fela Kuti’s intestinal fortitude. Fela Kuti was super human.

The catalogue of Fela Kuti’s music is a chronicle of the history of modern Nigeria and indeed, modern Africa. Fela Kuti’s music was as political as it has become historical. Fela Kuti’s music was as original as it has become phenomenal. Fela Kuti’s music was as Afrocentric as it has become globalized. Even after death, Fela has become a denizen of the world.

The lyrics “__ee dey there with him big fat stomach______ee dey there with him neck like ostrich”  thrilled the masses to no end. Fela regularly supplied yabis like the above  and same were ways the masses got some comical relief from their deep suffering and struggles inflicted on them by the corruption and mismanagement at the top. Fela Kuti paid a great price for his boldness, courage, outspokenness and unrepentant criticism of Nigerian military governments. David M.

DAVID M. HERSZENHORN in an essay captioned FELA, DISSIDENT NIGERIAN MUSICIAN, DIES, published on August 4, 1997 in the New York Times completely captured the events that transformed Fela Kuti into another realm of superstardom: Reproduced hereunder is a pertinent portion of the essay:

“For years, Fela was merely Nigeria's most popular musician. He labeled himself ''the chief priest,'' lived in a commune that he called ''the Kalakuta Republic'' after the nickname of a prison cell he had once occupied, smoked marijuana and recorded about half a dozen albums a year that were banned on Government radio because of a dispute over copyright payments. The records, with their roiling groove and subversive lyrics, sold wildly across the African continent. Then, in 1977, came the Fela Affair, which overnight catapulted him into a symbol of Government opposition and raised unsettling questions about civil liberties in Nigeria and about the future of civilian rule in a country that had broken free of colonial England only to fall into authoritarian military rule. On the steamy afternoon of Feb. 18, a swarm of 1,000 soldiers gathered around Fela's Kalakuta Republic, a two-story yellow building in the sprawling Lagos slum of Surulere. In the ensuing siege, the house was burned to the ground and most of its 60 occupants were hospitalized. Fela was beaten unconscious and held under armed guard in a hospital room. His 77-year-old mother was thrown from her bedroom window and died of her injuries the following year. “

Indeed Fela Kuti was a genius. The great man’s genius traversed many genres of learning and life itself. Fela created the Afro Beat music genre and perfected same. Through the genius of his musical releases, Fela Kuti made music look too easy; which is the hall mark of genius. Indeed Fela Kuti is the very greatest musician to ever visit planet earth from God’s heaven. When will there be another Fela Kuti? Many of Fela Kuti’s admirers from around the globe are able to pick profound vibes very quickly from Fela Kuti’s music. Many of Fela Kuti’s admirer’s consider the great artist’s music as transcending every race, color, continent and society.

DAVID M. HERSZENHORN in his essay captioned FELA, DISSIDENT NIGERIAN MUSICIAN, DIES, published on August 4, 1997 in the New York Times also expressed very useful information regarding Fela Kuti’s great mother. Reproduced hereunder is the portion regarding Fela’s mother

“His mother, Funmilayo, had a flair for politics. In 1948, she led the women of Abeokuta, who were not represented in local government, in a successful crusade against a tax on women. She also strove for Nigeria's independence and by the time it was achieved in 1960, she was the country's foremost female nationalist. Later, she became one of few female chiefs. Both Fela and his mother de-Anglicized the family name, dropping Ransome in favor of Anikulapo, a name from Yoruba mythology that means ''he who carries death in a sack.''

The bond between Fela and his mother was very well known. Fela’s mother was the super star’s greatest fan and supporter. It is interesting and remarkable that it was both Fela and his mother that jointly changed the name Ransome and substituted same with Anikulapo. Fela’s brothers and sister were also always there for Fela. During Fela’s regular struggles and conflicts with Nigerian military governments, Fela’s brothers and sister were always there for him. Indeed Fela’s struggles were the struggles of the Kuti family for justice and social justice for the common man

Fela Kuti was a larger than life masquerade. Fela was inseparably hardwired to the struggle for the emancipation of Africans from the yoke of internal colonialists. Fela lived with all the pain and discomfort that the struggle forced on him. In no other country has any musician ever sacrificed so much as Fela Kuti sacrificed for all Africans. Fela Kuti could have made an unquantifiable large wealth by singing meaningless songs and hibernate in a luxurious cocoon somewhere on planet earth, far away from Africa to enjoy his wealth. Fela, our Fela, the Fela of the people, the Fela of Africa, chose to lead the people as they struggle to eke out a meaningful existence despite all the odds and encumbrances from the oppressors, looters and mis-managers of the people’s commonwealth that Fela Kuti regularly sang about in his ever green songs.

Indeed, without equivocation, Fela Kuti is the world’s all-time greatest musician.