August 4, 2020

Olufela Olusegun Oludoton Ransome-Kuti, known as Fela, was born on 15 October in Abeokuta, a town fifty miles north of Lagos. His family is relatively prosperous and it is among the few in Abeokuta with a car (Fela’s mother, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a pioneering feminist, is one of the first Nigerian women to drive one). Fela’s father, the Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti, is the Principal of Abeokuta Grammar School. Fela’s first cousin, Wole Soyinka, later a Nobel Prize-winning writer, sometimes spends his school holidays at the Ransome-Kuti home. Fela would later attribute many of his political ideas to his mother. He would also cite Nkrumah’s dictum, “The secret of life is to have no fear” – a belief he lived by throughout his life, whatever the consequences.

Both Fela’s parents actively oppose British colonial rule. On one occasion, his father is slashed on the face with a soldier’s bayonet for refusing to remove his hat while walking past the British flag flying at the local army barracks. During the 1940s, Fela’s mother had become close friends with Kwame Nkrumah, the inaugural president of Ghana. In 1960, Ghana became the first black state in Africa to free itself from British rule. Fela’s mother and father were loving parents but they were also strict disciplinarians who beat Fela frequently when he was a child.

1946: Fela begins learning the piano, encouraged by his father, who believes studying music is an essential part of a good education.

1954: On a visit to Lagos, Fela meets Jimo Kombi Braimah, known to everyone as JK, who will become his life-long friend and confidant. Three years older than Fela, JK is an occasional singer with trumpeter Victor Olaiya’s popular highlife band, the Cool Cats. JK introduces Fela to the Lagos music scene and, inspired by Olaiya and the American jazz records he hears in clubs, Fela starts learning the trumpet. Years later, Fela describes JK as “the most important man in my life.”

1958: Fela leaves Abeokuta for London. His parents had hoped he would study to become a doctor but Fela is determined to continue with music, and his mother reluctantly acquiesces. In London, Fela takes the entrance examination for Trinity College of Music, but fails the music-theory paper. Because he has travelled so far to attend the college, and because of his talent on the trumpet, the college principal allows him to enroll and resit the theory exam later. JK Braimah also moves to London, where he plans to study law.

Fela & mum

Fela is a diligent student at Trinity but his after-hours musical education in London’s jazz clubs, where he and JK spend a lot of time, is important too. The drummer Ginger Baker, who lived in Nigeria during the first half of the 1970s and hung out with Fela at the Shrine, first encounters Fela when he jams with one of the bands Baker plays in at the Flamingo Club in Soho. “He was playing trumpet then,” Baker remembered in 2012. “And he was good.”

1959: Fela forms his first group, Fela Ransome-Kuti and His Highlife Rakers. The band record four sides for Melodisc, one of Britain’s first independent African and Caribbean music labels. One single is released. The A-side is a cover of a Victor Olaiya hit. The other two tracks, “Highlife Rakers Calypso No.1” and “Wa Ba Mi Jo Bosue,” are listed in surviving Melodisc paperwork but seem never to have been released. Fela meets Remilekun Taylor (Remi), who he will marry two years later.

Fela disbands the Highlife Rakers and forms Koola Lobitos, which has a line-up of West African and Caribbean musicians. JK Braimah is the guitarist. The band plays in clubs popular with London’s black community and at private functions.

Koola Lobitos becomes a popular presence on the Lagos music scene and begins to tour more widely in Nigeria. The band’s profile increases when it is hired to back US twist king Chubby Checker and Jamaican bluebeat star Millie Small on national tours.

1969: In February, Fela and Koola Lobitos record a live album at the Afro-Spot. It is released while the band is on a ten-month tour of the US, which begins in May. The group perform in Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco before ending up broke in Los Angeles. In August, the musicians’ visas expire. Fela hustles the band an under-the-radar residency at a club called Citadel d’Haiti. Towards the end of the year, Fela changes the band’s name from Koola Lobitos to Nigeria 70.

Fela goes through some profound changes during the US tour. The most far-reaching of these follow his befriending of Sandra Izsadore, a black-rights activist in Los Angeles who introduces him to the writings of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Frantz Fanon and other revolutionary thinkers. Fela later credits Izsadore with helping inspire his philosophy of Blackism. Izsadore can take credit for something else, too: she affirms Fela’s use of weed. Fela had first smoked in London around 1960. During his time with Izsadore, he begins to use weed daily, and continues to do so until the end of his life.

1971: On 1 January, Fela changes his band’s name from Nigeria 70 to Africa 70. It is a breakthrough year for the group, which will remain the hottest attraction in Nigeria (and elsewhere in West Africa) into the 1980s. Fela stops playing trumpet, saying it is damaging his lips, and switches to electric keyboards. Africa 70’s growing popularity leads to a move from the Afro-Spot to a bigger venue, the Surulere Night Club, which Fela renames the Afro-Spot.

