FELA: KING OF THE INVISIBLE ART by Jay Babcock (1999)

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This article was originally published in Mean Magazine (October 1999), which I was editing at the time, with art direction by Camille Rose Garcia. The piece was accompanied by a set of sidebar interviews and an overview of Fela’s catalog by Michael Veal [who was finishing his work on the manuscript that would be published as Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon]. The main article text, and sidebars, were later reprinted in full in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 book (thank you Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick).

FELA: King of the Invisible Art
by Jay Babcock

Fela Anikulapo Kuti: 77 albums, 27 wives, over 200 court appearances. Harassed, beaten, tortured, jailed. Twice-born father of Afrobeat. Spiritualist. Pan-Africanist. Commune king. Composer, saxophonist, keyboardist, dancer. Would-be candidate for the Nigerian presidency. There will never be another like him. This is the sensational story of Fela, the greatest pop musician of the 20th century, featuring the words of Fela’s friends, fans and the Ebami Eda himself.

“What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart!”
Fela always knew the power of a name.

If you are African—and especially if you work with music, which shares a link of common invisibility with the spirit world—you must have a spiritually meaningful, beneficial name. Without the correct name, Fela explained, “a child can’t really enter the world of the living.”

He didn’t like the name he was given when he was first born, in 1935: his Nigerian parents had followed a local German missionary’s suggestion. So Fela died and was born a second time, on October 15, 1938; this time his parents called him Fela.

“Bear the name of conquerors?” he asked Carlos Moore, author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life, in 1981. “Or reject this first arrival in the world? The orishas [spirits] they heard me. And they spared me. What can I say? I wasn’t Hildegart! It wasn’t for white man to give me name. So it’s because of a name that I’ve already known death.”

In 1975, at the height of his popularity and power, Fela changed his middle name. “I got rid of ‘Ransome.’ Why was my name ‘Ransome’ in the first place? Me, do I look like Englishman?” Fela’s full name was now Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, which meant in whole, ‘He who emanates greatness, who has control over death and who cannot be killed by man.’

That same year Fela also started to cheekily call himself Black President, eventually releasing an album bearing the same title in the midst of a thwarted campaign. And sometime in 1986, following his release from Nigerian prison after serving 20 months on trumped-up charges, Fela began to call himself the Ebami Eda, which translates roughly as “the weird one,” or more delicately, as “the one touched by divine hand.”

Fela was touched, alright. But he was not only a visionary musician who created a whole new style of music—Afrobeat—and left behind an incomparable body of recorded music. No. Fela also simultaneously spoke truth to power, and then recorded it as a 12-minute dance-funk song, with a title like “Government Chicken Boy” or “Coffin for Head of State.” He endured brutal physical punishment and constant imprisonment. In the end, he died from complications associated with the AIDS virus. His heart was broken: he had sung so much, fought so hard, amassed such popularity, and still, hardly anything changed for the better in his beloved, heart-shaped continent of Africa. So: following is the story of that big generous, humorous, creative, divine heart that Fela had: from its early heartbeats, to Afrobeat, to the beatings it took, to its final, slow heartbreak.

“Disobedience was our ‘law.’”
Fela was born into a family of discipline and disobedience—two qualities he would absorb and exploit later in his life. His father was the strict Rev. Canon Israel Oludoton Ransome-Kuti, an ordained minister, grammar school principal and first president of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Fela’s mother Funmilayo, beside being the first known female car driver in Nigeria, was a leader in the country’s nascent socialist-nationalist and suffragette campaigns: she even traveled to Russia and China, where she met Mao.

“My mother was quite heavy politically,” remembered Fela. “And ohhhhhhh, I liked the way she took on those old politicians, all those dishonest rogues.”

As a teen, Fela was already playing the role of witty rebel against authority that he would later refine and perfect. “In school I formed a club when I was sixteen, the Planless Society,” he said. “The rule of the club was simple: we had no plans. You could be called upon to disobey orders at any time. Disobedience was our ‘law.’”

Like many children of the Nigerian middle class, Fela was sent to London to study at university. But Fela, now a trumpet player, wasn’t interested in the professional careers in medicine and law that such students (like Fela’s brothers) usually pursue; instead, in 1958, three years after his father’s death, he enrolled at the London Trinity College of Music.

Fela was joined in London by his childhood friend J.K. Braimah, who jokingly told Moore, “Fela was a nice guy, a really beautiful guy. But as square as they come! Whenever we would go to parties he would fill up on cider first. Then he would start challenging the others to dance. He didn’t smoke cigarettes, let alone grass. He was afraid to fuck! We had to take his prick by hand, hold it and put it in the cunt for him. I swear!”

Fela eventually met (and married, in 1961) his first wife Remi there in London. With some West Indian and Nigerian friends, he started a jazz band called Koola Lobitos, but had trouble finding gigs. Fela sat in at jazz gigs around town; one of the musicians in the scene at the time that he hooked up with was drummer Ginger Baker [see sidebar interview], who would be one of Fela’s life-long friends. Meanwhile, Fela and Remi had their first two children—daughter Yeni in ’61 and son Femi in ’62—and Fela graduated from Trinity with certificates in practice and theory.

