Fela Kuti was born in 1938 to an upper-middle class family living in Abeokuta, a city in the British Colony of Nigeria. Both of his parents were activists. His mother was an anti-colonial feminist. His father was an Anglican minister who became the first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. His parents were courageous characters who played active roles in the anti-colonial movement in Nigeria, which is epitomised by the Abeokuta Women's Riots, in 1946, which was led by his mother.
Fela Kuti’s background enabled him to travel beyond Nigeria. In 1958, he was sent to London to study medicine. However, upon arrival Kuti decided to study music instead at the Trinity College of Music. After five years in Britain, Kuti moved home to the newly independent Federation of Nigeria and reformed his old band, Koola Lobitos, whilst training as a radio producer and playing with Victor Olaiya and his all-stars.
In 1969 Kuti took his band to the US, spending ten months in Los Angeles. During his time, he learned about the Black Panther Party, further shaping his music and political views, whilst playing and recording through the West Coast. Fela Kuti’s trip to the US was cut short by the Immigration Service, who learned that Kuti and his bandmates did not have permits.
After returning from his experience abroad, Fela wholeheartedly pursued music at home and quickly he and his band, Africa 70, began their ascent to stardom in Nigeria.
Utilising his position of influence, Fela became an outspoken critic and target of Nigeria's military leaders, which caused friction between the musician and the government.
This tension between Fela Kuti and the Government came to a head in 1977, when Fela Kuti and Africa 70 released Zombie, an album which criticised the military for being, well, zombies...
The album was a massive success, which inevitably infuriated the government. As an act of retaliation the government mobilised 1000 soldiers and raided Kuti’s commune, the Kalakuta Republic.
During the raid, Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was killed after being thrown from a window. Kuti's home was torched down, which saw his studio, instruments, and master tapes destroyed. Kuti himself narrowly avoided if not for an intervening commanding officer.
Kuti's response? He delivered his mother's coffin to a Barracks in Lagos, where the General lived. He then wrote two songs in response, 'Coffin for Head of State' and 'Unknown Soldier', referencing the official inquiry that claimed an unknown soldier had destroyed the commune. Kuti's battles with the government became a lifelong struggle (he was later imprisoned for 20 months in 1984).
Fela Kuti was not only the pioneer of Afro-beat but also a political activist who saw music as a platform to shape the politics of a country. His legacy is long-lasting for the lives he touched in Nigeria and beyond whilst creating some of the most danceable music to ever exist.