1972: Fela again moves the Afro-Spot to larger premises, this time to the courtyard of the Empire Hotel in Surulere, Lagos. Once a leading nightspot, due to the decline in highlife’s popularity the venue has fallen on hard times. Fela renames it the Africa Shrine and brings it back to life. The space can comfortably accommodate one thousand people and is usually rammed.

The Shrine is part dance club and part progressive political and cultural salon, frequented by both the Lagos demi-monde and leading African and African American cultural figures. Fela adds six women singers to Africa 70; from here on, call and response vocals will be an Afrobeat signature. Fela releases three blindingly good proto-Afrobeat albums under his own name and guests on Ginger Baker’s outstanding Afrorock hybrid, Stratavarious.

On 30 April, police raid Fela’s house looking for weed. Possession is punishable by up to ten years in jail and cultivation by death. Failing to find any (!) they raid again a week later. This time they try to plant a joint on Fela but he manages to grab it and swallow it. He is taken to Alagbon Close police headquarters and locked in a communal cell the prisoners jokingly call Kalakuta Republic (“kalakuta” is Swahili for “rascal”). Fela is kept in the cell for three days while the police wait for evidence to drop into his slop bucket. But his cellmates engineer a ‘feces switch’ and Fela is pronounced innocent. On his release he renames his house Kalakuta Republic. Fela tells the story on the albums Alagbon Close (released in 1974) and Expensive Shit (released in 1975). Alagbon Close is the first of Fela’s albums with a sleeve designed by Ghariokwu Lemi, whose work becomes an integral part of the Afrobeat message. On 23 November, Kalakuta is raided by a much larger body of police. Fela tells the story of the attack on the album Kalakuta Show (released in 1975).

1975: Fela changes his last name from Ransome-Kuti, which he considers a colonial, Christian name akin to a slave name, to Anikulapo-Kuti (“one who carries death in his pouch”). He also changes Africa 70’s name to Afrika 70.

Fela’s popularity reaches a new peak. He has a fleet of cars and buses painted with Afrika 70 logos, the Shrine is packed every night, and his national tours are phenomenally successful. Fela is popularly seen as the champion of the poor. On two occasions, robbers intending to carjack vehicles he is travelling in back off when they see who is inside. On another occasion, Fela and juju star Sunny Ade are playing in separate spaces at the University of Lagos; armed robbers shake down the dancers at Ade’s gig but leave Fela’s audience unmolested.

Fela releases six albums with Africa 70 and produces and appears on a seventh by Tony Allen. Expensive Shit tells the story of how the police tried to frame him for possessing weed in May 1974 and Kalakuta Show recounts the larger, more destructive November 1974 raid. On Everything Scatter and Noise For Vendor Mouth Fela exposes the lies of Nigerian politicians.

1967: Fela increases his involvement with the direct-action political movement the Young African Pioneers, of which sleeve designer Ghariokwu Lemi is a prominent member. The album Ikoyi Blindness introduces the Africanised credit “Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Afrika 70.” It is followed by Zombie, an eviscerating attack on the violent abuse of power by the Nigerian army.

In total, Fela releases seven albums with Africa 70 / Afrika 70 and appears on two more by the Ghanaian bands Hedzoleh Soundz and Basa-Basa Soundz. Yellow Fever returns to the theme of Nigeria’s post-colonial cultural inferiority complex, first touched on in 1973’s Gentleman. Upside Down has guest vocals from Sandra Izsadore, the radicalising girlfriend Fela met in 1969 while on tour of the US with Nigeria 70.

At year end, preparing for an influx of foreign visitors for spring 1977’s FESTAC (The World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture), the government introduces Operation Ease The Traffic: soldiers horsewhip motorists in the street. Fela denounces it as “Operation Beat The Nation.”

1977: On 15 January, FESTAC opens. Fela condemns the event as a propaganda exercise and pulls out. Instead, he stages his own festival at the Shrine. The government discourages FESTAC performers and visitors from going to the club, but many ignore them, including headliner Stevie Wonder, who gives his first Nigerian performance there.

On 16 February, filming of the Fela docudrama The Black President, which began in Ghana the previous year, is completed. The soundtrack is stored at Kalakuta Republic where it is destroyed in the army’s infamous attack two days later….

On 18 February, in an unprecedently brutal assault, 1,000 soldiers batter their way into Kalakuta and raze it to the ground. Among other outrages, they beat and rape dozens of residents, beat and arrest Fela, and throw his 77-year old mother out of a second floor window. The government also closes the Shrine. The album Sorrow Tears And Blood is the first release on Fela’s newly formed label, Kalakuta Records. The title track was written in response to the South African government’s murderous reaction to the Soweto uprising of 1976 but the sleeve carries a dedication to the victims of the attack on Kalakuta. In the autumn, unable to perform in Nigeria because the Shrine has been forcibly closed and other club owners are being intimidated by the police and army, Fela and Afrika 70 tour Ghana.