Fela and his family returned to Nigeria in 1963, where Fela took an unfulfilling job as a music producer with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, which he eventually quit. He had already formed a new Koola Lobitos band, but was finding it difficult to gain momentum in Nigeria’s economically depressed nightclub scene. A 1967 tour of neighboring Ghana, where the “highlife” style of music was booming, greatly impressed Fela.

“The whole country was swinging so much that I said to myself that this is the right place to come and play,” he told Mabinuori Kayode Idowu in his 1986 book, Fela: Why Blackman Carry Shit.

But before long, Ghana’s Pan-Africanist president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup. The Nigerian government was engaged in a bloody, ridiculous civil war with Biafran secessionists. And mid-’60s James Brown-style Soul music, especially the version played by Ghanaian Geraldo Pino, was gaining favor in both countries. Fela was getting pushed out.

“Everybody was playing soul, man, trying to copy Pino,” he told Moore. “That’s why I said to myself, ‘I have to be very original and clear myself from shit.’”

So in 1969, when Fela was given an offer to tour America with his band, he took it.

“No gigs! No bread! No visa, no work permit! No shit! Nothing!”
The band was wowed by New York City.

“I said to myself: ‘Look those motherfucking tall buildings! Africans ain’t shit! Just savages, man!’ Oh I was so impressed by America! So blind, man!” Fela recalled. “Today I’d say ‘Skyscrapers go up that high? To scrape what? Jo, make ‘em scrape dirty streets of Harlem!’”

In a weird coincidence, Fela had met famous South African singer Miriam Makeba on the plane en route to the U.S.; she gave him the name and address of her agent in New York. But the agent refused to represent an unknown like Fela. Previous logistical arrangements began to fall through.

Fela: “Nigeria was now three months behind us. And we weren’t IN the America we’d dreamt of. No, man. We were IN trouble! No gigs! No bread! No shit! Nothing! And our visas finish-o! I said, ‘Now we’re illegal immigrant motherfuckers! No visa, no work permit… Stalemate!’ Terrible times, man.”

The band ended up driving all the way across the country in search of gigs, finally bottoming out in Los Angeles in August, 1969 without a permanent residence.

“It was kind of difficult at first but ended up okay,” Fela’s drummer Tony Allen told me about life in L.A. [see sidebar interview for more.] “We got some friends that offered us places. There was one guy, he gave us a whole house, without heater! No hot water! One day the Gas Company man, just passing by, saw us. We say, ‘Our problem is we don’t have hot water or heater.’ He came in, and he saw that in the chamber outside, the control was broken. Dead long time ago! So he just went into his car and took a brand new one, bring it up, took off the old one there, fixed it up and opened the gas for us.”

Some band members took factory jobs while Fela tried to hustle up live gigs and a recording contract. A local musician and drum maker named Juno Lewis saw Fela’s group perform and heard that they were to play at an NAACP function at the Ambassador Hotel.

It was at this gig that Fela’s life changed.

“She blew my mind, really.”
Sandra Smith was a young Los Angeles anthropology student radical who had recently joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and was interested in all things African: history, contemporary politics, dance and music. On her friend (and troupemate) Juno’s tip, she went to see Fela’s band play at the Ambassador in August, 1969.

“I walked into the Hotel’s Ballroom, wearing this blue bellbottomed jumpsuit and I just happened to look up onstage,” Sandra told me. “And Fela was looking down. It was like a simultaneous connection, a BEAM that connected just the two of us. And I felt some energy like I had never felt before. At the intermission, Juno said somebody wanted to see me at the bar. And there was Fela.”

The two quickly became lovers, with Fela moving in with Sandra at her parents’ house. Sandra: “As we spent time together, I got to know the musicians, I got all involved in their business. They needed help, and I just got involved.”

The band got a regular gig playing at Citadel de Haiti, a struggling nightclub run by Bernie Hamilton (who would later feature in the Starsky & Hutch TV series) in a red brick building at 6666 Sunset Blvd.

“We played there for about five months, six nights in a week,” remembers Tony Allen. “Bernie gave us a house and we played in his club. It was grooving, you know.”

“Anyone that was anybody—Jim Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, H.B. Barnham, Esther Phillips—came to see Fela,” says Sandra. “It was all word of mouth.”

Sandra was singing onstage with the band, who were playing a mixture of Fela’s jazz compositions and his unique arrangements of contemporary soul favorites like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” On his nights off from the Citadel, Fela would sit in around town at jazz gigs, or play private parties—including one where a drunk Frank Sinatra got in a heated exchange with Fela.

Meanwhile, Fela was busy writing and arranging music on a piano in the living room at Sandra’s house. The band would rehearse using acoustic equipment in Sandra’s backyard. Despite hardships—like Sandra having to take an extra job to buy a new trumpet for Fela when his was stolen—the arrangement was a good one, and allowed Fela to begin developing a new kind of music.

