Fela Anukulapo Kuti: Celebrating 20 Years of Memories
On this day 20 years ago, the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti passed away. Also known as ‘Abami Eda’, he was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer and activist. Kuti, was born on October 15, 1938, at Abeokuta, Nigeria. He was also the pioneer of the modern style of music called Afro-beat, which merges American blues, jazz, and funk with traditional Yoruba music.
The son of feminist and labour activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, he took lessons in piano and percussion as a child before studying classical music at Trinity College London (1959). During his stint in London, he was introduced to various music styles by playing piano in jazz and rock bands. In 1960, Kuti returned to Nigeria and reassembled the Koola Lobitos, a band he played with in London. Thereafter, the Afro-beat sound emerged.
In 1969, Fela Kuti embarked on a tour in the United States, having been influenced by Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. During this time, his music became increasingly politicised and he encouraged social change in some of his songs including Zombie, Monkey Banana, Beasts of No Nation and Upside Down.
Abami Eda as he was popularly known, along with his band, also known variously as the Nigeria 70, Africa 70, and later the Egypt 80, performed for packed houses during concerts staged at Kuti’s often-raided nightclub in Lagos. The charismatic singer, who twirled over the keyboard as he sang in English and Yoruba, struck a chord among the unemployed, disadvantaged, and oppressed. His politically charged songs, which condemned the continuous oppression by Nigeria’s military government, prompted authorities to often raid his club, in search of reasons to imprison him. He also set up a communal compound, which he declared the Independent Kalakuta Republic.
A raid on the complex by Nigerian authorities in 1977 resulted in his brief incarceration and the death of his mother the following year, having been thrown from the top floor of a building. When he was released in 1978, he went on exile to Ghana in 1978 and changed his name from Ransome to Anikulapo.
In 1979, Kuti formed a political party, the Movement of the People, and ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Nigeria. In 1984, he was jailed for 20 months on charges of currency smuggling. Upon his release, he turned away from active political protest and left his son, Femi, to carry the torch of Afro-beat music. He was jailed again in 1993 for murder, but the charges were eventually dropped. Four years later, he died leaving behind his legacy of Afro-beat.
Since his death, there has been a revitalisation of the Afro-beat’s maestro’s influence on music and popular culture, resulting in another re-release of his catalogue controlled by Universal Music, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically-based shows, as well as new bands like Antibalas.
In 1999, Universal Music France remastered the 45 albums it controlled and released them on 26 compact discs. These titles were licensed to other territories of the world with the exception of Nigeria and Japan, where Kuti’s music was overseen by other companies. In 2005, Universal Music USA licensed all its world-music titles to the UK-based label Wrasse Records, which repackaged the same 26 CDs for distribution in the USA and the UK. In 2009, Universal created a new deal for the USA with Knitting Factory Records and for Europe with PIAS, which included the release of the Fela! Broadway cast album. In 2013, BMG Rights acquired FKO Ltd, the entity that owned the rights of all of Kuti’s compositions.
In 2008, an off-Broadway production of Fela Kuti’s life entitled Fela!, inspired by Carlos Moore’s 1982 book Fela, Fela! This Bitch of a Life, began with a collaborative workshop between the Afro-beat band Antibalas and Tony award-winner Bill T. Jones. The show was a massive success, selling out shows during its run, and garnering much critical acclaim. In 2009, Fela! began a run on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Jim Lewis helped co-write the play (along with Bill T. Jones), and obtained producer backing from Jay-Z and Will Smith, among others. On May 4, 2010, Fela! was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical for Bill T. Jones, Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Sahr Ngaujah, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White. On June 11, 2012, it was announced that Fela! would return to Broadway for 32 performances. Also in 2009, award-winning DJ J.Period released a free mixtape to the general public via his website that was a collaboration entitled ‘The Messengers’, with Somali-born hip-hop artist K’naan paying tribute to Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. Soon after, Knitting Factory Records began the process of re-releasing the 45 titles that Universal Music controls, starting with yet another re-release of the compilation ‘The Best of the Black President in the USA’. In addition, the full-length documentary film Finding Fela, directed by Alex Gibney, received its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Also, a movie by Focus Features, directed by Steve McQueen and written by Biyi Bandele about the life of Fela Kuti was rumoured to be in production 2010, with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role.
In 1998, Yeni Anikulapo Kuti created Felabration, an annual music festival in memory and celebration of her late father, Fela Kuti. The one-week-long event which is staged annually at the New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, attracts numerous visitors from several countries all over the world. The event features musical performances from top music acts from Nigeria and guest appearances from internationally acclaimed musicians and personalities. It also consists of street parades, symposia on social and topical issues, debates and photo exhibitions.
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