In the 1970s Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat music became the anti-establishment soundtrack of Africa, an anthem for those railing against the many despotic regimes that gripped the continent.
But, 15 years after his death in 1997, the man who was a constant thorn in the side of officials in his native Nigeria has been honoured by the authorities with whom he so often tangled. The Kalakuta Republic commune, a three-storey building on a potholed road that “seceded” from Nigeria, has been turned into a museum with the help of a $250 000 grant from the Lagos government.
“The Afrobeat movement is going stronger,” said his son, Femi Kuti, as visitors streamed through the house in Lagos. “More people are aware about what my father stood for … and the plight of the ordinary African. That’s why we have to keep fighting for a just society for everybody.”
Femi Kuti says the museum is not a sign that the family’s attitude to the authorities has softened. But any government endorsement would have been unthinkable in the 1970s when Fela Kuti created Afrobeat — a blend of traditional Yoruba music laced with jazz, brass sounds and stinging political messages that made him the constant target of the government — he was beaten, harassed and jailed.
Gone is the 3m-high electrified barbed-wire fence erected after soldiers razed the building. That attack, in which Fela Kuti’s mother was thrown from a window, followed the release of his hit song Zombie, in which he railed against government soldiers who “no go think unless you tell am to think”.
Another son of Fela Kuti, Seun, said: “The message of Afrobeat is so strong that guys who have nothing to do with Afrobeat are now latching on to the name just to sell their records today. But the movement is unstoppable. You have white teenagers in Amsterdam who are playing Afrobeat today. Afrobeat is going beyond Africa.”
Kuti’s popularity grew when he began singing about local realities. Nigerians were experiencing rising levels of poverty despite a stream of petrodollars flowing into the country after Nigeria gained independence in 1960. Twenty years later, absolute poverty had doubled to 30% of the population.
“Everything he sang about is still true today,” said Oluwole, a taxi driver waiting for petrol as a tape played Kuti on a tinny loop. “Look how we have to queue for fuel. How can a country that sends oil to America not have enough oil for its own citizens?”
His music still resonates with fans, who range from street hustlers to ageing academics.
This week, thousands flocked to the annual week-long Felabration, one of Africa’s wildest parties, fuelled by music and copious amounts of weed and cold beer. “If you don’t want government to catch you, make sure you thief big big like them,” one performer said, eliciting cheers and foot-stamping loud enough to rattle the corrugated iron roof of the rebuilt Shrine, Kuti’s famous nightclub.
Kuti’s ability to inspire mass protests meant he was feared even by visiting presidents. But his rejection of both Christianity and Islam, his legendary sexual appetite and his fondness for turnip-sized joints (funk bassist Bootsy Collins once exclaimed after a visit to Nigeria: “Man, we walked into the room and the smoke knocked us down. I mean, we were the James Brown band but we were totally wiped out!”) made him a pariah to many in a very religious society.
Books in the room he shared with some of his 27 wives includes one on Chinese astrology.
“Fela was an individual who single-handedly rewrote musical history,” said reveller Aderemi Ola, pulling on a cigar-sized spliff as he readied himself for a night of dancing.
“As Nigerians, we just feel blessed such an individual was gifted to us.” — © Guardian News & Media 2012