“He’d play at the club, we’d party, and then he’d come home,” remembers Sandra. “Until 3 o’clock in the morning, we were up, we’re talking. I remember him telling me how Africans are so stupid. Huh! I had never gone to Africa, but then I was coming into the knowledge of Self, and I believed that Africa had queens and kings and everything. I was intense. Then I started introducing him to things. I guess he was quiet and listening to me, but I thought I was learning from him.”

Fela started reading the books that Sandra was enthused about: history books, Eldridge Cleaver, and what would become his favorite, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“Sandra gave me the education I wanted to know,” Fela told Moore. “She talked to me about politics, history, about Africa. She taught me what she knew and what she knew was enough for me to start on. She’s beautiful. Nothing about my life is complete without her.”

Sandra: “At that time, James Brown had ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ Fela was singing in Yoruba, you couldn’t understand anything he was saying, but the music was getting better and better. He was getting deeper into his African roots. African music is about the chanting. Fela had all these rhythms and all these arrangements, and it was getting so dynamic! But when I asked him what he was saying, he said he was talking about what he likes in his soup! And I was saying, ‘No. You need to sing some conscious lyrics. You can pass a message on in the music.’”

Fela took Sandra’s words to heart and began composing his first conscious music: songs like “My Lady’s Frustration” and “Black Man’s Pride.”

Afrobeat had been born—in America.

“We Got Real Funky Then”
Fela and his band were ratted out by somebody in L.A. Their visas had expired, and they headed back to Nigeria.

“We got real funky then,” remembers Tony Allen.

Fela changed the band’s name to the Nigeria 70. He wrote his first hit record, the humorous “J’eun Koku” ["glutton"]. He bookended his performances and public appearances with the Black Power clenched-fist salute he had learned in America. He started holding “Sunday Afternoon Jump” dance concerts at a venue modeled after similar shows he had seen years ago in Ghana. The club itself—two stories, no roof, packed with dancers, trays of very cheap “Nigerian Natural Grass” aka NNG (marijuana) everywhere—was now called the Afro-Spot. It quickly became the place to see the happening band. In 1970, even James Brown’s band came to the Afro-Spot, visiting each night after they finished one of their series of gigs downtown [see Bootsy Collins sidebar]. Singer Vickie Anderson wanted to know who had written the brilliant arrangement of “…Phoenix” that she heard at the club (it was Fela); Tony Allen claimed that Brown’s people sat by his kit each night, attempting to chart his drum patterns.

With Remi and the children now settled in their own house, Fela went about creating what was essentially a hippie commune—with an African twist.

Fela: “I’d think to myself, ‘Ah-Ah! What is this city shit-o? One man, one wife, one house isolated from everybody else in the neighborhood? Is an African not even to know his neighbors? So why all this individualism shit? This ‘mine.’ This ‘yours.’ That ‘theirs.’ What’s that shit? Is it African? That’s how the idea of setting up a communal compound—one like Africans had been living in for thousands of years—came about.”

So Fela moved into a large house at 14-A Agege Motor Road in the Surulere district of Lagos, bringing with him his band’s female singers, roadies and anyone else involved with his organization. “It was only two floors and there were 100 people, but we were happy,” Fela said. “It was beautiful, no problems.”

The singers—who also danced onstage—were Fela’s lovers. He now carried himself as a traditional African village king, or tribal chief, and his women were his “queens”…but they were more than that. He also called them his witches.

Sandra visited Fela in Nigeria during that year. “I had a great time, being with Fela. But at the same time, there was a lot of jealousy and animosity towards me by his wives.”

Sandra was poisoned by one of the girls, becoming so ill that she had to take refuge at Fela’s eldest brother’s house; Koye was a doctor and he and his wife looked after her. But even far from Fela’s jealous wives, she was attacked.

“I had a dream that this ghastly-looking thing was hovering over my bed, clawing me with lots of hatred and anger,” she remembers. “And I thought it was just a dream, until I saw my body the next morning, covered with claw marks. Koye’s wife was a witness to it. That’s when I knew African witchcraft was REAL.”

Sandra returned to the U.S. soon after.

“He Just Wanted to Get Higher!”
In the next three years, Fela’s music exploded in vision, quantity (an incredible six to eight albums a year) and popularity. He changed his club’s name to the Shrine, saying that he wanted it to be “some place meaningful, of progressive, mindful background with roots. I didn’t believe playing any more in nightclubs.” He told England’s The Independent, “We smoke in the Shrine, all the time. The shrine is not a club, man. It’s a place where we dance, we get high, we play drums to evoke the spirit. The power of the Shrine is very strong—the spiritual power…this is why we can smoke dope with impunity.”

Fela had become a marijuana smoker of epic proportions. Besides smoking giant joints filled with igbo (Indian hemp), Fela had now developed his own marijuana recipe, which he called goro.

