A generous joint between his fingers, Fela would stop performances to pour libations. As his priests appeared, it became obvious Fela was more than just his music.
He was on the cusp of making his biggest record, Band on the Run, and had asked to record the album away from Abbey Road, the London-based studio he and the Beatles had named an album after.
Dissatisfied with the label’s offerings - studios in Rio de Janeiro and Peking, he had insisted on Lagos instead, picturing himself ‘lying on the beach and recording at night’. Lagos had welcome him with wide open arms; he’d been held up at knife point, his eyes accosted by lepers and random heaps of rubbish, with soldiers as far as anyone could see.
Still, he had found his way to see Fela and Afrika ‘70 live, “the best band I had ever seen alive”, he would later say, “When Fela and his band eventually began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I just couldn't stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience.
He was so inspired that he made plans to work with some of the musicians in Africa ‘70. Fela heard about this, and naturally, in the morning, the papers were running the story of how he had taken to the stage at Afro Spot (as the Afrika Shrine was then known) to criticise him for ‘stealing the black man’s music’. McCartney got wind of Fela’s antics, invited him over to the studio. It took a session of plays to convince Fela that this new music sounded nothing like Africa’s.
Fela, the late great pioneer of Afrobeat and pan-African revolutionary, was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Ogun. One could make the argument that he was primed for the rebellion that defined him and his music later in his life - the Ransome-Kuti family was a prominent one; his mother was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the ‘first woman in Nigeria to drive a car’, a leader of the anti-colonial movement and a fierce campaigner for women’s rights.
His father, the admittedly less popular Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was an Anglican minister and school principal who was partly responsible for the entire framework of junior education in Anglophone (English-speaking) West Africa.
So, in a way, a level of excellence was expected of Fela, and he did not fit the script. In his younger days, he was a cautious mix; the leader of his school choir and a terrible student. He was sent to London to study Medicine and enrolled in the Trinity College of Music instead. Even then, Fela seems a ‘good boy’ by certain standards.
According to JK Braimah, one of his best childhood friends, “[He] was a nice guy, a really beautiful guy. But as square as they come. He didn't smoke cigarettes, let alone grass. He was afraid to fuck! We had to take his prick by hand, hold it and put it in for him, I swear!”. The same Fela would marry 27 women in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the attack on Kalakuta Republic.
In his earlier years, Fela did not have the mastery of music he would become renowned for. He learned to play the piano and trumpet at Trinity College, and until 1964 he didn’t meet Tony Allen, the Nigerian drummer without whom, in Fela’s words, “there would be no afrobeat”. He was more interested in trying to make jazz appealing to the Nigerian people and he failed terribly, our people did not like music they could not dance to. In 1967, he went to Ghana, renowned as the home of Highlife, to think up a new direction for his music. It was here that Afrobeat was born.
The next year, he took his band to Los Angeles; in a club, broke and with an expired visa, he met Sandra Smith (now Iszadore), a follower of the ‘Black Panthers, who first gave him a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X. What she showed and taught him shaped his political and social views, and by extension, the very heart and soul of Afrobeat. To the end, Fela was a rebel, in his music and his life. He would later say ‘‘With my music, I create change...I am using my music as a weapon.”
The Black Power movement would also influence his views on pan-Africanism; he thought the most important way for Africans to fight European cultural imperialism was to support traditional African religions and lifestyles. And Fela, true to form, lived exactly as he taught.
He had been raised an Anglican, but by 1975, he was opening his performances at the Shrine with elaborate rituals steeped deep in Yoruba traditional religion. He offered prayers and libations to Shango, Oshun, Yemoja and the other ‘gods of Africa’, assisted by visiting traditional priests. One of the visiting priests is said to have sacrificed a man, buried him and brought him back to life, two days later.
Eventually, Fela was named the chief priest of the Shrine. Regardless, anyone could be forgiven for thinking this was just for show, after all, it was music, Fela wasn’t the only one who had ‘re-traced his roots’ in the decades following independence. The difference was Fela truly believed, even when it apparently did him no good.
When Motown wanted to create an African label in the early 1980s, they offered Fela a million-dollar deal; despite his insistence on recording 30-40 minute long songs. He also never played music once he had recorded it, so fans could not hear his hits. His manager, Rikki Stein flew to Lagos to discuss the deal with him. Fela was obviously interested, but first, he had to consult his personal magician, Professor Hindu.
The gods of Africa told Fela to wait for two more years, so he decided to release only the songs he had recorded up till that point. Come May 1985, two years after he made this decision, the employee on Fela’s deal got sacked by Motown and the deal was off. Maybe Hindu’s gods had seen something everybody else couldn’t.
Later, after Fela’s death, Yeni Kuti, his first child would say, “I will say the truth. Hindu was fake… and because Fela was looking for this spirituality, he believed. I saw so many people who were not honest try to use him”. When Fela was sentenced to five years in jail for smuggling 2000 dollars into the country, Hindu was beaten to a pulp and sent away by his entourage. He left for Ghana and never returned.
