Fela Kuti was a pioneer of the Afrobeat musical movement whose intense and pointed lyrics made him a target of the Nigerian government. The late musician was born October 15, 1938.
Kuti was born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti to a minister father and activist father in Abeokuta. In the late ‘50s, Kuti was sent to London to study medicine but his interest in music was too strong. He left and entered the Trinity College of Music, where he discovered the sounds of American Jazz.
In 1963, Kuti formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, which were renamed Afrika 70 and then Egypt 80. The talented band infused the sounds of jazz, funk, salsa, calypso, and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music. Kuti’s strong vocal presence and his skills on the saxophone, guitar, drums, and keyboards combined with the political consciousness he acquired after a tour of the U.S. made him a global sensation.
Like James Brown, Kuti’s songs were propulsive with some lasting for as long as 30 minutes. Because of his political beliefs, Kuti was beaten several times and was jailed over 200 times, but never stopped railing against the Nigerian government. He built a large commune and recording studio known as the Kalakuta Republic, which was eventually destroyed and burned by Nigerian military forces.
In the final raid of the commune, Kuti’s mother was thrown from a window and died from her injuries. In response, Kuti delivered his mother’s coffin to the Lagos barracks where the Nigerian military general resided and released two songs, “Coffin For Head Of State” and “Unknown Soldier.”
A polygamist who infamously married 27 women in 1978, Kuti ultimately divorced them all. His later career was also marred by internal fighting with his band, who deserted him during the Berlin Jazz Festival upon learning Kuti intended to use the proceeds to fund his presidential campaign.
Two of his sons, Femi and Seun Kuti, are also musicians, performing much of the same style of music as their father. Seun Kuti is also the leader of his father’s band, Egypt 80.
In 1997, Kuti died from AIDS-related complications at the age of 58.