“He cooked a bag of grass about [two feet long], which cost just two pennies for like two weeks, soaking it with spices, honey and oils. Cooked it right, right, right down til it was THICK,” says Fela’s son Femi. “Very thick! All that came out was about [an amount that would fit in a small coffee cup]. You’re only allowed to take about a spoon, and then, in maybe two or three hours, you are just so high, it’s unbelievable. It lasts the whole day, two days, three days. Fela trained a couple of people to cook it, and for six years, man, I was the only one who had authorization (except for him), to serve it round the house, to give it to anybody who
wants it.

“He just wanted to get higher!” laughs Femi. “He even did cocaine for a while, a month or so, but he said it stopped his sexual desires so he didn’t like that. So he made goro. When they were traveling, he always made sure the embassy gave him a note, saying the goro was medicine. Which it was. He said that was the main reason he took it: it helped his sexual desire and his creativity.”

Fela’s commune was beginning to attract all sorts of folk, from street hooligans and runaways to the nation’s political underground. According to writer Bayo Martins, “A radical left wing organization known as the Nigerian Association of Patriotic Writers and Artistes formed a think tank around Fela for the ideological development of Pan-Africanism with his Afrobeat Music, organize mass rallies and publicity strategy which made sure Fela was constantly in the news. It worked. In no time Fela had become a national household word in Nigeria. Contracts for international concerts were starting to flow in.”

Fela’s confidence knew no bounds. He would ride a donkey across the street from his compound to the Shrine before each night’s performance, stopping traffic up for miles. He purchased his own printing press and started publishing fearlessly inflammatory broadsides against the dictatorship in the name of his new youth organization, the Young African Pioneers.

Fela’s neighborhood became a hotbed of anti-government activity. Finally, the military could take no more.

How to Make Hit Records, Fela-Style
On April 30, 1974, the commune was raided and Fela was arrested for possession of marijuana. Released on bail, he returned to his compound and re-named it “Kalakuta Republic” (“Kalakuta” being the name of the prison cell he had occupied for two weeks), erected a ten-foot barbed wire fence, declared that the Republic was its own nation wholly independent of Nigeria, and recorded a hit album (Alagbon Close) that chronicled the arrest.

The police raided the house once again, this time attempting to plant weed on Fela. He asked to look at the evidence—and ate it, right in front of the surprised officers. Once again, Fela was hauled off to jail, where the prosecutors demanded that he produce feces containing the marijuana. Fela wouldn’t. He was set three days in Timbuktu, a floating cell anchored in the Lagos Lagoon behind the prison. Eventually he defecated the weed in secret, and provided “clean” shit to the authorities, who rushed it to the lab for analysis. The results were negative. Fela was released, and immediately wrote another hit album—entitled Expensive Shit—detailing his experiences.

At this point the Nigerian Establishment was so upset with Fela’s continuing attacks on their corruption—and his lampoons of their efforts to stop him—that he was safe nowhere, not even in other countries. Out on bail, Fela embarked on an international tour, only to be cut short in Cameroon when Nigerian police came across the border and arrested three of his Queens for not reporting to their parole officers in Lagos.

Then, on November 23, 1974, Kalakuta was raided for a third time in one year. This time the police weren’t interested in arresting people so much as physically punishing them. Everyone in the compound was beaten; Fela himself ended up spending nine days in the hospital, being treated for a broken arm and receiving eleven stitches. Of course he wrote a song about the whole affair; and of course “Kalakuta Show” was another hit.

“Fela went through the entire gamut of our criminal system, from unlawful assembly to sedition to incitement to the highest of offenses,” one of Fela’s attorneys recalled in the 1999 TV documentary, Femi Kuti: The New King of Afrobeat. “So virtually all the time Fela’s cases were politically motivated and therefore there was no cause to consider withdrawing from defending him. We always believed that Fela would come out of jail stronger, and that was what happened.”

The Sacking of Kalakuta
By 1977, Fela’s every move was an embarrassment and affront to Nigeria’s corrupt ruling class and military government. His hit records named names in both the songs’ ridiculing lyrics and triple-vibrant, meticulously detailed sleeve artwork. He gave sensational press interviews. He declared Kalakuta an independent state. He claimed that he would be voted President of Nigeria if fair elections were held. It was all too much, and another government attack was inevitable.

So Fela installed a 65-kilowatt generator to electrify Kalakuta’s fence. “You see the type of shit I was forced to do then?” he said. “Just to protect myself and my people, not from robbers, but from the authorities!”

The government invited Fela to participate in an image-conscious music and arts festival called FESTAC 77—but he refused. “One big hustle! A rip-off!” he retorted. Instead, Fela played concerts each night in his shrine; in attendance each night were many international artists and journalists (including most famously, Stevie Wonder) who came to see the most popular African musician of all strut his stuff. Fela took full advantage of the situation, condemning the government generally and in particular its “Operation Ease the Traffic” program, which involved soldiers whipping drivers during the “go-slow” (rush hour traffic jams). The authorities were infuriated by Fela’s actions, and after FESTAC concluded, the military took direct action.

