Fela Kuti was born on December 15, 1938, in Abeokuta, the Ogun State Capital. He was the son of Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a Protestant Minister, School principal and the first President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, and Mrs. Francis Abigail Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a political activist.
Fela learnt to play the piano and drums as a child and he led his school choir. In the 1950s, Fela told his parents that he was moving to London, England, to study medicine, but ended up attending the Trinity College of Music instead. While at Trinity, Fela studied classical music and developed an awareness of American jazz.
In 1963, Fela formed a band called Koola Lobitos. He would later change the band’s name to Afrika 70, and again to Egypt 80. Beginning in the 1960s, Fela pioneered and popularized his own unique style of music called “Afrobeat”. Afrobeat is a combination of funk, jazz, salsa, Calypso and traditional Nigerian Yoruba music.
In addition to their distinctive mixed-genre style, Fela’s songs were considered unique in comparison to more commercially popular songs due to their length—ranging anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour long. Fela sang in a combination of Pidgin English and Yoruba.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Fela’s rebellious song lyrics established him as political dissident. As a result, Afrobeat has come to be associated with making political, social and cultural statements about greed and corruption. One of Fela’s songs, “Zombie,” questions Nigerian soldiers’ blind obedience to carrying out orders. Another, “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” seeks to empower the disenfranchised masses to rise up against the government.
In 1989, three years after touring the United States, Fela released an album called Beasts of No Nation. The album cover portrays world leaders Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (among others) as cartoon vampires baring bloody fangs.
Rebelling against oppressive regimes through his music came at a heavy cost to Fela, who was arrested by the Nigerian government 200 times, and was subject to numerous beatings that left him with lifelong scars. Rather than abandon his cause, however, Fela used these experiences as inspiration to write more lyrics. He produced roughly 50 albums over the course of his musical career, including songs for Les Negresses under the pseudonym Sodi in 1992.
Fela Kuti was a polygamist. A woman named Remi was the first of Fela’s wives. In 1978, Fela married 27 more women in a single wedding ceremony. He would eventually divorce them all. Fela’s children with Remi included a son, Femi, and daughters Yeni and Sola. Sola died of cancer not long after her father’s death in 1997. All three offspring were members of the Positive Force, a band they founded in the 1980s.
Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related complications on December 2, 1997, at the age of 58, in Lagos, Nigeria. Roughly 1 million people attended his funeral procession, which began at Tafawa Balewa Square and ended at Fela’s home, Kalakuta, in Ikeja, Nigeria, where he was laid to rest in the front yard.