Seventy-one years ago today, in a small city in Nigeria, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born. Few Americans have ever heard of Kuti or Afrobeat, the genre he created — part jazz, part funk, part West African highlife — he created with his drummer Tony Allen. That’s too bad. A zeal for political activism complemented his compositional genius and charismatic personality. He used his music and the power, influence and prestige that came along with it, to stand up against Nigeria’s infamously corrupt and oppressive government. Kuti was revolutionary.
But he didn’t have to be. The enormous popularity he enjoyed during his career would have ensured a cushy lifestyle — schmoozing with other famous musicians, enjoying his celebrity status, baseball-bat-sized-blunts and the company of his 27 wives. But aside from tours in America and Europe, Kuti chose to remain in Nigeria fighting corruption. At the behest of its leaders he endured beatings, threats, jailing and broken bones, year after year. But Kuti chose to uphold his commitment to his people; he chose to be their voice against the country’s oppressive politicians and exploitative international corporations; he stood up for Nigerians’ rights to life, freedom and a good government.
Kuti was Nigeria’s (and maybe even Africa’s) version of James Brown, Mick Jagger, Bob Marley and Che Guevara. He brought politics and sexuality to the forefront of his music, radical notions for an British-educated man from a prominent upper-middle-class Yoruba family. He culled the ideologies of the Black Power movement, then championed traditional African customs while discouraging “western” practices like skin bleaching and hair straightening, which he believed to be remnants of colonialism.
This is not to say Kuti was perfect. At best, he was a complex figure, complete with flaws and contradictions. To his fans, he is the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat. To his detractors, he is a crazy, pot-smoking man who had 27 wives and died of AIDS. His views on women’s rights were particularly reactionary. He considered women to be inferior and believed their natural place was in the home.
Yet, perhaps, there is beauty in the imperfection. As Yale music professor Michael Veal argues in his biography of Kuti, “it was this volatile mix of personal ingredients — charisma, musical talent, maverick lifestyle, populist ideology, and persistence in the face of persecution — that combined to make Fela a legend throughout Africa and the world.”
Today, as we celebrate his birth, we would do well to remember the lessons of Kuti, his music and his political legacy. For his people, Kuti sacrified more than any of us probably ever will. And although he may not be famous now, good music, they say, never goes away.
Jennifer Parker is a junior in Silliman College.