Fela Kuti: Biography, songs, activism, death, legacy, children

Fela Kuti: Biography, songs, activism, death, legacy, children

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, also known as Abami Eda or simply Fela Kuti was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, band leader, composer, political activist, and Pan-Africanist born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. He is credited with creating Afrobeat, an African music genre that merges West African music with American funk and jazz. He was described as one of Africa’s most “challenging and compelling music performers” at the height of his fame. He was a musical and sociopolitical voice of international significance, according to AllMusic.


Fela Kuti was born on October 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. Funmilayo, his mother, was an anti-colonialist and feminist activist who was the first woman in Nigeria to drive an automobile. Israel Oludotun, his father, was an Anglican pastor and the founder of the ‘Nigeria Union of Teachers’. Beko and Olikoye, two of his brothers, who later became well-known doctors, and Dolu, his sister, were his siblings.

Because they are both descendants of Josiah Ransome-Kuti, Kuti’s paternal grandfather, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s maternal great-grandfather, Kuti was a first cousin to the writer and the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born into a wealthy family, Fela had a comfortable life. He had access to the best education at the time. Fela had his secondary school education at the Abeokuta Grammar School. After his graduation, his parents sent him to the United Kingdom to pursue a career in medicine.

When he arrived in London, he chose to pursue a career in music and enrolled at the Trinity College of Music.

He prefers the saxophone as his primary instrument. He founded the Koola Lobitos, a blend of jazz and highlife, while he was there. Kuti married his first wife, Remilekun (Remi) Taylor, in 1960, and they had three children together (Femi, Yeni, and Sola).

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In 1963, Kuti re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in the newly created Federation of Nigeria. He was a member of Victor Olaiya’s All-Stars for a while.

Kuti traveled to Ghana in search of a fresh artistic path in 1967. He coined the term “Afrobeat” to describe a musical style that combines highlife, funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, and traditional Yoruba music. Kuti moved the band to the United States in 1969 and stayed in Los Angeles for ten months. While there, he was introduced to the Black Power movement by Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore or Sandra Akanke Isidore), a Black Panther Party supporter.

This event had a significant impact on his music and political ideas. Soon after, a promoter informed the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Kuti and his band were in the US without work permits. In Los Angeles, the band had a brief recording session that would ultimately be released as The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions.

As the group’s lyrical topics shifted from love to social issues after Kuti and his band returned to Nigeria, the group was renamed (the) Africa ’70. He founded the Kalakuta Republic, which served as a commune, recording studio, and home for many band members before declaring independence from Nigeria.

Kuti opened the Afro-Spot, later renamed the Afrika Shrine, in the Empire Hotel, where he performed regularly and officiated at individualized Yoruba traditional rites in honor of his nation’s ancient beliefs. He also renamed himself 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 ‘Ransome’ because he thought the hyphenated surname was a slave name.

Kuti’s music was well-liked by both Nigerians and Africans in general. He chose to sing in Pidgin English so that people all throughout Africa may enjoy his music, even though the indigenous languages spoken there are vast and distinct.

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His music was famous in Nigeria and internationally, but it was unpopular with the reigning government, which led to regular raids on the Kalakuta Republic.

Ginger Baker recorded Stratavarious in 1972, with Kuti joining vocalist and guitarist Bobby Tench. Kuti became much more strongly acquainted with the Yoruba faith about this time.

In 1977, Kuti and Africa 70 released the album Zombie, which heavily criticized Nigerian soldiers and used the zombie metaphor to describe the Nigerian military’s methods. The album was a massive success and infuriated the government, which raided the Kalakuta Republic with 1,000 soldiers. During the raid, Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was fatally injured after being thrown from a window.

Kuti’s studio, equipment, and master tapes were all destroyed when the commune was burned down. Kuti said he would have been murdered if a commanding officer had not intervened while he was being thrashed. Kuti’s response to the attack was to take his mother’s coffin to General Olusegun Obasanjo’s residence, the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, and write two songs, Coffin for Head of State and Unknown Soldier, referring to the official investigation that claimed an unknown soldier had destroyed the commune.

Fela married 27 women in 1978. He collaborated with a lot of dancers, vocalists, and composers. Kuti and his wives were married not just to commemorate the attack on the Kalakuta Republic but also to shield them from authorities’ accusations that he was kidnapping women.

Kuti founded his political organization, Movement of the People (MOP), in 1979 to “clean up society like a mop,” but it rapidly went dormant due to his clashes with the government of the time. MOP preached African nationalism and Nkrumahism.

In 1984, the government of Muhammadu Buhari, of which Kuti was a vociferous critic, imprisoned him on an allegation of money smuggling. Amnesty International and others denounced the charges as politically motivated. Amnesty designated him as a prisoner of conscience, and other human rights organizations took up his case. General Ibrahim Babangida released him from prison after 20 months.

While remaining politically engaged, Kuti continued to record albums with his new band Egypt 80, and toured in the United States and Europe. Along with Bono, Carlos Santana, and the Neville Brothers, he performed in Giants Stadium in New Jersey in 1986 as part of Amnesty International’s A Conspiracy of Hope performance. Kuti and Egypt 80 released the anti-apartheid album Beasts of No Nation in 1989, which included images of US President Ronald Reagan, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and South African President Pieter Willem Botha on the cover. “This rebellion [against the apartheid system] will bring out the beast in us,” Botha said in a statement that inspired the title of the piece.

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Fela Kuti songs

Fela’s songs were popular not just in Africa but all over the world. Most of his songs were written about society’s ills, corruption, and Nigeria’s bad governance.

