Celebrating Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, Nigerian Music Icon And Activist

Fela was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, on 15 October 1938 in
Abeokuta , Ogun State , Nigeria into an upper-middle-class family. His mother, Chief  Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti , was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial
movement; his father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti , an
Anglican minister and school principal, was the first president of the
Nigeria Union of Teachers . His brothers, Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye
Ransome-Kuti , both medical doctors , are well known in Nigeria. Fela is
a cousin to the Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka , the
first African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature . 
He
attended Abeokuta Grammar School. Later he was sent to London in 1958 to
study medicine but decided to study music instead at the Trinity
College of Music , the trumpet being his preferred instrument. While
there, he formed the band Koola Lobitos, playing a fusion of jazz and
highlife . In 1960, Fela married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi)
Taylor, with whom he would have three children ( Femi , Yeni , and
Sola). In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and
trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars.

In
1967, he went to Ghana to think up a new musical direction. That was
when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat . In 1969, Fela took the band
to the United States where they spent 10 months in Los Angeles. While
there, Fela discovered the Black Power movement through Sandra Smith
(now Sandra Izsadore), a partisan of the Black Panther Party. The
experience would heavily influence his music and political views. He
renamed the band Nigeria ’70. Soon afterwards, the Immigration and
Naturalization Service was tipped off by a promoter that Fela and his
band were in the US without work permits. The band immediately performed
a quick recording session in Los Angeles that would later be released
as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.

After Fela and his band
returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed The Afrika ’70, as lyrical
themes changed from love to social issues. He then formed the Kalakuta
Republic, a
commune , a recording studio, and a home for the
many people connected to the band that he later declared indepent. Fela
set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and
then the Afrika Shrine, where he both performed regularly and officiated
at personalized Yoruba traditional ceremonies in honour of his nation’s
ancestral faith. He also changed his name to Anikulapo (meaning “He who
carries death in his pouch”, with the interpretation: “I will be the master of my own destiny and will decide when it is time for death to take me”). 
He stopped using the hyphenated surname “Ransome” because it was a slave name .
Fela’s music was popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in
general. In fact, he made the decision to sing in Pidgin English so that
his music could be enjoyed by individuals all over Africa, where the
local languages spoken are very diverse and numerous . As popular as
Fela’s music had become in Nigeria and elsewhere, it was also very
unpopular with the ruling government, and raids on the Kalakuta Republic
were frequent. During 1972,
Ginger Baker recorded Stratavarious
with Fela appearing alongside Bobby Tench . Around this time, Kuti
became even more involved in the Yoruba religion .


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In 1977,
Fela and the Afrika ’70 released the album Zombie , a scathing attack on
Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of
the Nigerian military . The album was a smash hit and infuriated the
government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic,
during which one thousand soldiers attacked the commune. Fela was
severely beaten, and his elderly mother (whose house was located
opposite the commune) was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries.
The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and
master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed
had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was
being beaten. Fela’s response to the attack was to deliver his mother’s
coffin to the
Dodan Barracks in Lagos , General Olusegun Obasanjo ‘s
residence, and to write two songs, “Coffin for Head of State” and
“Unknown Soldier”, referencing the official inquiry that claimed the
commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier. 
Fela and his band
then took residence in Crossroads Hotel, as the Shrine had been
destroyed along with his commune. In 1978, Fela married 27 women, many
of whom were his dancers, composers, and singers. The marriage served
not only to mark the anniversary of the attack on the Kalakuta Republic
but also to protect Fela, and his wives, from false claims from
authorities that Fela was kidnapping the women. Later, he was to adopt a
rotation system of keeping only 12 simultaneous wives. The year was
also marked by two notorious concerts, the first in
Accra in which
riots broke out during the song “Zombie”, which led to Fela being banned
from entering Ghana . The second was at the Berlin Jazz Festival after
which most of Fela’s musicians deserted him, due to rumours that Fela
was planning to use the entire proceeds to fund his presidential
campaign.

Despite the massive setbacks, Fela was determined to come
back. He formed his own political party, which he called Movement of the
People (MOP), in order to “clean up society like a mop”. 


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As
Fela states in an interview, “Stressing the point that, ” I have to make
Africans aware of the fact that Egyptian civilization belongs to the
African. So that was the reason why I changed the name of my band to
Egypt 80.” Fela continued to record albums and tour the country. He
further infuriated the political establishment by dropping the names of
ITT Corporation vice-president Moshood Abiola and then General Olusegun
Obasanjo at the end of a hot-selling 25-minute political screed entitled
“I.T.T. (International Thief-Thief)”.

In 1984, Muhammadu
Buhari ‘s government, of which Kuti was a vocal opponent, jailed him on a
charge of currency smuggling which Amnesty International and others
denounced as politically motivated. Amnesty designated him a prisoner of
conscience , and his case was also taken up by other human rights
groups. After 20 months, he was released from prison by General Ibrahim
Babangida . On his release he divorced his 12 remaining wives, saying
that “marriage brings jealousy and selfishness”.

Once again, Fela
continued to release albums with Egypt ’80, made a number of successful
tours of the United States and Europe and also continued to be
politically active. In 1986, Fela performed in Giants Stadium in New
Jersey as part of the Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope
concert, sharing the bill with Bono ,
Carlos Santana, and The Neville Brothers . In 1989, Fela and Egypt ’80 released the anti-
apartheid Beasts of No Nation that depicts on its cover U.S. President
Ronald Reagan , UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and South African
State President Pieter Willem Botha , that title of the composition, as
Barrett notes, having evolved out of a statement by Botha: “This
uprising [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us.”

Fela’s album output slowed in the 1990s, and eventually
he stopped releasing albums altogether. In 1993, he and four members of
the Afrika ’70 organization were arrested for murder. The battle against
military corruption in Nigeria was taking its toll, especially during
the rise of Sani Abacha . Rumours were also spreading that he was
suffering from an illness for which he was refusing treatmentreatments.
On 3 August 1997, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti , already a prominent AIDS activist and former
Minister of Health , announced his younger brother’s death a day
earlier from complications related to AIDS . However, there has been no
definitive proof that Kuti died from complications related to HIV/AIDS,
and much skepticism surrounds this alleged cause of death and the
sources that have popularized this claim. For example, it is widely
claimed that Fela suffered and may have possibly died from Kaposi’s
Sarcoma , which is a symptom of HIV/AIDS infection. However, there are
no known photos of Kuti with telltale lesions; moreover, Kuti was
honored with a lying-in-state in which his remains were encased in a
five-sided glass coffin for full public viewing. More than one million
people attended Fela’s funeral at the site of the old Shrine compound.
The New Afrika Shrine has opened since Fela’s death in a different
section of Lagos under the supervision of his son Femi.
We are proud to celebrate this Nigeria Afrobeat Icon and activists. May his soul continue to rest!. 


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