The Cultural and Social Impact of his Music on Popular Culture
By Nkem Oguama
The name or the mention of ‘Fela Anikolapo-Kuti’ connotes several meanings to different people while his music denotes madness as well as evokes immoral behaviour amongst the youths and deviants in our society in and around Nigeria and the West coast of Africa. To art freaks he is to be celebrated for his creativity, boldness, an enigma and a topic for continuous research.
Fela Anikolapo Kuti was a popular musician in Nigeria whose fame grew steadily from the seventies until his death in 1997. Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta South West Nigeria to the family of Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a middle class and political enlightened family. His father was a priest and talented pianist, while the mother was in the forefront of anti-colonialism and anti-militarism in Nigeria. He studied in Trinity College’s School of Music in London where originally he was to study medicine. It was during those school days in London that he started his music career night clubbing with his band “Koola Lobitos” formed in 1961.
In this essay the writer will discuss Fela’s music, its style, semeiotics of the genre, its political and social impact within the environment. Environment here refers to the changing values of an existing culture and the tenets of the society, while images are considered part of the writers’ statement.
His Early Influence
In his tour of the United States in 1969 with his band Fela met a friend (Sandra Isidore) who introduced him to the ideologies of the Black Panthers, Malcom X, American Civil Rights and books written by Black Radicals. Others who influenced him musically include James Brown-style funk, Afro-Caribbean rhythms, African-American funk/jazz, Gerald Pina from Sierra Leone and elements of African traditional high life jazz. This was a turning point and instrumental to the music genre “Afrobeat” which is his original distinctive style; a synthesis of African highlife beats and American jazz that require highly intense instrumentation and dance.
During his lifetime he had over 70 albums whose myth spans socio-political issues as well as a mouthpiece for the downtrodden in the society. His fans were mostly the poor, street people, some educated young men and deviants who saw in Afrobeat expression and freedom from norms of the society.
There have been a lot of write-ups about his music, life, style, statements and deviancy from existing norms and his upbringing. More so there seems to be a conflict about the person Fela and the liberation of the masses he claim to represent in his songs.
The word deviance is defined as a sociological behavior that is considered offensive to a society, it is rebellious, although could be exciting but negates all social norms. It is a life of controversy and in some cases considered as madness which leads to punishments or repulsive hostility, as would be seen in Fela life.
Peuplesawa.com describes Fela’s music genre as Afrobeats, “which is essentially a fussion of jazz, funk and Traditional African Chant.” He further went on to assert that “It is characterized by having African style percussions, vocals, and musical structure, along with jazzy, funky horn sections, endless groove is also used, in which a base rhythm of drums, muted guitar, and bass guitar are repeated throughout the song.”
Other characteristics of his style are the unrefined backing vocals and “the call-and-response” style of chorus, repeated elongated chants. Majority of his songs spans between ten to thirty minutes in duration in simple metaphors and his language is a mixture of his native Yoruba and adulterated English referred to in West Africa as Pidgin English.
Wrasserecords described Afrobeat as a “combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela Kuti’s rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound”.
Fela’s Wives dancing
As an artist his major instruments besides being the lead vocal include Saxophone, Keyboards, Trumpet, Horn, Guitar and “occasional drum solo”. Tejumola Olaniyan in his book “Arrest the music!: Fela and his rebel art and politics” adduces that “Fela is to a large extent a musician’s musician; that is, a musician interested more in the ensemble of nonverbal sounds that make music than in the lyrics laced around between them.” He further described Fela’s style as “an attitude he invented in response to a context he articulated in his own unique way.” This style he continued is “a form of popular music that is self-consciously experimental, new, and distinct from existing forms in its socio-cultural context. Such music transgresses the boundaries of established styles, the meanings those style reference, and the social norms they support or imply.”
Fela and his wives in a relaxed mood. Notice the facial decoration of one of the wives
John Collins in his book, Musicmakers of West Africa, described some of Fela’s lyrics as being “tinged with controversy”. This assertion was further articulated by Tejumola when he compared Fela with Bertolt Brecht’s “complex pleasures, an aggregate of gratification more intricate, richer in communication, more contradictory and more productive”. In his view Fela devoted his “musical resources to evoking, interrogating, and pronouncing judgments on the partisan political arrangements and attendant social relations of his or her context.” Some of the controversies heightened over the years with the counter lifestyle and habits he propagated; mythical deviancy.
As a popular music Fela was notorious for so many anti-social activities, and “because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass … Fela was more than a simply a pop star; …he was the voice of Nigeria’s have not’s, a cultural rebel”. In the words of John Dougan (Nigerianfolksforum) Fela was a “producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw, showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist and a moody megalomaniac” etc. Trevor Shoonmaker in the book “FELA from West Africa to West Broadway” viewed Fela in this light; “Prophet. Hero. Rock Star. Troublemaker. Trickster. Playboy. Rebel. Martyr. Visionary. Revolutionary. Baba (father). Chief Priest. Abami Eda (the strange one)… Black President, King of Afrobeat”. He went on to describe his life style as hedonistic, ferocious and brave for withstanding the brutality of the Nigerian military government for 25 years.
Through his music Fela created a deviant culture of drugs, hemp, sex, arrogance and foul mouth (yabis) that negates social norms associated with his followers. He declared his compound Kalakuta Republic after the name of “a prison cell he once occupied” to be independent of the Nigerian Federation. Trevor maintains that “like all counter-culture leaders, Fela was demonized by the Nigerian elite and middle class as an insidious force, a perverted pied piper leading the youths of the country on a reckless journey to nowhere.” For they saw in him “the ultimate rebel, a liberator who spoke the truth in a country beset with corruption and clinging to a colonial mindset”.
