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Fela Kuti

By the time the Nigerian star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died in 1997 at age 58, he’d become the Beethoven, Che Guevara, Allen Ginsberg, and Malcolm X of African popular music. His funeral in Lagos drew bigger crowds than the burial ceremonies for the country’s former heads of state. Known simply as Fela to a global legion of fans, he had a special importance for a generation of Nigerians who grew up as I did, in the turbulent era after independence in 1960. Rising to fame in the wake of a civil war, a time marred by corruption and military rule, Fela had the audacity to challenge those who were exploiting an entire land for their personal gain. Like other young Nigerian writers and artists, I learned from him that the creative spirit can be turned against the abuses of power. For us, he will always be one of the most colorful and controversial figures in the country’s history.

Seen through a Western lens, Fela’s life is a fascinating study of a character shaped by family expectations and his era’s turbulent events. But Fela can also be viewed in a different light. Compared to similar figures enshrined in West African myth, he’s the latest in a long lineage of artist-heroes with the courage to turn performance into a political act.

— Esiaba Irobi, “Singing Truth to Power,” the Utne Reader

It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he’s more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac. His death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice on a par with Bob Marley was silenced. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela’s death noted: “Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa.” This is as succinct a summation of Fela’s political agenda as one is likely to find.

— John Dougan at allmusic.com

Click here for lyrics to “Beasts of No Nation”

And here’s a brief 10-minute portrait of Fela Kuti:

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