Some of his songs are:

  • Lady
  • Shakara
  • Water No Get Enemy
  • Zombie
  • Gentleman
  • Sorrow, Tears, and Blood
  • Coffin for The Head of State
  • Shuffering and Shmiling
  • Let’s Start
  • Beast of No Nation
  • Colonial Mentality
  • Look and Laugh
  • Yellow Fever
  • Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am
  • Black Man’s Cry
  • Mister Follow Follow
  • International Thief Thief
  • Ololufe Mi

Some of his albums include.

  • Gentleman (1973)
  • Expensive Shit (1975)
  • Zombie (1977)
  • Beast of No Nation (1989)
  • Army Arrangement (1985)

Fela activism

From the 1970s until his death, Kuti was heavily involved in political action in Africa. He chastised Nigerian government officials for their corruption and residents’ abuse. He saw colonialism as the source of the African people’s socioeconomic and political difficulties.

In the 1970s, one of the most serious political issues confronting Africa was corruption, and Nigeria was one of the most corrupt countries. Its regime falsified elections and staged coups, worsening poverty, economic inequality, unemployment, and political instability while also encouraging corruption and criminality. Kuti’s protest songs were inspired by Africa’s reality of corruption and socioeconomic inequality. Kuti’s political remarks reverberated across Africa.

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Kuti’s outspoken criticism of Nigeria’s harsh and authoritarian regime was not without repercussions.

He was arrested over 200 times and served time in prison, the longest of which was 20 months after his arrest in 1984. In addition to imprisoning Kuti, the government deployed soldiers to beat him, his family, and friends and demolish his home and any instruments or recordings he had.

Kuti began publishing outspoken political articles in the advertising space of daily and weekly newspapers like The Daily Times and The Punch in the 1970s, circumventing editorial censorship in Nigeria’s largely state-controlled media. These articles, which were published under the title Chief Priest Say throughout the 1970s, and early 1980s, were extensions of Kuti’s legendary Yabi Sessions, which were consciousness-raising word-sound rituals held at his Lagos nightclub with him as chief priest. Chief Priest Say centered on the role of cultural hegemony in the continued captivity of Africans, and was organised around a militantly Afrocentric portrayal of history and the essence of black beauty.

Kuti spoke out against the Nigerian government’s criminal activity, the exploitative nature of Islam and Christianity, evil multinational businesses, and deconstructions of western medicine, black Muslims, prostitution, pollution, and poverty. The Daily Times and The Punch finally terminated Chief Priest Say. Many have speculated that the papers’ editors were under duress, including threats of violence, to discontinue publishing.

Fela Kuti’s death

Kuti’s brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a notable AIDS campaigner and former Minister of Health, stated on August 3, 1997, that Kuti had died the day before from AIDS-related complications. Kuti was an AIDS denier, and his wife insisted that he did not die of the disease. Seun, Kuti’s youngest son, took over as Kuti’s old band leader, Egypt 80. The band was still active as of 2020, recording songs under the name Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.

Fela Kuti’s legacy

Kuti is known as a powerful figure who used his music to express his views on issues that plagued the country. Since 1998, the Felabration festival, founded by his daughter Yeni Kuti, has been held annually at the New Afrika Shrine to commemorate the life and birthday of this music legend.

Since Kuti’s death in 1997, there has been a resurgence of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another UMG-controlled re-release of his catalog, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically based shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who are bringing the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.

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Under the direction of Francis Kertekian, Universal Music France restored 45 albums and reissued them on 26 compact discs in 1999. Except in Nigeria and Japan, where other corporations controlled Kuti’s music, these titles were licensed worldwide. In 2005, UMG’s American operations licensed all of its world-music titles to Wrasse Records, a UK-based company that repackaged the same 26 discs for distribution in the US (where they replaced MCA’s titles) and the UK.

Universal signed new deals with Knitting Factory Records and PIAS in 2009 for the US and Europe, respectively, that included the release of the Broadway cast recording of the musical Fela! BMG Rights Management bought FKO Ltd., the company that owned the rights to all of Kuti’s compositions, in 2013.

The Black President show, which launched in 2003 at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York, comprised concerts, seminars, videos, and installations by 39 international artists.

Fela!, an off-Broadway production about Kuti’s life inspired by the 1982 biography Fela, premiered in 2008. The Afrobeat band Antibalas and Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones collaborated on a workshop for Carlos Moore’s This Bitch of a Life. The show was a huge hit, with sold-out performances and critical acclaim throughout its run. Fela! opened on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on November 22, 2009.

Jim Lewis (together with Jones) contributed to the script’s co-writing and secured producer support from Jay-Z and Will Smith.

On May 4, 2010, Fela! received 11 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Musical, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White. The Royal National Theatre’s production of Fela! in London was filmed in 2011. Fela! was announced to be returning to Broadway for 32 performances on June 11, 2012.

Fela Kuti children

The music legend gave birth to seven children, most of whom followed in his music footsteps in the music industry. His children are from four different women. His children are Yeni, Sola, Femi, Salewa, Motunrayo, Kunle, and Seun.


Fela Kuti was a brave musician who was not afraid to use his voice to speak against the ills in society. He was beaten severely and locked up in prison many times by the military government, but none of that stopped him from speaking his mind and effecting change in the little way he could.

Fela’s music is a source of inspiration to many young artists like Wizkid, Burna Boy, etc. Many musicians have adopted his style of music all over the world.

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Esther is versatile writer who thrives in writing top-notch long-form articles. She enjoys research and has an eye for details. She's currently a writer at BlackDot Media.
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