“The music of Africa is big sound: it’s the sound of a community.” – Fela Kuti
When Fela Kuti was born, Africa was a continent in transition. With the besieging force of colonialism slowly departing at least in a surface sense, ideals such as Pan-Africanism and a desire to re-establish independent cultures began to enter the discourse of the continent. Kuti was born in the Western region of Nigeria among the countries elite in 1938. Thereafter, he ventured away from the blue skies of home to the rather grey climes of London in the mid-1950s to be trained up as a doctor. All of this created quite a welter of influences during the formative years of one of the most kaleidoscopic creatures in music history.
Kuti was coming at music from a different perspective to most. He was proficient on the drums, keyboard, guitar, saxophone and singing as well as being able to jive about like a Lemur behind a jackhammer on a fault line. However, he was far from the only multi-instrumentalist with character on the scene. What made him stand out was the wavering path of his eventful life and the views he had collected along the way — namely the academic grounding of his groovy madness.
He took his politically conscious party on the road and became a global sensation of wild acclaim. His music was invigorating and astoundingly different, concocting the eponymous Afrobeat from the heady mix and West African rhythms, American jazz and a whiff of rock ‘n’ roll. According to his manager, Rikki Stein, he would parade around conservative Western five-star hotels in nothing but speedos, high-tail to party for days on end, and, in short, seemed to never fully return to Earth following the walloping uplift he received when he first fell in love with music.
This might have led him to attack music with the utmost passion but being uncompromising doesn’t often go hand in hand with success. Often the acclaim for his wild 50-person 20-minute jams didn’t translate into huge western fanbases. Thus, he spent most of his days in his native Nigeria where he was a constant thorn in the side of corrupt authorities.
He was jailed a whopping 200+ times and on each of those occasions, he left 27 wives at home sorely missing his company (all of which he would later divorce). Eventually, he grew so tired of the law and the lack of equality that he set up what was essentially his own separatist state on the outskirts of Lagos. With 27 wives, their extended families, a legion of fans, and many converts to his trailblazing ways amid the dispossessed masses of Nigeria and beyond, his little Kuti-dom turned out to be quite a big one.
The backbone of the sovereignty was grounded in his constant brushes with the law that influenced him to form it. He christened his kingdom Kalakuta in reference to the Nigerian jail named Calcutta. Befittingly situated at the heart of his compound was his own private recording studio. Much like his free health clinic, this recording studio was free to use for anyone inclined to make use of it.
His independent state sought to live by the ideals of its creator. Kuti’s philosophy of resistance, revelry and rebellion were at the core of the kingdom and naturally, they were at ends with the views of the Nigerian military junta ruling the country at the time. Sadly, this would eventually result in a disastrous clash after Kuti released a record called Zombie which labelled the military as brainless followers of rules.
Thus, on February 18th, 1977, His private utopia was raided by the Nigerian Military. On previous raids, they had exercised caution and proceeded more in warning than anything else, but this time they brutally tore Kalakuta to bits, allegedly raping as they went along. They beat Kuti mercilessly, almost killing him, and threw his elderly mother out of a window to her death. In response, Kuti regained his strength, refused to put his mother’s coffin in the ground at her funeral, sent it to the military headquarters, and eternalised the whole thing in the song ‘Coffin For Head of State’. The track is a 22-minute long celebratory number akin to the drawn-out nuclear reversal of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.
If he had not already been a hero to Africa’s poor, then he was a bulletproof overlord now. In response, to the raid, Kuti returned to politics, this time in an official sense. He set up his own political party that aimed to illuminate the neo-colonialism of transnational organisations in Africa. To a large extent, he was successful in this. Not many in the West were aware of the unfair terms of trade that the continent faced at the time and through his position alone he brought attention to it, maybe not to many people, but a few is better than none at all.
It is this defiance that lives on at number 14 Idi-Oro, Mushin, Lagos to this day. From the embers of his beset compound, the many children and fans of Kuti in the region raised the compound back up and it now exists as a museum. While the contents of the Kuti memorial might not compete with The Louvre, the symbol that it represents for the region is monumental. The compound has been lovingly recreated and many of his iconic outfits are on display alongside photographs chronicling his life. However, the most notable feature is the mere celebration of the daring man who had an undoubted impact on the liberation of Nigeria.
Kuti was far from perfect, but the Kalakuta Republic Museum represents what was best of him and soars on the same principle that makes Lagos glow for visitors — people striving to make a change to their community. Unrest and turmoil may still preside over Lagos, but there is a growing sense of progression that lies in the community spirit that Kuti continually espoused throughout his colourful life.