Travor further asserts that Kalakuta Republic was “a haven of hemp smoking, sex, progressive music and political empowerment, a cross section between a Black Panther safe house and the Playboy mansion”. The writer has witnessed some of this lifestyle among his fans while in college and more so living in Lagos.
Washington Post in an article of Monday August 4th 1997 a day after his death described him with the following words: “Known to his fans as Fela, he rose to national and international fame with his distinctive Afrobeat music and his criticism of Nigerian’s military government, and for his bohemian lifestyle. Known for openly smoking marijuana, dressing only in his underpants and sleeping with numerous women”.
This Fela The Black President puffing hemp
From his early life Fela has been a deviant who wanted to live his life the way he wants it and will insist on his way. Commenting on Fela’s early life “The talking drum magazine” said that “at the age of sixteen he formed a club called “The Planless Society”, with just seven members; its sole aim was to violate all school rules”. Influenced by his experience in The US he was a Pan-Africanist, a civil rights advocate and many of his compositions were fiercely directed at successive Nigerian military governments, the elites and politicians alike. This earned him several arrests, detentions, imprisonment and the eventual destruction of his Kalakuta Republic by the military, who threw his 78 years old mother from a storey building which caused her eventual death before burning down the place. This was the second time Fela’s was burnt down after “Alagbon Close”, a title in one of his albums. Fela and his supporters were brutalized and many members of his band were arrested and thrown in jail. This did not in any way dampen his spirit as he continued to unleash salvos of open insults and criticism on the ruling junta. Some of his tracks unleashed on the military regime include, Zombie, Army arrangement, Vagabond in Power etc.
A bold defiance that Fela put up in the last days of the Gen Obasanjo the milltary junta at that time was carrying the coffin of his mother to “the doorstep of Dodan Barracks” which was then the seat of government in Nigeria. This act was “a statement of the ultimate futility of state power over the liberty of the human mind”. In his lifetime Fela was in court for 356 times in 25 years on several alleged crimes, spanning from drugs, marijuana, money laundering, murder etc.
It is a metaphor that Fela died of Aids induced heart failure even when he refused treatment. A man who had a good education with two brothers, one a practicing medical practitioner and rights activist, and the other a professor of medicine and a minister of health at the time of his death and yet denounced the existence of aids. Sandra Isidore posits that “while his rejection of Western medicine and safe sex practices clearly hastened his death”. Fela was criticized for “corrupting young unmarried girls” who were his dancers but to counter that turned around and married the 27 of them in one single act. In Fela’s word about the marriage he said “now you can’t say they are not married” only to contradict him some years later when he divorced all of them saying that, “the marriage institution …is evil”. The writer notes that the war against Aids which a man of Fela’s clout could have carried out promisingly is being spare headed by one of his sons Femi Kuti. According to Carter Van Pelt “For Africa, the death of a figure with the stature of Fela may change minds about the reality of the AIDS problem”.
Fela practiced African traditional religion whose values he consistently negates to satisfy his own desire and he calls his Nightclub “The Shrine”. In all his dealings with the society and the law he was “chameleonic” because he was very slippery all the time.
Like all griots that lived all had followers Fela had fans who tried in their own way to be like him yet none can fit into the shoes he left behind. Femi his first son has decided on a refined Afrobeat with his “Positive Force” band, while the junior brother Seun has taken over Fela’s band “Egypt 80”. Another group are the fans who have formed their own bands with various forms of Afrobeat, e.g. Lagbaja (the mask man) Dede Mabiaku who was a school mate of the writer and few others. The common thing about all of them is that they as loud mouthed as their icon. Outside in the USA there are pockets of fans who working on a project called “The Fela project” a movie and documentary on his works.
“When a person of far reaching impact passes from the Earth, it is tempting to bring out the superlatives, grand statements, and conjecture in an attempt to be convincing. Time will determine the real legacy of Fela Anikolapo Kuti”. It is indeed the end of an era.
1. Schoonmaker T. (Ed). (2003) FELA From West Africa to West Broadway. New York: Palgrave Macmillian
2. Collins J. (1985) Musicmakers of West Africa.
Washington DC: Three Continents Press
3. Olaniyan T. (2004) Arrest The Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.
4. Moore C. (1982) This Bitch of A Life. London: Allision and Busby.
5. Wrasse Records. (2009) Fela Anikolapo Kuti Biography [Internet] Available from: http://www.wrasserecords.com/Fela_Anikulapo_Kuti_9/biography.html [Accessed 27 November 2009]
6. Pelt C. V. (1997) Africaman Original [Internet] Available from: http://incolor.inetnebr.com/cvanpelt/Felaweb/africaman.html [Accessed 27 November]
7. The Washington Post. (1997) Obituary: Nigerian Musician Fela Anikolapo-Kuti Dies. [Internet] Available from: http://elvispelvis.com/fela.htm [Accessed 27 November]
8. The Talking Drum (2003) Fela Anikolapo-Kuti. [Internet] Available from: http://www.thetalkingdrum.com/fela.html [Accessed 27 November]
9. Peuplesawa Roots and Culture. (2007) Biography. [Internet] Available from: http://www.peuplesawa.com/fr/bnagendas.php?agid=94 [Accessed 27 November]