‘He was in a godlike state’
Fela Kuti was idolised as a rebel and martyr in Nigeria – yet in the west, we know him only for his Afrobeat music and his 27 wives. Alex Hannaford reports from Lagos on Fela’s true legacy
Wednesday July 25, 2007
You would be forgiven for driving right past the white three-storey building in a shabby Lagos back-street. But this nondescript house, with its balconies and roof terrace, was once at the heart of one of the biggest musical movements Africa has ever seen. The Kalakuta Republic, as it’s known, is the commune that once belonged to the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.
Here, unlike elsewhere in Africa’s most populous country, young men give the single-fisted black power salute as you drive past, rather than a wave of the hand. As we pull up outside Kalakuta, a rat scurries down an open sewer and a bare-chested security guard opens a large iron gate into the compound.
Fela Kuti was the mouthpiece of Nigerian counterculture in the 1970s. He developed a style of music known as Afrobeat – an amalgamation of Yoruba rhythms, Ghanaian Highlife, jazz, American funk and pidgin English. Fela loved getting up the nose of the authorities. He married 27 women in one day, publicly smoked marijuana despite the threat of prison, declared Kalakuta an independent state, and was often beaten up and imprisoned. August 2 marks the 10th anniversary of his death from an Aids-related illness, and he remains one of the most influential musicians to emerge from the continent.
Kalakuta is now home to two of Fela’s children, Seun and Kunle. The entrance is via a side door, but to get to it you have to pass a large marble plinth. Fela is buried beneath it, and well-wishers still arrive daily to pay their respects. An estimated 1 million people turned up on the day of his funeral in 1997.
Our taxi driver, Omo, had been smiling as he approached Kalakuta. “If 80% of Nigerians understood what Fela was saying, our country would understand that our leaders are failing us,” he told me.
Kalakuta has hardly changed over the past decade. The herbal aroma hits you as you walk in. There are people everywhere – coming out of doorways, sitting on mattresses, chatting, hanging out on the roof. Fela’s bedroom has been left untouched since the day he died. The door is locked, and only his children are allowed inside. The only visible evidence that this is a living museum is a cabinet containing 40 pairs of Fela’s shoes – all handmade in various colours and fabrics.
In an empty room next door, Tunde Olayinka is sitting on an old mattress, staring out at the street. Olayinka was Fela’s road manager and is still employed by Seun to work around the house.
He recounts the horrific story of the day in 1977 when soldiers under Olusegun Obasanjo’s military regime stormed Fela’s compound. Ironically, Fela and the recently retired president had grown up together in the town of Abeokuta, a few hours’ drive from Lagos – Fela in a middle-class family, the son of a preacher, and Obasanjo in a poor farming family. Fela had released his record Zombie as a rebuke to the army, comparing them to robots, and his friends had burned an army motorcycle during one altercation. In retaliation, 1,000 of Obasanjo’s soldiers surrounded Kalakuta.
“Fela didn’t know what was happening,” Olayinka recalls. “The soldiers began to climb the fence, then they started shooting. Fela was inside the house but he jumped out of his compound and ran to his friend’s house. Then the soldiers threw Fela’s mother out of the window.”
Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was Nigeria’s first feminist activist, and the first woman to drive a car in the country. She broke her hip in the fall and later died from her injuries. The original Kalakuta Republic was subsequently burned to the ground, but Fela’s response was to move into a new house and place a coffin on its roof with a banner that read: “This is where justice was murdered.”
Obasanjo was in the process of handing over to a civilian government and Fela was determined to give him a parting gift. He took the coffin from the roof and headed for the presidential residence at Dodan Barracks, driving through the back-streets of Lagos to avoid the roadblocks. Dumping the casket at the gates, he made his point, and was beaten for his efforts. His song Coffin for Head of State chronicles the events that day:
Den steal all the money
Dem kill many students
Dem burn many houses
Dem burn my house too
And killed my mama
So I carry the coffin
It’s not clear whether Fela’s mother’s body was inside the casket.
Fela’s children insist their father was misunderstood in the west – that the focus was on the man with 27 wives who antagonised the establishment, and there was never any real effort to understand the culture and politics of the country that gave birth to him, or what motivated him. Arguably, to really do that, you have to go to Lagos and immerse yourself in a city that is at once exciting, edgy, humid, polluted, vibrant, friendly, rich and poor. With his fame abroad, Fela didn’t have to stay and endure the corruption, power failures, violence and poverty. But he chose to.