If you asked the people closest to him for the single factor most responsible for his setbacks, some would say it was the scores of people Fela surrounded himself with. In 1978, when he performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival, Africa ‘70 was made up of about 28 members. Fela travelled with 71 people. Most of them served no immediate purpose, but they were his entourage; the rag-tag bunch that hung around him and called Kalakuta their home. Tony Allen called them ‘parasites’. And a good number of these people were women. Fela loved his women.
In 1960, at 21, he married his first wife, Remi Taylor, the mother of Yeni, Femi and Sola Kuti (now deceased). Later in that decade, he began a very intimate relationship with Sandra Smith, the woman who introduced him to the Black Panthers. She had not known he was married at the time; but when she came home with him in 1970, he introduced her to Remi and two other women, Iya Mary and Eunice. As he grew bigger in stature, his harem did with him. Later, when his two oldest children were around 10, Fela would get a flat for Remi, who had been falling ill repeatedly.
Once she left the house, the sky was the limit for Fela. The man ran through women as he chose; even his dancers, the same women he would push and order around on stage during performances. He would later say in an interview, “... African system says women have their duties… women who think they can compete with men can compete but women must know their place in society… as soon as you are in your family’s house, whether you’re the president of the country or not, your husband can kick your ass”.
In today’s feminism-conscious, 140-character world, statements like that would get Fela in a lot of trouble, with labels like ‘misogynist’ and ‘sexist’ attached to him as easily as stickers on a new car.
Even then, he was attacked in the press as a serial philanderer sleeping with ‘misguided girls’, ‘underage prostitutes’ and ‘weed-smoking whores’ who had no regard for. In truth, he was an unrepentant polygamist who believed a man should have sex with as many women as he wished.
But Fela saw these women as his family; in a highly publicised ceremony in 1978, he ‘married’ 27 women from his entourage, mostly his dancers, because, in his words, “he wanted to give their lives meaning”. He owed them their dignity at the very least. These women had given him their all; their lives, their bodies, their energy.
According to Femi Kuti, one of them, a Nigerian, introduced him to weed, ‘grass’ as he preferred to call it. It evokes the image of him we are most familiar with; Fela, with a generous blunt, in an ‘ankara’ ensemble, doing something that looked like dancing. The story goes that when he began to smoke regularly, he hid it from his band. Fela was not one naturally given to such habits, as some would say. Then he began to feel guilty so he told them. It turned out each of them had been smoking grass. And so, Femi says, “it became one big party…”
Fela moved around within his personal cloud of smoke. When he moved the Africa Shrine in its early days to Surulere, the area quickly became a major hotbed of dealers and users. Returnees from the Second World War brought weed home, but it was Fela that shared it among all and sundry.
Of course, his model could not work with General Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime. His home was attacked on one occasion on suspicion of drug possession. He was locked up and tortured with alarming frequency. Fela would get out and continue taking his grass with him, smoking intimidating joints.
He openly promoted the idea of smoking ‘igbo’, on the belief that ‘the God of Africa created this herb to enlighten his people”. Nowadays, his image is so closely attached to that of a substance that was synonymous with his movement and his music. New school acts hail Baba Fela; one of them, rapper Dremo has rapped about bringing Fela back and lighting up the ‘shawarma’; a word one would assume refers to the Arab meat dish but is actually slang for cannabis.
It is a humbling truth that words fail at describing what Fela was, in his heydey. Those closest to him can only claim to have had the luxury of more time around an enigma; To say one knew Fela would have been a reckless statement. He was what he wanted to be; an architect of sounds at the very least. Only he knew how to bring these 30 odd performers into the singular soul that was Africa ‘70, and later Egypt ‘80. He was a hero; a man of his people who would neglect his own children because he didn’t want his entourage to think he favoured some above others.
But even those who, in his time, listened for the music, knew Fela was dangerous, and very much so. Those who chanted his songs like creed looked at his lifestyle through the corners of their eyes. The endless trail of dope that attracted the liberals and hippies of the 1980s was what some of his people thought took his mind from him. But if it bothered his mother so much that she virtually moved in with him, or his wife so much that she moved out, Fela did not know how to care. He would be known on his own terms. He would make songs as long as entire albums because those who would understand his message would.
In a way it makes perfect sense; some drinks need a chaser; lime or some other juice. Some things are too hot to be taken in all at once. Fela was more than hot, he was firebrand.
He has become more than his name, his music or his antics. Across the seas, films like ’Finding Fela’ and ‘Fela’ on Broadway have sold his music and his name to a different audience. Every October, Felabration, a music festival held at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos celebrates Fela with products of the music that he ‘inspired’.
His legacy of a beautiful sound lives, undisturbed, and likewise, Fela, the man, the mystic, womaniser, synthesiser and the black president will remain, for much longer than Professor Hindu’s prediction.
In his final days, when the skin lesions that heralded the AIDS grew in number and his frame became more emaciated, Fela refused to take treatment, this despite the fact that his brother, Beko Ransome-Kuti, was the head of the Nigerian effort against the disease at the time. He and Professor Hindu had gotten a message from the spirits that he would live for 130 years. Anikulapo could not die; he had death in his pouch.
Fela passed on August 2, 1997.
Segun Akande is a bit of a fondler of words. While always slightly inebriated, he studies music and youth culture. He enjoys hanging out anywhere with more drinks than people. Send him a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org