Musician and political activist Fela Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-kuti on October 15, 1938 in Absolute Nigeria.
Kuti was the son of Protestant minister, Reverend Ransom Kuti, a talented pianist. His mother, Funmilayo was a political activist, so at early age Fela experienced music and politics in a seamless combination. His parents were less interested in him becoming a musician, they wanted him to become a Medical Doctor.
As a child,kuti learned piano and drums and led his school choir. In the 1950s, Kuti told his parents that he was moving London, England to study medicine, but ended up attending the Trinity College of Music instead. While at Trinity, Kuti studied classical music and developed an awareness of American jazz. Fela formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, in 1961, and quickly became a fixture on the London club scene.
He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and started another version of Koola Lobitos that was more influenced by the James Brown-style singing of Geraldo Pina from Sierra Leone. Combining this with elements of traditional high life and jazz, Fela dubbed this intensely rhythmic hybrid “Afro-beat,” partly as critique of African performers whom he felt had turned their backs on their African musical roots in order to emulate current American pop music trends. He changed the band name twice that’s Afrika 70 and Egypt 80,kuti sang in combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. It was during this time that he dropped his given middle name of “Ransome” which he said was a slave name, and took the name “Anikulapo” (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”) .
Playing constantly and recording at a ferocious pace, Fela and band (who were now called Africa 70) became huge stars in West Africa. His biggest fan base, however, was Nigeria’s poor. Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass because the Nigeria government was a military rule so the poor Nigerians were suffering.
He was the voice of the voiceless poor people in Nigeria for that matter they love him and they were the biggest fans for him and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him. In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 (the second government-sanctioned attack).
Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.
After the Kalakuta tragedy, Fela briefly lived in exile in Ghana, returning to Nigeria in 1978. In 1979 he formed his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), and at the start of the new decade renamed his band Egypt 80. From 1980-1983, Nigeria was under civilian rule, and it was a relatively peaceful period for Fela, who recorded and toured non-stop. Military rule returned in 1983, and in 1984 Fela was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of currency smuggling. With help from Amnesty International, he was freed in 1985.
Rather than abandon his cause, however, Kuti used these experiences as inspiration to write more lyrics. He produced roughly 50 albums over the course of his musical career.
Fela Kuti was a polygamist. A woman named Remi was the first of Kuti’s wives. In 1978, Kuti married 27 more women in a single wedding ceremony. He would eventually divorce them all. Kuti’s children with Remi included a son, Femi, and daughters Yeni and Sola. Sola died of cancer not long after her father’s death in 1997. All three offspring were members of the Positive Force, a band they founded in the 1980s.
Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on August 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. Roughly 1 million people attended his funeral procession, which began at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at Kuti’s home, Kalakuta, in Ikeja, Nigeria, where he was laid to rest in the front yard.