My background is Ghanaian but I grew for a while in Nigeria during the late 70s. I was in the country when the Nigerian army raided Fela’s home, Kalakuta Republic in Lagos. His mother, 78 at the time of the attack, was thrown from a second-story window. A month later she died of complications from her injuries.
I say I was in the country. Actually, I was living with my grandma at the time and her house was about a 3 minute drive from Kalakuta Republic. It was in that same house that a couple of years before the raid, my 17 year old cousin Paragon (that really was his name! Don’t you just love it? He’s a university lecturer now) first introduced me to the music of Fela. It was the first time that I had any inkling that popular music could have a purpose other than to make you want to dance. It could be the most incendiary of protests too. And it’s safe to say that Fela went a lot further in pointing the finger than Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or Billy Bragg ever did.
I was driven past Kalakuta twice a day on my way to and from school. It was 1977. The army burned Kalakuta to the ground, blocking firefighters who tried to fight the blaze. Afterwards, an official police report labelled the violence the work of “unknown soldiers.”
Fela’s response was to place a coffin on what was left of the balcony with a banner that read: “This is where justice was murdered.”
That coffin sat on that balcony for about 3 weeks. For many years afterwards, I wondered if the coffin contained the body of his mother. Unlikely, he loved his mother too much but that image from my childhood is seared into my memory forevermore. It’s no exaggeration to say that was one of the defining incidents of my life.
6 facts about Fela Kuti:
1. He was a rebel, a spiritualist, pan-African revolutionary and a prodigious dope smoker and polygamist.
2. He called himself ‘Abami Edo’, meaning the strange one, the weird one.
3. He was christened Fela Ransome Kuti but he dropped the Ransome part of his name saying ‘Do I look like an Englishman?’ and changed it to Anikulapo meaning ‘one who carries death in the pouch’.
4. His mother, Funmilayo, a political activist and feminist, was the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car and the recipient of a Lenin Peace Prize who travelled to Russia and China and met Chairman Mao.
5. He fused Yoruba rhythms, Ghanaian Highlife, jazz, pidgin English and funk to create Afrobeat.
6. An estimated 1 million people turned up on the day of his funeral in 1997.