The Fearlessness of Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

It’s nearly impossible to sum up Fela Anikulapo Kuti in one post. But to put his popularity and impact into perspective, over a million people poured into the streets of Lagos, Nigeria when he passed away in 1997.

Fela is credited as one of the pioneers of Afrobeat, which is a cocktail of African highlife, jazz, funk, and more traditional African chanting. He performed most of his career with two bands behind him: Afrika 70 in the 1970’s, and Egypt 80 in the 1980’s. Few of his songs clocked in under the 10 minute mark, and a good number of them extend into 20 and 30 minute territory.

The reason for his popularity stemmed from his very open disdain toward the government and police of his home country of Nigeria. His music often directly criticized the corruption and illegal practices of the government. As a result, he spent much of his time enduring jail time, and police raids on his nightclubs and commune. In fact, in 1977, a police raid on his commune, called Kalakuta Republic, resulted in Fela being severely beaten, the commune being burned to the ground, and even his elderly mother being thrown from a window. His studio was completely destroyed, along with most of his instruments and master tapes. Not a fun time in Lagos.


One year later, to mark the anniversary of the destruction of Kalakuta Republic, he married 27 women. No, that’s not a typo. The man married 27 women! Many of them were his backup dancers and singers. All the birthdays and anniversaries, good God! My head would explode. As would other parts of the anatomy, but I won’t go there.

Fela continued to record and perform up until the early 90’s, where it was apparent to many that he was sick. In 1997, he died from AIDS-related heart failure at the age of 58.

His body of work and legacy remains, and I encourage folks to find out more about the man, and to listen to his music. He was a hero, fearless in standing up to the forces of evil in his country.

Here’s the first tune I ever heard by Fela when I discovered his music in the late 90’s.

Fela Kuti: Roforofo Fight (mp3) – from 1972’s Roforofo Fight LP.

I watched the last part of a Fela documentary on Sundance Channel earlier tonight. I just did a Youtube search on Fela, and the first one that came up was a short clip from the same documentary. Here it is.

More Resources:

Fela’s Wikipedia entry.

A cool bio in the Guardian (UK), including an interesting anecdote about Fela’s Lagos run-in with Paul McCartney.

The Fela Kuti Project.


  • jon manyjars

    Great! I was fortunate enough to see Fela perform live twice in Atlanta, and have also seen his son Femi Kuti, who is less charismatic than his father, but whose band includes some of his father’s sidemen. There are two Fela documentaries I know of, both available on Netflix. Lots of great Fela tunes on eMusic, too.

  • Pete

    Thanks Jon. You’re a luckier man than I to have seen Fela live … twice. Talk about stage presence.

    I checked out eMusic earlier this morning and was blown away by the amount of material available. I have some downloading to do…

    Regarding Femi, the documentary I saw last night was followed by a concert by Femi. It’s apparent that he’s doing all he can to emulate his father, but you’re right, he definitely lacks the charisma of Fela. But to his credit, that’s an impossible task, and hats off to him for carrying on the legacy.

  • jaheed ashley

    You must see the latest documentary on Fela, titled “FELA! FRESH FROM AFRICA” produced in New York, It chronicals Fela visit to NYC in the mid-1980’s. This amazing doc. is peopled with folks like FemiFoto, Fela’s photographer, Bro. IMO, Baba Oljagun, Segun, Baba Olatunji, Ornette Coleman, Roy Ayers and many many others. A must see for the truly committed

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