Seun Kuti was just eight years old when he started playing music in his father’s band, Egypt 80. Like his father, he went on to study music in England (Fela at Trinity College, London, and Seun at the Liverpool Institute). After graduating, Seun didn’t even wait around to collect his certificate. Egypt 80 had been left without a singer following Fela’s death, and Seun felt a duty to fill the gap.
Unlike the rest of the Kalakuta house, Seun’s room is air-conditioned and full of musical equipment, as well as a laptop computer.
“Towards the end of my father’s life, he was in a godlike state,” Seun says. “For a man to get to that position in his life takes a lot of discipline. He was a man of so much knowledge because he had been through so much.
“The people of Nigeria are very gullible. We wait for God. Our leaders are all Christian or Muslim, but my father was a traditionalist who smoked weed. So they burned his home and took everything he had. They called his women prostitutes, so he decided to marry them.”
Fela believed in polygamy, but marrying 27 women wasn’t some kind of sexual sideshow, as is often assumed in the west. Women had few rights in Nigeria at the time, and marrying them gave them civil liberties. In a way, he was emancipating them.
“He thought that everybody should be equal,” Seun says with a nod. “He opened our gates 24 hours a day; sometimes we had 300 people staying in our compound.”
Occasionally, there’s an echo of Fela’s firebrand temperament in Seun. “They say Nigeria is getting better because they’re printing new bills. But they’re not making jobs for anyone to earn money,” he says. “My vision is to lead Nigeria. I want to be president. But it’s a dream. If I don’t do that, I want there to be a lot more me’s who will question everything. We need something new in this country.”
Seun’s political aspirations mirror his father’s more concrete attempts. Fela used to give lectures at universities all over Nigeria, and attempted to register his political party, MOP (Movement of the People), but was thwarted by a government who believed (accurately, as it turned out) that he wanted to cause an uprising.
“I don’t blame anybody for my father’s death,” Seun says. “Everything happens for a reason. His time had come. But Fela reminds me of how a man is supposed to be. He did what he wanted. My dad was the truth.”
Around the corner from the Kalakuta house is the New Afrika Shrine, set up in 2000 by another of Fela’s sons, the musician Femi Kuti, as a monument to the original Shrine in which Fela played for two decades. It was Africa’s most famous club before it was burned down by soldiers. Today, Fela’s shirt hangs on a peg above a bust of his face, set into an ornamental marble waterfall at the side of the venue.
Yeni, Fela’s oldest child, is sitting upstairs, somewhere in the warren of rooms above the stage. “My father was a very charismatic person,” she says. “For someone like me, it was easy to follow his ideology because, as a black person, he made me proud. Fela’s father – my grandfather – was a pastor, but he was still a radical; he was very outspoken. And my great-grandfather was responsible for taking Christianity to Abeokuta [a city north of Lagos]. He used music to get people to believe, so in his way he was a radical as well. And my grandmother was an activist. So we come from a long line of revolutionaries.
“I would love my father to be remembered for his words and his music. He was a brilliant man. If only the government at that time had listened, I doubt that Nigeria would be where it is today. We would be ahead of all the other African countries. The things he used to sing about are 100 times worse now, and religion in Nigeria is an epidemic – it is 7km from here to my house and I have counted 58 churches. Who are the congregation? Poor people. But the vicar’s suits cost $5,000 to $10,000.
“Fela would have been disillusioned with Nigeria today,” she adds, “but not surprised.”
Yeni’s eyes stray towards the tiny TV on her dressing-room table. It shows Obasanjo handing over the presidency to Umaru Yar’Adua, and various senators and governors being sworn into office. Obasanjo’s daughter, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, is being sworn in as a senator in Ogun State. “How did she become a senator?” Yeni asks rhetorically, incredulous. “It’s like Chelsea Clinton taking office because of her father. We Nigerians are gluttons for punishment.”
Fela would probably have written a song about it. But even though he passed away 10 years ago, you get the impression that his legacy and his passions are still very much alive.
Seun Kuti is due to release an album later this year; check myspace.com/seunkuti for details. Both Fela and Femi’s albums are available on Wrasse Records: wrasserecords.com