the youth are in the streets!
In 1978 riots broke out in Ghana as the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti performed ‘Zombie’ to a packed stadium in Accra. The song was a bold and defiant criticism of the corrupt police and army forces in Nigeria, branding them as ‘zombies’ who would follow orders unquestioningly. The Ghanaian government suppressed the riot, imprisoned Kuti and his 70 person entourage for 2 days and then flew them back to Lagos, Nigeria, banned from ever returning to Ghana again. Fela’s incredible popularity and the defiant and fearless political message to his music made him a serious worry to the ruling elite, and it was not the first or last time that they attempted to silence him.
Fela’s politics were influenced by Kwame Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism, and by the Black Panthers who he had met in the 1960’s while living in the US. He was strongly anti-colonialist, and changed his name from ‘Ransome Kuti’ to ‘Anikulapo Kuti’, since he considered ‘Ransome’ to be a slave name. In his songs he criticised corrupt and violent politicians, and warned of the power of popular movement. In other ways his politics left a lot to be desired; Fela was a self-confessed and unapologetic sexist and homophobe.
Fela was the founder of the ‘Afrobeat’ genre, a fusion of traditional Yoruba folk music, James Brown style funk and jazz that quickly made him the most popular musician in Africa. Performances at his nightclub ‘the Shrine’ would typically last all night and were often punctuated by impromptu and lengthy political speeches. Fela played saxophone, keyboard, or sang, and rarely seen on stage with less than 30 band members and dancers.
Fela’s loud criticism earned him frequent beatings and arrests from the Nigerian authorities. The worst of these was in 1978, when 1000 soldiers attacked his compound (the self-declared independent nation ‘Kalakuta Republic’, complete with its own health clinic and constitution). The compound was burned down, and the occupants were beaten and arrested. Fela’s elderly mother, Funmilayo Kuti was thrown from a first floor window and later died of her injuries. Fela’s response was typically fearless. After recovering from his injuries he led a demonstration to deliver his mother’s coffin to Dodan Barracks where the Military General lived. He also wrote ‘Coffin for Head of State’ about the event, and ‘Unknown Soldier’ which ridiculed the official government claim that the attack had been carried out by a single ‘unknown soldier’.
Fela’s bravery, politics and music made him an immensely popular figure all over Africa, and this made it increasingly difficult for the government to get rid of him. When he died from AIDs in 1997, more than 1 million people took part in the funeral procession through the streets of Lagos. The effect he had on the political and cultural landscape on West Africa shows the political power that music can have.
By Martin B, LUU Revsoc