Artist behind Parliament Funkadelic art struggles to get by
Chicago’s Pedro Bell was the artist behind some of music’s most iconic album covers. Now his life is anything but a pretty picture.
November 9, 2009
BY KARA SPAK Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org
Thick dust covers the gold lame shirt and silver leather coat in Pedro Bell’s closet.
The clothes are remnants from a brighter time when Bell, a rainbow Afro wig on his head and platform shoes on his feet, strutted through Chicago as a charter member of the ’70s funk revolution whose sound is heavily sampled in rap songs today.
“It was psychedelic from a black perspective,” Bell said.
Bell, 59, designed the cover art for more than two dozen George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic albums. Under the name Sir Lleb (Bell backward), he wrote the albums’ liner notes, peppering them with cartoonish drawings, clever puns and names like “Thumpasaurus” and “Funkapus” that remain synonymous with Clinton’s music.
Bootsy Collins is one of the greatest bassists of all time: a member of the baddest version of the JB’s, a funk-force with the Parliament-Funkadelic empire in the ’70s and leader of his own impossibly stanky group, Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Currently at work at his home studio (which he jokingly calls “the Bootzvilla Rehab”) on multiple projects—including a new Rubber Band album, a new Funkadelic album and a reunion with all of the surviving members of the original JB’s—Bootsy took a few minutes to speak with me about the JB’s’ famous visit to Nigeria in 1970…
Tony Allen is the original funky drummer. As a member of Fela’s ’60s highlife group Koola Lobitos, Allen, Tony traveled with Fela to the U.S., where Fela developed Afrobeat. Allen’s complex, seemingly eight-armed and eight-legged drum parts—an encyclopedia of inventive groove spread over dozens of albums—were the only parts of Fela songs not composed by Fela himself. Allen released an incredible series of solo albums in the late-70s and early ’80s, three of which featured Fela and the Afrika 70.
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.