Fela releases six more magnificent albums with Afrika 70 and produces and guests on others by Tony Allen and Tunde Williams.

1978: On 20 February, Fela marries 27 women in a traditional Yoruba wedding ceremony in Lagos. In doing so, Fela demonstrates his belief in traditional African customs and values, and their primacy over those promoted by Britain during the years of colonial rule. Equally important, Fela wants to legitimise the status of the women who, because they are living with him but are not married to him, are stigmatised by conservative Nigerians.

Editor’s note: The Fela’s biography, This Bitch of a Life, was written by Carlos Moore using many quotes from his conversations with Fela. In his later years, like all of us, Fela grew as a person and considered his past life and actions. Moore quotes Fela, “Marriage is an institution [and] and I condemn the institution of marriage…marriage brings jealousy and selfishness…I just don’t agree to possess a woman. I just don’t want to say, ‘this woman is mine so, she shouldn’t go with other men“. This is important because Black people are always held to a higher standard by the (media in particular) western world than the standard that white westerners themselves, adhere to. Fela is often portrayed as a weed-smoking musician with a voracious sexual appetite who married 27 women and nothing more.

“On 25 February, Fela and Afrika 70 fly to Ghana, where Fela is detained and then expelled by order of soon-to-be deposed president I.K. Acheampong, who fears he will stir up political unrest. At the end of the month, the Lagos High Court dismisses Fela’s claim for 25 million naira against senior army officers for losses sustained in the 1977 destruction of Kalakuta. On 13 April, Fela’s mother dies from injuries she suffered during the attack. For two months in the summer, Fela and some of his family, homeless since the 1977 attack, occupy Decca Records’ offices in Lagos in a dispute over unpaid royalties and the label’s refusal to return master-tapes to Fela.

1979: Fela and his political party Movement Of The People are banned from contesting Nigeria’s presidential election. Fela forms a new Afrika 70 and plays a comeback concert at the University of Ife. He also defies police opposition and opens a new Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, Lagos (the original one having been bulldozed by the army in October 1978). During the year he will release five characteristically courageous albums which expose the pre-planned nature of the February 1977 destruction of Kalakuta Republic and the overall rottenness of the military regime.

On 30 September, Fela and around sixty supporters, including members of his family and The Young African Pioneers, deposit a symbolic coffin outside Nigerian head of state General Obasanjo’s headquarters at Dodan Army Barracks – Fela holds Obsanjo, due to retire as Nigerian president the next day, responsible for his mother’s death. The party is set upon and ferociously beaten by soldiers.

1980: Fela resumes touring in Nigeria but makes no overseas appearances. US jazz-funk star Roy Ayers and his band join Fela and Afrika 70 on a national tour and record a collaborative album, Music of Many Colours. The regime persuades the Decca label to cut its ties with Fela. His Nigerian releases from now on will be mainly on his own independent labels Kalakuta and Lagos International. Undeterred by the state-sponsored violence unleashed on him since 1974, Fela releases one of his most confrontational albums ever, Authority Stealing.

1987: In February, to commemorate the attack on Kalakuta in February 1977, a week-long series of events is held at the Jazz 38 club in Lagos, including a conference organised by novelist Festus Ijayi titled The Kalakuta Inferno and Human Rights in Nigeria, which Fela addresses.

Fela is invited to visit Burkina Faso by its revolutionary president, Thomas Sankara, a longtime fan of Fela’s music. In October, Sankara is assassinated.

1992: Fela releases Underground System, which will be the final album of newly recorded studio material to be issued during his lifetime. The album is inspired in part by the 1987 assassination of Fela’s friend, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary president, Thomas Sankara. It is internationally acclaimed as among Fela’s best-ever releases and shows Fela still experimenting with and developing his music.

1997: At a nationally televised press conference, Fela reasserts his right to smoke weed. He is arrested for drug dealing. Fela defies a police order to close the Shrine and continues to perform at the club. In June, ill-health forces him to cancel a European tour. He is cared for at home by his daughter Yeni. In late July, he is admitted to hospital.

On 2 August, Fela dies. An estimated hundred and fifty thousand people gather in Tafawa Balewa Square to pay their final respects, and over a million others line the route as the coffin is taken to the Shrine for a private ceremony for family and friends. The crowd is so dense that it takes seven hours to cover the twenty kilometre journey. The following day Fela is buried in the grounds of Kalakuta.”

Text and images taken from http://fela kuti.com

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