Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, previously Ransome-Kuti, was born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 1938. His family belonged to the Egba branch of the Yoruba tribe. His father, like his grandfather, was a minister of the Protestant church, and director of the local grammar school. His mother was a teacher, but later became a politician of some considerable influence. As a teenager, Fela would run for miles to attend traditional celebrations in the area, already feeling that the authentic African culture of his ancestors ought to be preserved.
His parents sent him to London in 1958, but rather than study medicine like his two brothers and his sister, Fela chose to register at the Trinity School of Music, where he was to spend the next five years. Whilst still a student, he married a Nigerian girl called Remi and had three children. In his spare time, Fela played in a high-life band called Koola Lobitos with other Nigerian musicians living in London. Among these was J.K. Bremah, who had previously influenced Fela by introducing him to African music circles in Lagos at a time when western music predominated there.
Fela returned to the Nigerian capital in 1963, three years after independence. Soon after, he was playing high life and jazz, fronting the band with those of the musicians who had come back from England. Over the next few years, they performed regularly in Lagos and then in 1969, in the midst of the Biafra war, Fela decided to take the Koola Lobitos to the United States. In Los Angeles, he changed the names of the group to Fela Ransome-Kuti And Nigeria 70. At the club where they were playing, he met an African American girl, Sandra Isodore, who was a close friend to the Black Panthers. She introduced Fela to the philosophies and writings of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver and other Black activists and thinkers, through which he was to become aware of the link existing between Black people all over the world. Through this insight, Fela also gained a clearer understanding of his mother's fight for the rights of Africans under colonial rule in Nigeria, together with her support of the Pan Africanist doctrine expounded by Kwame Nkrumah, the Ghanaian Head of State, who had negotiated independence for his country with the British. Whilst in Los Angeles, Fela also found the inspiration he was seeking to create his own unique style of music, which he named Afro-Beat. Before leaving America, the band recorded some of these new songs. Back at home, Fela once again changed the name of the group, this time to Fela Ransome-Kuti & Africa 70. The L.A. recordings were released as a series of singles.
This new African music was a great success in Lagos and Fela was to open a club in the Empire Hotel, called the Afro-Shrine. At that time, he was still playing the trumpet, having not yet changed to the saxophone and piano. He started singing mostly in Pidgin English rather than in Yoruba, so as to be understood all over Nigeria and in the neighbouring countries. In his songs, he depicted everyday social situations with which a large part of the African population were able to identify.
Young people from all over Nigerian flocked to hear his songs which developed themes relating to Blackism and Africanism, encouraging a return to traditional African religions. Later he was to become satirical and sarcastic towards those in power, condemning both military and civilian regimes for their crimes of mismanagement, incompetence, theft, corruption and maginalisation of the underprivileged.
In 1974, pursuing his dream of an alternative society, he built a fence around his house and declared it to be an independent state: The Kalakuta Republic. To the chagrin of the bourgeois section of the Nigerian society, this act of defiance was soon to spread throughout the entire neighbourhood as more and more people were inspired by Fela's stance. The authorities remained vigilant, fearing the potential power of his 'state within a state'. On countless occasions, he was to suffer the consequences of his scathing denunciations with arrests, imprisonment and beatings at the hands of the authorities.
With each incarceration and violent confrontation with the powers that be, Fela became more outspoken, changing his family name from 'Ransome-Kuti' to 'Anikulapo' - 'he who carries death in his pouch'. His notoriety spread and his records began to sell in their millions. The population of the Kalakuta Republic grew amidst mounting criticism, particularly of the young people, many of whom were still in their teens who left their families to live there.
During the 'Festival for Black Arts and Culture' (FESTAC) held in Lagos in 1977, Fela sang Zombie, a satire against the military, which was to become enormously popular throughout Africa, bringing down the fury of the Nigerian army upon him and his followers. As Fela relates in Unknown Soldier, a thousand soldiers attacked the "Kalakuta Republic", burning down his house and beating all of its occupants. The song tells that, during the course of this attack, his mother was thrown from a first floor window and later died from her injuries.
Homeless and without a Shrine, which had also been destroyed along with the entire neighbourhood, Fela and his group moved to the Crossroads Hotel. A year later, Fela went to Accra to arrange a tour. Upon his return, to mark the 1st Anniversary of the destruction of the Kalakuta Republic, Fela married twenty seven girls in a collective ceremony, many of whom were his dancers and singers, giving them all the name Anikulapo-Kuti. After the wedding, the whole group set off for Accra where concerts had been planned. In a packed Accra stadium, as Fela played ZOMBIE, riots broke out. The entire group was arrested and held in custody for two days before being put on a plane bound for Lagos, banned from returning to Ghana.
Upon his return to Lagos, still with nowhere to live, Fela and his entire entourage squatted the offices of DECCA, where they remained for almost two months. Soon after, Fela was invited with the seventy-strong Africa 70 to play at the Berlin Festival. After the show, almost all of his musicians ran away. Despite this catalogue of set-backs, Fela returned to Lagos determined to continue.
The King of Afro-beat and his Queens went to live in Ikeja, in J.K. Bremah's house; a new Kalakuta. There, Fela, more political than ever, went on to form his own party, "Movement of the People". He presented himself as a Presidential candidate in the 1979 elections that would return the country to civilian rule. His candidature was refused. Four years later, at the next elections, Fela once more stood for president, but was prevented from campaigning by the police, who again rampaged through his house, imprisoning and beating Fela and many of his followers. However, any further presidential aspirations were crushed when a coup brought Nigeria back to military rule.
In 1984, with General Buhari in power, Fela served twenty months of a five year prison sentence on trumped-up currency charges. He was only released when, under General Babangida, the judge confessed to having sentenced him with such severity because of pressure from the previous regime. The judge was dismissed from office and Fela was given his liberty.
Over the next decade, with an entourage of up to eighty people, now called Egypt 80, Fela made several visits to Europe and the United States. These tours were to receive tremendous public and critical acclaim, and made an important contribution to the worldwide popular acceptance of African rhythms and African culture.
Considering himself to be the spiritual son of Kwame Nkrumah, the renowned Pan-Africanist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a virulent critic of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Over the past twenty years, he became famous as a spokesman for the great mass of people, in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa and the African Diaspora, disenchanted with the period of post-independence.
His sad death in August 1997 was mourned by the nation. Even those who did not agree with him were among the million people or more who attended his funeral. Even the many governmental letters of condolence sent to his family were eloquent testimonials to a great man. His death was attributed to Aids related causes, though a more popular diagnosis was that his system was sufficiently weakened by the countless beatings at the hands of the authorities to allow disease to enter.
Throughout his life, Fela was sustained by the unconditional love and respect offered to him by the millions of people whose lives he touched. In death he retains the legendary status by which he was proclaimed by the throngs of people who came to pay their last respects at his laying in state in Tafa Balewa Square 'Abami Eda' - (Chief Preist). "He will live for ever"!