Deeper than Black: On Fela’s Radical Beginnings and Shortcomings

Fela Kuti made good music for July. The 20-minute long chants, deep grooves, and hypnotic drums (RIP Tony Allen!) embody hot afternoons and cool dusks. However, Fela songs make more than good summer music–as I wade into Twitter every day and mourn another black life cut short, or see another police baton ricochet off of someone’s skull, or laugh to keep myself from crying at the incompetence of our elected officials, I find solace in the he anger and pain on “Coffin for Head of State”, or the cynicism in “Beasts of No Nation”. The raw emotion that seems so fitting for this moment is baked into Fela’s Afrobeat. But Fela’s music wasn’t always like this–we would never have “Water No Get Enemy” or “Gentleman” if not for a fateful trip to Los Angeles, out of which came Fela’s earliest work with the Africa 70, The ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions. His experience in Los Angeles would synthesize new knowledge about blackness with revolutionary impulses that he already had, and, by combining funk with Ghanaian highlife, he would create Afrobeat.

Thus, Afrobeat is Fela’s autobiography as well. Traditional Yoruba polyrhythms that Fela grew up with chanting meet jazz, which he learned in college, and funk, which he learned in America. The lyrics, delivered in Pidgin or Yoruba, touch on corruption and inequality in postcolonial Nigeria in his tongue. Fela’s own realizations throughout his life on his blackness and African-ness are baked into that which one hears.

Fela’s music and personal life are also molded by misogyny. Unfortunate cuts like “Lady” and “Condom, Scallywag, and Scatter” belittle women safe sex. In his own life, Fela was abusive towards his wives, even knowingly spreading HIV at the end of his life. Fela cried out for freedom for Black men worldwide, yet made fun of Nigerian women seeking the same independence in their own country, and not only from white supremacy. Fela may have critiqued the government, neocolonialism, whiteness, and a host of other things. But if we honestly critique Fela’s politics, he seeks to be uplifted from a subjugation while simultaneously benefitting from subjugating others.This is baffling, in part, because Fela’s biggest political influences were women: his mother and Sandra Isidore. Thus, Fela’s political awakening–and the genre it inspired–are tainted with the duplicity of his convictions. Perhaps examining these duplicities will challenge our actions and goals in the current moment we face.

The seeds of Fela’s musical and political revolution started not with him, but with the true revolutionary in his family: his mother. Funmilayo Kuti was the first women to attend grammar school in her hometown of Abeokuta, and would continue education and activism for the rest of her life. Funmilayo Kuti was extremely active in the anti-colonial movement. She founded literacy and political education workshops for market women–women selling food, clothes, and other wares in loosely organized collectives. She organized women to protest colonial taxation on market women though tax strikes. She would use picnics and women’s parties as cover to organize sit-ins and marches. She founded the Nigerian Women’s Union, and advocated for women’s suffrage and rights during the formation of Nigeria’s government post- independence. She would win the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970, and counted among her personal friends Mao Zedong and Kwame Nkrumah. She lived until 1978, when she was thrown out of a window during a military raid on Fela’s compound. Her political defiance even lasted into death–in protest of the military, Fela carried her coffin and placed it in front of the barracks of Olesegun Obasanjo, the head of the military at the time–the inspiration for “Coffin for Head of State”.

It is tough to overstate her influence on Fela. Her political activism, anti-authoritarian stance, free spirit had a huge influence on Fela’s personality and music. She took a young Fela to meet Kwame Nkrumah. Her anti-colonial and anti-corruption protests definitely paved Fela’s own feelings on Nigerian politics, and they help explain the constant, intentional defiance to the government that would shape much of his life in the 1970s. We see shades of Funmilayo in Fela’s 1979 presidential run, when he founded the political party MOP (Movement of the People), based in Nkrumahism. The foundation of Funmilayo’s influence would also make him more receptive to new ideas and philosophies that Fela would explore as he branched out in the world as a young man.

Funmilayo Kuti

By the time Fela was 19, it seemed as if his path was already determined. With a minister father and educator mother, education would be paramount. His brothers were already on their way to becoming doctors, and his cousin, Wole Soyinka, was a well-respected (and eventually Nobel Prize-winning) author. Fela was sent to study medicine at Trinity College of London in 1957. However, he instead chose to study music and would pick up the saxophone and trumpet. He became enamored with the jazz scene there and returned to Nigeria to play jazz in 1963. However, Lagos was not in love with Fela’s jazz, but rather Western rock and pop, or juju–a heavily percussive, Yoruba style popularized by acts like Tunde Nightingale and King Sunny Ade that featured guitars.

So Fela and his band, the Loobitos, would then go to Ghana to seek a new direction, where Fela merged his love of jazz with highlife, another uptempo, West African style, albeit more open to fusion. 

Then, in 1969, Fela and his Loobitos would visit Los Angeles for eight months to perform and record. This would turn out to be a seminal period in his life; he would meet many black artists whose own opinions and work would help inform his, like Melvin van Peebles, Esther Phillips, Jim Brown, or the Hamilton brothers (Bernie and Chico), who owned the club where Fela performed at. However, perhaps no one would be more influential than Sandra Isidore, a young Black Panther to whom a whole chapter is dedicated in Carlos Moore’s biography of Fela, This Bitch of a Life. Their love was rooted not only romantic interests, but their political ones as well. 

Sandra Isidore and Fela Kuti, 1969.

