Huffpost Black Voices
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Kirsten West Savali Headshot

The Life and Legacy of Fela Kuti

Posted: Updated:

Music is the weapon of the future - Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (October 15, 1938 - August 2, 1997)

Born into the violent bloodshed and political upheaval of an Africa at war with herself, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man) leaves a nuanced legacy as complex and paradoxical as the life that he lived.

From the gritty streets of Los Angeles and London, to the Mushin of Lagos, Fela conjured up potent rhythms and revolutionary lyrics, laced with the antidote to the poisonous military regimes that were methodically murdering the spirit of Nigeria during his lifetime. He ignited the spark of a dormant revolution through his willingness to sacrifice his life -- and the lives of his loved ones -- and the remnants of the wildfire he created still smolders through the musical genres of Soul, Funk, Jazz, Blues, Hip-Hop and African Highlife.

Stevie Wonder has said that Fela was a "pioneer" to which the "musical world owes a debt of gratitude." Hip-Hop artist, QuestLove, draws stark parallels between Fela's life and music and the rebellion, raw and undiluted, that is evident in hip-hop. As a testament to his lasting legacy, the Broadway musical, FELA!, is currently touring the United States and Europe; sponsored by hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z, and Hollywood power couple, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, the unique and provocative performance brings Fela's textured life story to the masses.

A contemporary of Bob Marley and James Brown, Fela used his music to stare down the oppressive politics that threatened to ruin Africa and remained insistent to his last breath that the Cradle of Civilization must not bow to vulgar attempts at transforming her into a bastardized Europe. He waged a strategic, grassroots war to preserve the core of the continent's existence and fought for the rebirth of humanity -- one rooted in family, class equality and a re-invigorated sense of community where greedy capitalist narratives, corrupt politicians and selfish individualism would not be tolerated.

Known primarily for his art and political endeavors, it speaks to the complexity of Fela's existence that within the pages of his life and the underbelly of his lyrics, one begins to grasp that his legend is tainted with a blatant misogyny and intolerance that stands as the antithesis to the freedom and human dignity he dedicated his life to achieving.

In Fela: This Bitch of a Life, written by Carlos Moore, Fela speaks freely about women being nothing more than mere "mattresses" on which men were meant to sleep. It was also his belief that "women are like Satan, in that stupid book, The Bible." He preferred his women to be passive and obedient, "the African way," and did not hesitate to strike one of his 27 wives if they did anything to displease him. He considered religion, specifically, Christianity and Islam, to be dangerous impediments of nature. It was Fela's perspective that some young girls are ready for sex as early as nine-years old, and that the suppressive institutions of religion, which attempt to mold sexual relations into a narrow box where only two married adults -- male and female -- can fit, led directly to homosexuality; which to Fela, was the only unnatural framework for sex, because reproduction is impossible.

While there are certainly obvious dangers lurking in organized religion, such as interpreting certain passages of Holy books to justify slavery, prejudice and violence towards women, Fela's co-option of some of those very same beliefs in his own relationships (male dominance, child molestation, polygamy and domestic abuse) while repudiating the rest, is blatant hypocrisy.

To watch one of Fela's performances is to witness the roots of Hip-Hop music. Misogyny in rap did not materialize in the boroughs of New York or the strip clubs of Atlanta where the magnificence of the feminine form is appreciated, while what lies beneath is ignored; rather, it manifested in part through the ancestral characterization of women as "mattresses" in need of men to elevate their status and provide sexual gratification.

The fact that Beyonce Knowles, a self-proclaimed feminist who recently declared that "Girls Run The World", appeared in L'Officiel Paris in blackface to honor Fela and his 27 "Queens"-- even though he physically abused them -- is a testament to the one dimensional perspective through which we examine Fela. It is also an ironic reflection of his priorities that the controversy generated over the images was due to her unfortunate choice to mimic racist satire -- not her celebration of domestic violence, which disproportionately affects the Black and African-American women she claims to empower. In allowing herself to be blinded by his skewed mythology -- that she protects and proliferates through her "iconic" photoshoot -- she squandered an opportunity to not only speak out against violent crimes against women, but also to honor Fela's true Queen: his mother, Funmilayo.

Fela's mother, civil rights leader and feminist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, also known as "Bere", was the catalyst who shaped Fela into the revolutionary he would later become. She tirelessly fought to eradicate the colonialism, racism and sexism running rampant through Nigeria, and as a boy, Fela soaked in her wisdom and took great pride in her fearlessness. Sandra Iszadore, a Black Panther who Fela considers one of the most influential women in his life, exposed him to anti-establishment human rights battles being waged in the United States, educating him on everyone from Malcolm X to The Last Poets. Sandra opened his eyes to the injustice in the world around him, and by his own account, introduced him to his own "African-ness."

Without these two women, the Fela Kuti that is recognized as a transformative political figure would not exist. It is no coincidence that the two women he valued above all others demanded his respect, subsequently, receiving it without reservation.

Ultimately, Fela died from AIDS related complications in 1997, at the age of 58. He refused to his last breath to believe that he was infected with the fatal disease -- characterizing both AIDS and contraceptive protection as "un-African." Towards the end of his life, he lived in a paranoid alternate reality where the lesions covering his body were merely a "spiritual changing of the skin" and symbols of his re-birth as a political martyr. His wives began to leave the Kalakuta Republic, seeking refuge in the Mushin of Lagos as prostitutes. He not only encouraged them to leave if he "failed them as a husband," but also bluntly stated that in Yoruba it is called asewo and is the equivalent of European men providing dowries to take possession of their wives. He never once considered the lives of his Queens, nor his children; one of them, Fehintola, eventually died from AIDS in 2006 and it is unknown how many others may have been infected. Fela fathered at least three children after becoming infected with AIDS, performing his irresponsible song ridiculing safe sex practices "Condom Scallywag and Scatter" from his throne at the Afrika Shrine.

Fela's life is a blueprint that clearly illuminates both the polarized ugliness and beauty that finds shelter in the hearts of all humans. In the degradation of women in hip-hop, I hear Fela; yet, he also lives in the lyricism of Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def). In discriminatory laws against the LGBT community, I see Fela; yet, he also lives in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. From immigration and racial profiling battles, to subjugation of women throughout society, there are echoes of Fela's spirit, determination and, yes, his dogmatic belief in a patriarchal society.

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's legacy is one that is greater than the sum of its parts. Domestic violence and flagrant devaluation of women are just as much telltale signs of his character as his love for his people. As a feminist and journalist, I have only been able to reconcile my appreciation of Fela's political activism and musical genius by embracing the realization that the revolution did not die with him. In some ways, it began with his unapologetic refusal to allow Africa to drown in colonialism and his steadfast support of those living in poverty; in others, it will continue despite injustices and stigmas he perpetuated through his life, death and music.

When asked by author Carlos Moore did he want to leave an imprint on the world, Fela responded:

No. Not at all. You know what I want? I want the world to change. I don't want to be remembered. I just want to do my part and leave. If remembering is part of the world's thing, then that's their problem. I'll do my part. I have to do my part. And everyone has to do his. Not for what they're going to remember you for, but for what you believe in as a man. A human being should be like that.

That is the complex legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Around the Web

Fela Kuti remembered | Music | Observer Music Monthly

Fela Kuti: Spliffs, riffs . . . and 27 wives | Music | The Guardian

Remembering Fela Kuti and HIV AIDS