Fela was born 15 October 1938 and christened Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He grew up in Abeokuta, where he led a school choir and played piano and percussion—early foreshadowing of the outsized musical career he would go on to build as a singer-composer, saxophonist, trumpeter, keyboardist and bandleader.
In 1958, Fela was sent by his well-to-do family to London to study medicine but chose to study music instead, enrolling at the Trinity College of Music. He began his music exploits there in the UK but returned to Nigeria in the late 1960s, where he created Afrobeat with his blends of African rhythm, jazz and funk. Along the way he married Remilekun Taylor, with whom he had three children, Femi, Yeni and Sola.
In 1970 Fela formed what he called the “Kalakuta Repulic,” a communal compound that housed his family, friends, bandmates and recording studio. He would later audaciously declare it independent from the Nigerian state. Fela also changed his middle name to “Anikulapo” (“he who carries death in his pouch”) because he felt his name “Ransome” was a slave name.
One of Fela’s most famous albums, “Zombie,” was an attack on the Nigerian government and military. His 27th full-length album, “Zombie” became a smash hit and ultimately his undoing. In 1977 the military responded by running down the Kalakuta Republic. Fela was beat nearly to death, his 77-year-old mother, known as a civil rights champion in her own right, suffered fatal injuries after being tossed from a window. The compound—including Fela’s instruments, studio and master tapes—was burned to the ground.
Fela responded by dropping his mother’s coffin at Dodan Military Barracks, the residence of General Olusegun Obasanjo. He also recorded two scathing songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier.”
“Nigeria is worse than South Africa,” Fela once said, famously. “In Nigeria, blacks mistreat blacks.
A year later, he marked the anniversary of the attack on Kalakuta Republic by marrying 27 wives, many of whom were part of his band.
Fela would later venture into politics when the people returned to power in 1979. He formed his own political party, “MOP” (Movement of the People). After the military returned to power in 1983, however, the campaign of harassment continued and Fela was arrested that same year, falsely charged for currency smuggling. He was sentenced to five years in prison and was released in 1986 after yet another change of government.
Fela was arguably the most controversial musician of his generation, known to fight for the rights of the common man, demand better governance and accountability in government, and strive to enlighten the people through his music. All this in spite of continued government harassment and imprisonment.
Fela died on 2 August 1997 from complications due to AIDS. As Fela’s brother, Olikoye Ransome Kuti, said at a news conference: “The immediate cause of death of Fela was heart failure, but there were many complications arising from the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.”
Today Fela is celebrated with events such as Felaboration, which takes place at the Africa Shrine annually. A hit musical, “FELA! On Broadway,” celebrating the life of and music of the Afrobeat legend, is currently on tour in the United States.
It is 15 years today since his death, but the legend lives on.