In Los Angeles, in 1969, as a Black Panther, it was nearly impossible not to have at least some sense of Black consciousness, and, to a larger extent, African consciousness. Kwanzaa had been established just three years prior. Islam had made many conscious of their longer African roots; many black people, including Isidore (nee Smith), changed their name to reflect this understanding. However, Fela, by his own admission, did not at the time possess this consciousness and connection to his cultural roots. Sandra Isidore inundated him in both blackness and Africanness. “I had just completed [The Autobiography of Malcolm X] and I gave it to him to read,” she says in This Bitch of a Life. “…There were so many things I shared with Fela: novels, poetry, politics, history, music. Poems by Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets (you know, “Niggers Are Afraid of Revolution”), Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Stokeley Carmichael, Jesse Jackson, Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, Miles Davis. It was something that happened over a period of time. It was constant talking every night, every day, over a period of six months. Politics. Love. Love and politics…I was trying to let him know that we too are African. We might be a watered-down version but African all the same. We are trying to go back to the African way.”

Sandre Isidore’s influence on Fela was lifelong; Fela’s L.A. education is clear in this 1978 interview from the documentary Konkombe.

This synthesis of the political and the personal, of Black and African, is all over The ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions. The very first track, “My Lady Frustration” (written about Sandra), would sound right at home on Doin’ It to Death or Sex Machine, while the chopping guitars and shuffling drums of “Viva Nigeria” are closer to highlife, save for the 3-minute monologue on the Biafran War and pan-African unity. When Fela returned to Nigeria in 1970 with this new style, he would act as a social gadfly wrapped in a loincloth; the new sound known as Afrobeat would take over the country with its infectious funk, traditional drums, and humorous critique. 

Personally, Fela embodied this change as well; he would establish a personal compound, called Kalkuta Republic, and a performance venue, the Shrine, where weed was smoked liberally–unheard of in Nigeria at the time–young people danced with abandon, and flags of all African countries adorned the walls. Fela changed his full name from Fela Ransome-Kuti to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, to distance himself from colonial influence (his grandfather had added Ransome into his baptismal name when he converted to Christianity). When Paul McCartney came to Lagos in 1973 and tried to record with Fela’s backing band (who had changed their name from Koola Loobitos to Africa 70 in Los Angeles), Fela barged into the studio and told him to stop stealing black music.

Fela’a political, musical, and personal rise, while fueled by radical black thinking, did not necessarily reflect all of its aspects. While Fela was building a performance hall covered in African flags and pictures of black revolutionaries, he was also busy putting down women in Nigeria. Fela’s discography contains several misognynistic songs. would poke fun at Nigerian feminism on “Lady”, demeaning women for wanting to “go act like man”. On 1975 cut “Mattress”, he says, “Anything wey we dey sleep on top, call am for me, mattress, mattress. So, when I say woman na mattress, I nor lie.” Even his last recorded song, “Condom Scallywag and Scatter”, makes fun of using condoms and calls them “un-African”.

This misogyny in the musical also shows in his personal life. In 1978, Fela married 27 of the women from his former compound, citing their financial dependence on him. Fela’s wives and children recalled him being physically and emotionally abusive. He also may have given some of them HIV. When, in the mid-90s, he contracted HIV, he refused to believe it, waiving off medical treatment as Western medicine. He refused to change his behavior either, deeming condoms a Western plot to lower the black birthrate. He died from complications due to AIDS in 1997. His willful ignorance and unsafe sex may have spread the disease to some of his wives. Fela was not unaware of the wrongness of his views–in one 1981 interview, he stated that he was proud to be a sexist.

Fela’s views were not unique–then or now. Some of his radical contemporaries, like Elijah Muhammad and Huey Newton, were implicated in similarly mysogonistic lifestyles and viewpoints. His views on women’s subservience, using “authority” to keep women in line, and his right to sex are all messages that are still perpetuated today, as are his messages on anti-colonialism, religion, and government malpractice. The duplicity and incompatibility of these ideas are laid bare in bell hooks’ We Real Cool, where she shows how, for black men, participating in patriarchy is a way to gain power in a racist system that otherwise denies agency to black men. Parallells of this can be seen in Nigeria, where the British set up a colonial system that allowed only men political power as tax collectors and colonial authorities. This increase in power for men corresponded has further centered men in almost all political and social arenas.

It is in this environment that Fela grew up in, and the personal political power that he experienced as a famous countercultural man as Nigeria was such that he strived to maintain it in his music, his politics, and personal life.

As a man with a voice returning to Nigeria, Fela could have stayed silent. He could have said nothing about government oppression if he didn’t have anything nice to say, and enjoyed the freedom to smoke weed and marry all of the women he wanted. But he knew too much to be complicit , to say silent, and so he spoke out, publicly, despite how it hurt him. But he didn’t keep that that energy for the patriarchy because he was busy reaping benefits from it.

We still live under a corrupt government, whose incompetence in a worldwide pandemic has killed 130,000 citizens and counting, disproportionately black and brown. Police brutality and criminal injustice are norms. We birth a new crisis emerges everyday. This nonsensical, terrifying situation cannot hold; our lives will be re-shaped or we will re-shape our lives. As black men, Fela’s clarity and radical imagination would be useful, we must also learn most from his most glaring faults. We cannot call for an end to our own oppression while maintaining and benefitting from systems, especially misogyny and homophobia that oppress others. Fela said we live in a craze world, and we will always be in one we not only undo our own oppression, but make any oppression nonsensical to our existence.

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