On February 18, 1977 about 1000 soldiers surrounded Kalakuta and began a 15-hour siege. There was mortar fire. The generator exploded and the house caught fire, at which point Fela and his people surrendered. Fela’s 78-year-old mother was thrown from the second-story. The Queens and other Kalakuta residents were beaten; some were raped and tortured. The compound itself was burned to the ground, as was the free clinic run by Fela’s younger brother Beko. Beko was seriously injured. Fela himself went to the hospital and was then imprisoned on typically ludicrous charges.

Although the incident received plenty of attention from the international press (including a lengthy account in The New York Times), the Nigerian government’s probe of the event concluded only that a residence at 14-A Agege Motor Road had been burned by “unknown solders.”

Out of jail, with one arm and one leg in a cast, Fela reacted to this latest injustice as he always had: by making hit records. This time it was two albums, entitled Sorrow Tears and Blood and Unknown Soldier.

“When I Do Things, I Do Things Honestly”
Homeless and penniless, Fela and his 80-person entourage lived in a hotel [see Lester Bowie sidebar interview], and then for a short while in his brother Koye’s garage. Fela was now encountering difficulties with his record company, the Nigerian branch of Decca, which had changed management hands and was now hostile to releasing Fela’s inflammatory records, no matter how popular he was. It was a plain breach of contract, and Fela wanted the money he was contractually owed if such a breach occurred. The label refused, so Fela and his people went to the Decca offices. And stayed. For seven weeks.

“The Decca offices has very big sitting room and thick carpets everywhere, so we laid our mattresses down and stayed there in comfort,” he explained.

Fela finally left for Ghana, where, by 1978, his anti-police “Zombie” had become a big hit, especially with the students. He returned to Nigeria briefly on the one-year anniversary of the assault on Kalakuta, playing a show at Ogbe Stadium in Benin City. During the festivities around the event, he married all 27 of his singers simultaneously in a traditional ceremony.

“A man goes for many women in the first place,” Fela said later, defending his polygamy. “Like in Europe, when a man is married, when the wife is sleeping, he goes out and fucks around. He should bring the women in the house, man, to live with him, and stop running around the streets!”

Later he told the Washington Post, “When I do things, I do things honestly. I didn’t sleep with any women outside my marriage.” And he revealed to the Lagos Weekend, “Me, I fuck as often and as long as I can-o!”

Fela returned to Ghana with his band, but the popularity of “Zombie“—and Fela’s habit of preaching the Pan-Africanist philosophy of Ghana’s former leader, Kwame Nkrumah—made the Ghanian authorities nervous; before long Fela was deported from Ghana for being “liable to bring about a breach of the peace.”

On April 13, 1978, Fela’s mother died, having never fully recovered from the injuries she sustained in her fall during the Army’s rampage at Kalakuta. Outraged that Olusegon Obasanjo—the ruthless military dictator
who had never apologized for the sacking of Kalakuta (and who in 1999 is Nigeria’s democratically elected leader)—was leaving office with full honors as the country transferred to supposedly democratic rule, Fela
plotted his revenge.

“I just couldn’t let him get away like that,” Fela said. “Obasanjo’s soldiers had killed my mother. That man will have to answer to that one-o!”

Fela had a life-size replica of his mother’s coffin built, which he delivered to Obasanjo’s home in the Dodan Barracks on the morning of October 1, 1979. Accompanied by his Queens, his son Femi and others, Fela
drove the bus through roadblocks towards the barracks.

Fela: “Oh, my wives, those women are courageous-o! The sentries lifted their machine guns and rifles. I told them, ‘My brothers, will you also shoot my women?’ They lowered their weapons. We arrived at gate. We
lowered coffin to ground. We turned round. And we left. At that same moment it began to rain. Heavily! Oh, that rain-o!”

“If You Can’t Be Creative, Then Split! Disappear!”
The seeming end of military rule in Nigeria in 1980 gave Fela new hope of finally being elected president. He formed a political party called M.O.P. (Movement of the People) and attempted to get listed as a candidate on the ballot.

“If I can take [Nigeria], then Africa is settled,” Fela argued. “All of Africa will be liberated. If there is only one good government—a straight and progressive, clean government that knows what it is doing. No compromises, no Marxism-Leninists, no capitalism. Africanism.”

During Nigeria’s ’80-’81 academic session, he gave more than 60 lectures at universities; one such lecture is printed in its entirety in Fela: Why Blackman Carry Shit. In his lectures, Fela related an ancient history of Africa grounded in pioneering Afrocentric Egyptologist Yosef Ben-Jochannan’s Black Man of the Nile. His critical history of colonialism was principally based on the influential thinking of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the father of Pan-Africanism. Fela’s acerbic criticisms were relentless.

“What America has done to Africa is bad,” he said. “Bringing in arms, bringing Christianity, turning the people’s minds upside down, bringing in fertilizers, doing shit, wanting to bring western civilization here. America and England are trying to brainwash Africans.”

Fela criticized “reactionary African puppets who] go about condemning apartheid South Africa while they go about killing innocent citizens in their countries to sustain them in power.”

