Fela Kuti and the Power of Music as a Tool for Resistance

Fela Kuti

Editor's Note:

Odafe Atogun was born in Nigeria. He studied journalism at the Times Journalism Institute in Lagos and is now a full-time writer. He is most recently the author of Taduno’s Song, and joins Signature to talk about the life of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, central to Taduno’s Song.

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My earliest memory of Fela Kuti (1938 – 1997) was of a strange being, abami eda, as he loved to refer to himself: wiry, half-naked, a long roll of marijuana clenched between his index and middle finger, a humorous smile on a rugged face decorated with kaolin. Like the rest of the country, I grew up entranced with the man, not least because the military regime that ruled Nigeria at that time labelled him a dangerous man.

In those unwholesome days when everyone lived in mortal fear of the regime, not many could understand why the regime, with all its might, lived in fear of Fela Kuti. It turned out that his music, the only weapon he wielded against tyranny, was more potent than any form of violent opposition. He sang against tyranny and social injustice, and, through his music and his lifestyle, he took sides with the downtrodden against the regime.

Fela’s career had started in the sixties, at a time when the Nigerian nation, having newly gained independence, was attempting to establish self-governance. But the tribal, religious, and social dichotomies of the new nation were such that it aborted its nascent democracy. The army seized power through a bloody coup, marking the beginning of successive dictatorships that would witness the clash of songs and guns for over two decades.

As Fela’s music gained him cult following, his opposition to tyranny intensified and he became an enigma to the junta, for his music was devoid of bitterness. He was a man of peace. He sang from the depth of his soul with a humor that endeared him to millions of fans. With Fela, there were no pretensions. He sang about sex and love with the same passion with which he denounced tyranny and the many ills bedevilling his society, and he became the conscience of a nation. He believed that art, and thus his own music, would be meaningless if it did not promote positive change. This philosophy defined his music, and his voice, raw yet sensual, became one adored by the masses but loathed by the regime he opposed fearlessly.

In response to the propaganda onslaught against him, Fela would scratch his ass virulently in the glare of publicity in disdain of the regime and the establishment. He lambasted them for condemning his use of semi-nude female dancers, claiming that they do worse things behind closed doors with girls young enough to be their grandchildren. In his view, he was giving women the opportunity to express themselves through art.

But he paid a high price for his rebellion.

Fela became the butt of the government’s brutality. His 1977 album Zombie, which mocked the Nigerian army, describing them as senseless robots, led to an attack on his commune, the Kalakuta Republic, which he had declared an independent state. This was during the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo (who would later become civilian president in 1999). Soldiers burnt down the commune and murdered his elderly mother by throwing her from the top floor of a building. Fela and hundreds of his followers became homeless for some time.

With the untold violence he suffered at the hands of the regime, his music assumed a more revolutionary and spiritual dimension. He delivered his mother’s coffin to Dodan Barracks, the residence of General Obasanjo. And with the hit songs “Coffin for Head of State” and “Unknown Soldier,” he responded to the government’s ridiculous claim that his commune was attacked by an unknown soldier. The songs gained wide popularity, further discrediting the military dictatorship.

The regime made several unsuccessful attempts to buy Fela off. And then, in a desperate bid to silence him, the regime of General Muhammadu Buhari (presently Nigeria’s President), jailed him in 1984 on trumped up charges. But that did not diminish the effect of the man’s music — on the contrary, his message became more poignant. It was pointless to keep holding him. So, during the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida (who had toppled General Buhari in another coup), Fela Kuti was released after spending twenty long months in jail. The dogged artist that he was, he continued to make music to denounce tyranny and social injustice.

Fela Kuti preached his visionary message to the end. Sadly, he died without seeing the changes he desired for his society. Today, nearly twenty years after his death, the many ills he denounced through his music still bedevil Nigeria.

The struggles of Fela Kuti inspired the plot for my novel Taduno’s Song. The book considers the power of the arts to promote social and political change, and depicts a duel between a tyrant and an iconic musician. Taduno is faced with an impossible choice: praise the government with his music and save the woman he loves, or sing to liberate his country and condemn love.