Musician of Conscience

Fela Kuti, performing.

Fela Kuti. Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in Nigeria, Fela Kuti was no typical man. Known to the world as a musician, he is known in Africa as a force of nature that used his music as a tool with which he attacked warlords, lead the Pan-African movement, and challenged the traditions of Africa. You may never have heard of him, but over 1 million people attended his funeral in 1997. Kuti spent his life in the pursuit of his goals, and he has inspired many to do the same.

I like anyone who denounces authoritarian movements, and Kuti was among the best of them. He was born in a well-off family, to a mother who was a famous women’s rights activist (Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti), and to a father who was a reverend, and who would become the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. With a background like that, I’d say that Kuti couldn’t help but be politically outspoken. In his life, and with enormous risk to himself, Kuti never shied away from denouncing dictators. He even tried running for president. He payed dearly for his outspokenness on a number of occasions, with his mother being killed in one, and spending years in jail on another. He had radical beliefs on all aspects of life, and was often called a cult leader. I must admit that it is tempting to do so. He inspired incredible levels of devotion, and if you watch him perform, it is very trance-like. He also organized around himself a commune of musicians, dancers, family and friends, though I might be overemphasizing this: I don’t know local custom enough to distinguish between normal and abnormal. Nevertheless, I can almost guarantee that wherever you are from, you would find something about Kuti to be very strange, if not downright disturbing. As most good musicians, he was eccentric, and couldn’t help but stand out. But I’m not asking you to agree with the man, just to listen to his music, because he was a god of music!

Kuti wasn’t supposed to be a musician. When he was 20, his parents sent him to London, where they wanted him to study medicine. But when he arrived, Kuti ditched the idea, and instead decided to study at the Trinity College of Music. Classically trained, Kuti would eventually become famous for popularizing the style known as Afro-Beat, which is a blend between traditional Yoruba (a traditional music style from Nigeria) and Afro-Cuban music. Though a multi-instrumentalist, Kuti was more of band leader than a musician. You must think of him as you would a Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, or even as a James Brown. As a whole, I find Kuti’s repertoire to be some of the most physical music I’ve ever experienced. Even if you sit still while you listen, you will have a hard time imagining something that isn’t in movement. I love putting it on when I work, exercise, am having guests over, or driving. Basically, whenever. Here is my favorite piece of music by him, named Zombie. As with all his music, it has a political undertone. Zombie is a word Kuti used to characterise Nigerian soldiers, whom he witnessed commit all manner of inhuman brutality. Listen on Youtube, Spotify.

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