He preached in favor of traditional African home remedies and against the medicine of the multinationals: cow urine, for example, was a cure for convulsion, and Africans need “synthetic tablets” to cure themselves of malaria. He argued that UFOs existed; that Nigerian government leaders should consult spiritual oracles, that there were “people in this country with enough knowledge of Africa’s perfect system of government to guide us.”

Finally Fela argued against industrialization, saying “the future of this world is based on nature, not the machine. Science means complications. When science brings out a new gadget it costs more than the others. People have to earn more to buy it. So science makes people run more. What we need is to rest more, talk more, walk more, fuck more and enjoy things in life more.”

Fela told Moore, “When people say America, Russia, China are great powers, I say: ‘No!’ Oppressors, destroyers, massacrists can never be great people. Creativity, not destruction, should be the yardstick of greatness. If you cannot create anything that will make your own life, or that of your fellow human, happier, then get out of the way. Split! Disappear! And give others a chance.”

Life and Death in Paris
“After Fela’s mother died, it was a very difficult time for Fela,” remembers Sandra. “It just went all downhill from there.”

Besides his mother’s recent death, Tony Allen, who had helped Fela develop the Afrobeat sound, had left the group in 1979; Fela’s wives were slowly leaving him; and it didn’t look like the M.O.P. would succeed in getting Fela on the ballot. But what seemed most important to Fela was establishing some sort of contact with his mother.

“He knew that in the African religion that the ancestors play a very important role,” says Sandra. “They believe that once a person transcends to the other side that they’re there to help you.”

Fela had begun to solicit traditional African spiritual mediums, witch doctors and witches. “There were certain people in the house that claimed to be in communication with his mother,” says Sandra. “And he was listening to them.”

“I knew about the spiritual aspect of the African traditions, and I was getting very involved as a teenager,” remembers Femi. “And I told him, ‘Fela, this aspect of life does exist.’ But he kept going out to look for traditional powers, and I was like, he has the greatest power, spiritually speaking, from an African man’s point of view: to be able to create sound and make people think, make people cry, and to gather over 10,000 people because of his music. I was trying to make him see his spiritual power he had in his possession and he did not have to look anywhere else, but just look inward.

“One group of [witch doctors] came with a jacket, saying if Fela wore it and they shot him with a bullet he will not die. They tried it on a goat and the goat did not die. Luckily they got his brother to bring a shotgun and someone says try the jacket on the goat before you put it on. They pulled the shotgun out, put bullets in it and POW! The goat’s head just falls off. That would have been Fela’s head, man.”

In the spring of 1981, Sandra received a call from a hotel in Paris. It was a very shaken Fela, asking her to come see him immediately.

“He felt that they were trying to kill him,” she recalls. “He wasn’t specific. I just jumped on a plane. I went to Paris for three days. The scene at that hotel was unreal. He had some heavy, wicked people around
him at that point. I don’t know how he could have remained sane in such an insane environment.

“I believe that was the weekend when Fela contracted the AIDS virus [that would eventually kill him]. I felt it. This is something that I can’t explain, but it’s real.”

“I Will be President of This Country One Day. Don’t Worry!”
On his return to Nigeria from Europe, Fela had a spiritual revelation, in which he was possessed.

“I saw this whole [world] was going to change into what people call the Age of Aquarius,” he told writer Roger Steffens. “Musicians were going to be very important in the development of human society and that musicians would be presidents of different countries and artists would be the dictators of society. The mind would be freer, less complicated institutions, less complicated technologies. It was in that trance that I saw the whole human race were in Egypt under the spiritual guidance of the Gods.”

Fela immediately changed the name of his group to Egypt 80, and began to perform Yoruba rites in the middle of his performances at the Shrine at an altar decorated with images of luminaries like Malcolm X, Dr.
Kwame Nkrumah and Fela’s mother. The uncle of his old friend J.K. Braimah made spiritual incisions in the center of Fela’s head. And finally, a witch doctor named Professor Hindu arrived from Ghana, claiming he had the power to “kill and wake”—to kill a man and bring him back to life.

Fela said, “That night he performed at Shrine. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen that shit with my own eyes. ‘Kill and wake!’ He’s the man who started showing me the way to truth, to myself, to my mission and to…my mother! He revealed to me that one has to put this white spiritual powder on the face to communicate with spirits. He tells me what to do, what not to do, who my friends are and who are my enemies.”

Femi was more skeptical.

“Yes, Hindu performed a lot of magic,” he says. “And I have no answers for some of the things he did. But when he said he killed somebody, and he did not let my father’s brother [Beko] investigate properly, [almost] everybody became suspicious.”

In December 1981, Kalakuta was once again assaulted—this attack was captured on still camera by the French TV crew that happened to be there filming the documentary later released as Music Is the Weapon. Police raided the compound, plundering the buildings and teargassing and beating everyone, including pregnant women and children. Once again Fela returned from jail, beaten but defiant—and as charismatic as ever.

“I’m getting stronger,” he boasted to the film crew. “In fact I’m surprised at how quickly I’ve recovered, considering the beating I got.

