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How Fela Kuti survived his imprisonment

As well as being a pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti was one of the most influential and divisive political activists of the 1970s and ’80s. Committed to fighting the oppression of Nigeria’s autocratic regime, Kuti was eventually imprisoned in the early 1980s for alleged currency smuggling. The arrest sparked international protest, with Amnesty International condemning Muhammadu Buhari’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Kuti as politically motivated. Herbie Hancock, David Byrne, Ginger Baker, Little Stevens, and many others came out in support of Kuti’s release, but their calls for justice went largely unheard. That is, until April 24th, 1986, when Nigerian authorities ordered Kuti’s unconditional release, by which time he had already served 18 months of his five-year sentence.

After his release, he gave a number of revealing interviews into his incarceration. Kuti had been to prison before, but never for more than 30 days. This experience, he recalled, felt altogether different. The conditions he was forced to endure, however, were just as awful: “When I was in Ikoyi prison,” Kuti began. “People were dying every day. They were carrying bodies out of the prison every day”. Thankfully, Kuti’s music afforded him special treatment by some of the more sympathetic prison guards, most of whom, he said, were friendly towards him. “They are ordinary Africans. They suffer the same things we suffer,” he began. “They just work for their pay. They don’t necessarily have to be hostile toward me, because they understand what I’m doing. They aren’t really against me”.

Nevertheless, Kuti was still forced to endure the same isolation as any other prisoner. Describing how he dealt with his incarceration spiritually and psychologically, he said: “When I was going to prison, I said to myself, ‘If these people want me to suffer, I must learn to suffer!’ That was my first thought. When I got to jail, man, I saw that it was very boring. To kill boredom I had to either read books or play games.”

But as the months passed, Kuti’s approach moved away from mere distraction and towards meditation. “I decided that these things only create an artificial interest,” he said. “I decided to try to not play games, not read books, and just try to let the time go and see whether I could conquer boredom that way—try not to think, if possible, think only of the future, if possible, think of the past, then remix it toward the future. It was difficult at first, but things moved faster. I spent all day in bed—most of the day I’d sleep. Most of the time I’d wake up at night.”

But none of this could quench Kuti’s frustration with the injustice of his imprisonment; nor the bitter realisation that he might not see daylight for another four years. Then, towards the end of his first year in jail, rumours spread of his possible release. Unfortunately, the thought of freedom made his confinement all the more painful. “What was boring toward the end for me was the speculation that I was going to be released,” he recalled. “This speculation went on for eight months and made it harder. That was the worst.” Then, in the spring of 1986, with his freedom secured, Kuti stepped out into the sun and quickly set to work on a new album with his band, continuing to fight the corruption at the heart of the regime all the while.

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