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Fela Kuti: King Grenade

Mick Raubenheimer By

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The propulsive, interlocking rhythms that drive his music incite fevered motion into the crowds adoring his stage, writhing at the groove-looped guitars, the dark majestic flourishes of horns.
His Dark Majestic.

Fela Kuti was born royalty, despite coming from a middle class family. One of those gifted spirits whose very presence teems with potency, Olufela Olusegun Oludan Ransome-Kuti (Fela to his friends and fans) was majestic, arresting the attention or desire of all who encountered him. He was also a rousing rebel, founding his own state in defiance of the militant Nigerian government.

Embodied.

Born into a middle class, but auspicious family in 1939, inheriting his reverend father's pulpit passion, and, from his feminist activist mother, his pride and defiance against authority, Fela Kuti would become Nigeria's most legendary artist, and an icon of rebellion.

Sent to London to enroll in Medicine, Fela instead decided to attend studies in the art of sound, joining the Trinity College of Music. Soon thereafter he introduced London to Highlife, Nigeria's most popular form of music, with his band Koola Lobitos. Fusing Highlife with Jazz, and later swirls of psychedelic Rock, Kuti coined his new music Afrobeat. Exposure to the Black Panther movement in the US further politicized Fela, his lyrics railing against the evils of Power—be it manifest as a militant, brutal government in his own country, or the monumental barbarity guised as sophistication and eloquence, as espoused by Britain. Fela's satirical songs were epic, rambling molotov cocktails flung into the ranks of oppressors. Kuti's songs were ritualistic, designed for the frenzied haze of trance. The trance of sweat. The propulsive, interlocking rhythms that drive his music incite fevered motion into the crowds adoring his stage, writhing at the groove-looped guitars, the dark majestic flourishes of horns.

Blatantly ignoring commercial prospects, Kuti's songs averaged 15 minutes in length, many only resolving themselves after half an hour of turbulent beauty. He also refused to perform songs live once they were recorded, making him the antithesis of Western musical performers, who rely on an audience's appreciation of memorable songs. For Kuti songs were chants, invocations, burning prayers or angry denouncements, but most of all they were in-the-moment. Rituals between performers and audience.

He who carries death in his pouch.

In the early Seventies, Kuti changed one of his middle names to Anikulapo (He who carries death in his pouch), claiming that Ransome was a slave name. He also formed the Kalakuta Republic, a large commune, which he declared to be independent from Nigeria. In the tradition of the ritualistic aspect of his music, Kuti then set up a nightclub called the Afrika Shrine, which became the home base of his performances. His band, which numbered in the dozens, was now called The Africa '70, and Kuti was releasing LP after LP of genre- perfecting Afrobeat. One of these, Zombie, became hugely popular with the masses and devastatingly unpopular with the government. The album was an indictment of the Nigerian military, whom the government then ordered to raze the Kalakuta Republic. One thousand soldiers attacked said Republic, nearly beating Kuti to death, and fatally throwing his elderly mother out of a window. Kalakuta was burnt to the ground. A year later, to mark the negative anniversary of this attack, Kuti responded in a voluptuous positive, marrying 27 women, members of his sprawling band.

Despite the tumult of the Seventies, Kuti remained highly successful through the '80s, with a number of well-received tours of the US. In 1989 he released the anti- Apartheid album Beasts of No Nation, with SA Apartheid president PW Botha sullying the album's cover, along with Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher and goofy actor- turned-president Ronald Reagan.

50 plus albums make up Kuti's legacy, while his stubborn confidence, celebration of Africanness, and political activism enshrine his memory.

Despite Kuti's refusal to conform to radio-friendly format, his influence today is arguably stronger than ever, and lives on in the torch carried by his son Femi Kuti.

This article was first published in Muse Magazine (2013).

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