“Something tells me that I am right, that I WILL be president of this country one day,” he said, cheekily. “Don’t worry!”

But once again, Fela was prevented from even running for election; instead, he became embroiled in a new host of absurd charges—this time for sabotage, murder and armed robbery—that would eventually be dismissed.

Prisoner of Conscience
Over the next few years, for various reasons, Fela’s domestic popularity began to dwindle.

In 1984, he agreed to co-produce (or mix) his next album with the American producer Bill Laswell [see sidebar interview]. But on September 4, as Fela was leaving for the U.S. to mix the album with Laswell and do a short tour, he was arrested once again. This time Fela was accused by Nigerian Customs officials of trying to smuggle Nigerian currency out of the country.

Fela was sentenced to five years in jail after a trial that was such an obvious procedural sham that Amnesty International declared Fela a Prisoner of Conscience. A “Free Fela” movement was born, with popular musicians like Stevie Wonder and David Byrne [see sidebar interview with Byrne] signing on.

On Sept. 24, 1985, the case’s judge visited Fela in jail and apologized; he said the ruling government had forced his decision and made him jail Fela. But it wasn’t until April 23, 1986—after 20 months in
jail—that Fela was released, when news of the judge’s secret prison visit finally began to circulate in the popular press, embarrassing the current government. Fela was not the same when he came out of prison.

“I can still see all the marks on his body from the bayonets of the guns and all that,” remembers Femi. “He got beaten so. His whole body was kind of broken. Head injuries, his hands. He was in real pain for a long time. When people were around, he would try to hide it. I think what saved him was the grass, at the end of the day. It helped him handle the pain. He wouldn’t have done it, normally. No human being could do that.

“There will never be another man like him. He started calling himself Ebami Eda, which means ‘the weird one,’ after he came from jail. He believed he was protected by something, by spirits, by the supernatural. Because he did not know where the music came from. It comes from somewhere else, something else that you cannot see. And music is related to that, because music is the one artform that you cannot touch, that you cannot see. You can see the instruments and you can plan in your head the music you will make, but you cannot say how it will sound.”

“Music is a spiritual thing,” Fela said in 1982. “You don’t play with music. If you play with music, you will die young. Because when the higher forces give you the gift of musicianship, it must be well-used for the good of humanity. If you use it for your own self by deceiving people or doing this, you will die young. And I have told people this many times. So, I’m gonna prove them wrong and prove myself right. I’m getting younger! I can play music for ten hours. I’m never tired…because the spiritual life of music that I’ve lead RIGHTLY is helping me now.”

“You tap into something—or, it taps into you,” says Femi. “You have some say, your creativity, in arranging it, in making it your own. But you are still a medium for something, for whatever…message…they want to put out. He was a medium for it.”

“Fela’s career continued to go, but another type of realization had come in,” says Sandra. “Fela told me there was nothing else to sing about, nothing else to talk about, because he’d said it all [and nothing had changed]. He was very sad.

“This was a man who had been very jovial-type person. He became a recluse. Fela was caught in his own world of Kalakuta. He was the king there, and he surrounded himself with a bunch of yes men.”

“He knew what he wanted in the ’70s,” says Femi. “He knew what he was up against. He knew he could die. He was ready. In the ’80s, I think he was now getting frustrated. Fela’s problems started when he went spiritual. Cuz now he wanted an answer, from traditional medicine, he was looking for African technology. For all these years he has been fighting for the African people. Why are Africans not doing anything about what he has been talking about?”

Nevertheless, Fela continued to compose and perform (if not record) some brilliant music, as well as give sensational interviews to the Lagos press.

“I Will Never Die.”
Fela told the press that recent his skin rashes were spiritual in origin—he was “changing skin,” with a new skin scheduled to appear on January 1, 1992. He claimed he was still making love three hours a day—as well as brushing his teeth for an hour and taking 45 minutes in the bath, during which he would do “a series of body-building exercises.” He dismissed as “junk” the 11 members of his band who left him during his 1991 US tour, instead emphasizing that he had a great time: “I had sex with all my girls in my band, and I got two extra American girls. Also I had a regulation that any Nigerian who wanted to see me [backstage] must give me present, and the only present I like is igbo.”

By 1993, Fela was telling the press that “Kalakuta is not an ordinary place, it is the center of the world”—that his witches (who were no longer his wives, as he had divorced all of them following his release from prison) were directing what was happening in the country.

“If they want this country to be in total confusion in the next one year, they can do it,” Fela told the Lagos Weekend. He claimed that the recent misfortunes of his longtime nemesis, ITT and Decca businessman Chief Abiola, was caused by his witches. “Abiola paralyzed because he wants to sell Nigeria to America. It can never be. Abiola himself is just beginning to get what is coming for him. This country is witch country. World is witch world. I have said it before.”

Smoking one of his 15-inch-long igbo joints, the 56-year-old Fela even claimed he was immortal: “I will never die; my ancestors have told me so.”

