21 years after death the Legacy of Fela Kuti, the Abami Eda of Africa lives on
London, August 3, 2018 (AltAfrica)-It’s 21 years since Nigerian music legend and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti died on August 2, 1997 at the age of 58 but his contributions to music live on.
Crowned the king of Afrobeat and dubbed the Black President, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a master performer, composer and voice of the oppressed. The Nigerian musician and activist invented an infectious new musical genre called Afrobeat, combining American funk and jazz with traditional Yoruba and highlife music to end up with a sound that doubled as a weapon for justice. Troubled by the state of Nigerian society, he assembled and built his Kalakuta Republic and created his own political party, actions which saw him arrested, imprisoned and beaten by the police and military–but Fela was so influential in Nigerian cultural and political life that even they flocked to his funeral to pay respect to their fallen hero.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (15 October 1938 – 2 August 1997), also professionally known as Fela Kuti, or simply Fela, was a Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre and human rights activist. He has been called “superstar, singer, musician, Panafricanist, polygamist, mystic, legend.” During the height of his popularity, he was often hailed as one of Africa’s most “challenging and charismatic music performers.
Afrobeat was essentially invented by one man, the inimitable Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Kuti’s experimentations with various pan-African sounds and exploration of African-American music led to his creation (along with substantial input from the members of his enormous backing band) of the genre, leading to a massive Afrobeat craze in Kuti’s home city of Lagos, and throughout Nigeria and West Africa. Kuti’s lyrical message was unquestionably political, and was viewed for many years as a threat by the authorities in Nigeria and other African countries. The anti-corruption and pro-civil rights messages in Kuti’s music tend to be present in the music of most modern Afrobeat groups as well.
Afrobeat is characterized by a fairly large band with many instruments, vocals and a musical structure featuring jazzy, funky horn sections. A riff-based “endless groove” is used, in which a base rhythm of drums, shekere, muted West African-style guitar and melodic bass guitar riffs are repeated throughout the song. Commonly, interlocking melodic riffs and rhythms are introduced one by one, building the groove bit-by-bit and layer-by-layer. The horn section then becomes prominent, introducing other riffs and main melodic themes.
Legacy & Afrobeat’s Influence on Western Culture and Music
The influence of Afrobeat on current Western music is subtle but noteworthy: seminal and influential artists like Paul Simon, Brian Eno, David Byrne, and Peter Gabriel have all used demonstrable Afrobeat elements in their music, as have more modern bands, such as Vampire Weekend.
Fela Kuti himself might be the most name-dropped non-rapper in hip-hop history, and his songs continue to be sampled by producers, MCs, and DJs. Notable figures like The Roots and Lupe Fiasco have written whole songs about him, and still others cite him as an influence.
Since Fela’s death in 1997, there has been a revival of his influence in music and popular culture, culminating in another re-release of his catalog controlled by Universal Music, Broadway and off-Broadway biographically based shows, and new bands, such as Antibalas, who carry the Afrobeat banner to a new generation of listeners.
- In 1999, Universal Music France, under the aegis of Francis Kertekian, remastered the 45 albums that it controlled, and released them on 26 compact discs. These titles were licensed to countries of the world, except Nigeria and Japan, where Fela’s music was controlled by other companies.
- In 2003, an exhibition in the New Museum for Contemporary Art, New York, titled The Black President Exhibition, debuted and featured concerts, symposia, films, and the works of 39 international artists.
- In 2005, Universal Music USA licensed all of its world-music titles to the UK-based label Wrasse Records, which repackaged the same 26 CDs for distribution in the USA (replacing the MCA-issued titles there) and the UK. In 2009, Universal created a new deal for the USA with Knitting Factory Records and for Europe with PIAS, which included the release of the Fela! Broadway cast album.
- In 2013, FKO Ltd, the entity that owned the rights of all of Fela’s compositions, was acquired by BMG Rights Management.