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Few things are typical about the Nigerian-born son of a Protestant preacher and school principal named Olu'fela' Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. Except this one thing: like many of our history heroes, his genius was only recognized in retrospect by the regime he spent his adult life bravely and actively resisting. This he did not with violence, but with music.
Music was Fela Kuti's weapon.
Born to a middle-class family in 1938, Olu'fela's mother was famously the "great lady of Nigerian independence." In the early 60s, our young man followed his brothers to Britain to study medicine. But while there, he spent all his time in London's club scene, sharpening the skills of his true calling. He played the saxophone and keyboards, along with the trumpet and guitar. But his real talent was in songwriting. He formed a band that fused jazz and indigenous Nigerian rhythms. His music was driving, fun, and imminently danceable. It swept you off your feet and compelled you to move.
After returning to Nigeria, the musician now known as Fela Ransome-Kuti took his band, Koola Lobitos, to Los Angeles. Besides making an artistic splash, he became much more politically aware during his 10 months there. It was 1969 and the black power movement was at its peak in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would later say that he discovered Africa nearly 8,000 miles (12.5K kms) away from home.
He returned to Nigeria a new man with a new name: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He dropped Ransome, the name of a slave, and took on Anikupalo, meaning "invincible," the name of a king. The name of his band changed, as well, to Afrika 70.
Nigeria was at the time ravaged by a civil war known to history as the Biafran War. While the conflict resulted from social tensions that preceded Britain's formal decolonization of Nigeria (1960-63), it was sparked by a 1966 military coup. By the time Fela returned home, the war had claimed the lives of roughly 100,000 soldiers. In addition, between 500,000 and 2 million civilians had died of starvation. In the capital city of Lagos, you could drive for miles and miles through squalid shantytowns characterized by no running water, electricity, or sewers. This in a country that was then the 6th largest oil producer in the world.
Following the war, gun trafficking became one of the only means of income for the poor. But more guns on the streets only meant more violence. The country fell into lawlessness. The police beat people in the streets like dogs. Fela came right out and publicly denounced Nigeria's President as "dangerous." He called Nigeria the worst country in Africa and Lagos the most dangerous city in the world. He urged all Nigerians to fight for their freedom, to liberate themselves from the tyranny of poverty by rising up and demanding a better life. He called out corruption and police brutality.
And he did it all through his lyrics.
As the military regime became more entrenched, Fela's lyrics became more aggressively political. And as his profile -- and rebelliousness -- grew, he became "enemy no. 1" and a target of the authorities. In 1970, he established an island of freedom called The Kalakuta Republic. Essentially a commune amongst the poor, it eventually grew to include thousands. There, Fela held court like a modern African king. He performed at his own club, called The Shrine. His shows became massive events during which he mocked the top members of Nigeria's military regime. They didn't like that, not one bit, and regularly sent their police to crack down on the opposition, claiming them to be anti-drug raids.
In 1977, in the most vicious and violent attack on the Kalakuta Republic, Fela's mother was thrown from a window, suffering injuries that led to her death. The women in his entourage were raped. Fela, too, was attacked and beaten along with his followers, then imprisoned for over a month. The result? Fela's anger toward Nigeria's corrupt government only intensified, as did his musical teachings. The establishment saw Fela as a threat, but they could not charge him with any real crime for he'd done nothing more than sing the truth about life in Nigeria. And nothing would stop Fela from singing or speaking out.
In 1983, he formed a political party so he could run for president. He called his party the MOP -- Movement of the People. As a presidential candidate, he preached that if there were one honest, progressive, pro-people government in Africa, the entire continent would improve. But music, not politics, was his weapon of choice. He continued to perform and continued to be a target of harassment and brutality until his death in Feb 18, 1997, at the age of 58.
An estimated 1 million people are said to have attended Fela's funeral.
Some remember Fela Kuti was the greatest African musician of his time. Others remember him as a revolutionary. Still others remember him as a prophet. His gods, those honored at The Shrine, were the leaders of human and civil rights movements past and president -- Ghandi, MLK, Malcolm X, his mother. Music was the way he channeled their message and communicated to the people. For Fela, music was a gift from spirits and he was going to spend each day on earth harnessing the that gift for good. That's why we're honored to claim him as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.