Fela’s Choice
But Fela’s health had begun to deteriorate. It was obvious to those close to him that something was seriously wrong. The sexually promiscuous Fela—who had refused to use condoms his entire life, on the grounds that they were synthetic, non-African and a conspiracy against black men experiencing full pleasure—had AIDS. He refused anything but traditional African folk remedies.

“I think he thought he could not catch the disease,” says Femi. “I don’t know why. But back then, nobody has really taken the disease very seriously. So many people have died from the disease in Nigeria and we don’t hear because nobody comes out to say ‘Yes, he died from AIDS.’ Everybody believes that it’s a shameful disease.”

“Fela did not have to die from AIDS,” says Sandra. “People don’t have to die from AIDS in the ’90s. That was the choice Fela made…When you start to mature, you start to question the way things are. You know, Fela talked about everything. And some people heard it, and a lot of them didn’t. It was very, very disappointing. You wonder if death is better than life. I think Fela reached the point where he probably didn’t want to live. Fela stayed and died in Nigeria, when he could have came out of Nigeria and lived a better life.”

There were, of course, final indignities. Fela was arrested again for drug possession and paraded before the TV cameras in handcuffs. Femi had to beg the authorities to release Fela on bail, arguing that although Fela had been arrested more times than any Nigerian in history, he had never jumped bail. Fela was typically defiant, saying, “It is not drugs. It is grass.”

Fela, who had stopped eating and locked himself in his room, finally acceded to his family’s wishes to visit a hospital. But it was too late.

On August 2, 1997, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died.

Epilogue
Fela’s heart had stopped, but you could still hear its beat.

The announcement in his final weeks that Fela had AIDS had done little to dampen the public affection for the man. On an early Monday morning as Fela’s body was taken by his family to an arena to lie in state, a million people—silent, crying with their fists in the air—lined the Lagos streets in an unorganized show of respect.

“For two days, people didn’t do any work in Lagos!” Femi remembers, laughing. “This is the first time in the history of Lagos that they have not had a complaint of robbery, rape or anything. Because all the robbers,
all the bad boys, they loved him, you know? Everybody was busy at the funeral!”

Today, Kalakuta still stands. The old Shrine has been demolished; Femi has plans to dedicate a new Shrine as early as February, 2000. Seun Kuti, Femi’s younger brother, continues to performs Fela’s songs with the remaining members of Egypt 80; Femi himself has his own career. Fela’s brother Beko was finally released from jail after serving 40 months on typically bogus charges. And 2000 sees the launch by MCA of an ambitious program to issue Fela’s albums (many for the first time) in the U.S.

“He saw all these things going wrong, and he felt he had to talk about it,” said Fela’s first wife Remi in a 1999 TV interview. “Fela had a mission, and people should have listened to what he was saying.

“Instead, they just said he was crazy.”

13 thoughts on “FELA: KING OF THE INVISIBLE ART by Jay Babcock (1999)

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  10. “He would never play a song after he recorded it”
    Yeah, thank to Flea, not so many people know this about Fela. He really would not play a song after it has been released. So to his fans, the released songs are not new to us. I guess that is why we keep going to the Shrine”. his club, every week. That is where the real stuff are. The whole package. It is like going to church, for some people.

  11. This is the most comprehensively documented story of Fela Kuti. My dad and Fela were close and both from Abeokuta. When my dad returned from UK to Nigeria in 1970, he began patronizing the Afrika Spot and later Shrine. When my dad stopped visiting the Shrine by 1981, I began where he left off by 1983/84. I saw everything happen to Fela just as written here but I left Nigeria for the UK in 1992 and only saw Fela for the last time in 1995 when I visited the Pepple Street Shrine for the last time. The next time I would come to Nigeria was in 1998 by which time, Fela had died. I never once believed he died of AIDS. By 1981, Fela was a walking corpse….already battered and broken, fractured etc. His immune system became weak from years of abuse from Nigeria.

    Where was the world when Fela got ill-treated and battered from 1974 to 1997 when Bamaiyi paraded him on national tv as a drug addict? As I usually tell people, this world worships the dead more than it does, the living. Why are several big names in today’s music industry suddenley recognising Fela’s music through that sham called Fela Broadway? They should all hang themselves in shame. I guess they’ve all gotten bored of their own tantrums and escapades that they needed something fresh like Fela’s afrobeat to drench their sorrows.

    Many of them have been sampling his music in their records. I condemn all of them just as Fela would, had he still been alive. In the first place, he would have never approved of such. He is my man dead or alive and thank you for this wonderful piece of history into Abami’s life and times.

    I began to catalogue his unreleased and unrecorded materials as soon as I heard he died. I have now collected plenty both audio and video. I am still looking for more stuffon Fela not commercial material. What I have are exquisite rarities in the form of private interviews, documentaries, live concerts both video and audio ranging from different countries from 1986-1996. I cherish his memory and what he stood for. No other musician in the world can be like him nor would attempt in the slightest way to be like him. While most use music as a money-making tool, Fela applied his music to the conscious re-awakening of the mind.

    If you want to communicate with me, email me on kadesegun@hotmail.com. I stand for truth.

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