Fela Kuti’s ghost loomed large at the New York Public Library when Jeff Daniels and Lea Michele announced the nominees for the 64th annual Tony Awards. “Fela!” the musical about the Nigerian-born musician received 11 nominations, taking it head to head with old faithful “La Cage Aux Folles” for the most Tony Award nominations.
Watch: Fela! the musical on Broadway
Two years ago “Fela!” was an off Broadway musical that was selling out to a diverse audience mix. Today all eyes are on the musical and the musician whose life and struggles inspired it, after it was the only newbie on the Tony Awards’ nominee list to get a double-digit nod.
Protest singer, preacher, rebel with a cause, polygamist, shaman and musical pioneer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a charismatic maverick who traded a career in medicine for music, and who later used his unique fusion to fight for human rights. A fierce anti-apartheid activist, South Africans may remember Kuti’s appearance at the 1986 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope concert where he played alongside the likes of Carlos Santana and Bono. Another local link is the 1989 release of an album called “Beasts of No Nation” that included a protest cry against apartheid and displayed a bloody-fanged PW Botha.
Born in 1938, to date Kuti may largely have been regarded by the West as the man who created Afro-beat, had 27 wives and who made Paul McCartney weep with joy. McCartney would first experience Kuti’s music in Lagos in the early seventies, moving him to say: “When Fela and his band eventually began to play, after a long, crazy build-up, I just couldn’t stop weeping with joy. It was a very moving experience.”
The musical featuring Kuti’s compositions is shaking up stereotypical misconceptions about the man, and has given birth to legions of new Fela fans outside of Africa, driving new demand for his music and renewed interest in his life story.
The son of Israel Kuti, a Christian minister, schoolmaster and pianist, Fela may have inherited his musical bent from his father, but his charismatic and fearless political temperament surely stemmed from his mother. A world-recognised feminist activist, Funmilayo Kuti was a leader in the anti-colonial women’s movement during Nigeria’s struggle for independence.
Following education in an elite Nigerian school, Kuti’s parents sent him off to London in the hope that he would become a doctor. Instead he registered at the Trinity College School of Music where he was turned on by Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and later James Brown.
After returning home to Nigeria, Kuti would form a band and find his own musical voice in a fusion of jazz, traditional yoruba, funk and “high life” music that would be known as Afro-beat. He’d also discover Malcolm X whose political writings would solidify Kuti’s Pan-African and socialist world view.
This explicit and critical world view would see him fearlessly confront his former schoolmates who had moved on to become Nigerian military and government leaders. Kuti’s music would quickly find populist appeal in West Africa and his own home country because it was a war cry against oppression, corruption and the abuse of power. People protesting in the streets would sing Kuti’s music to shake a collective fist at government.
Photo: The cover of Fela Kuti’s Beast of the Nation LP
The Nigerian government responded in turn by detaining Kuti, harassing him and almost killing him on a number of occasions. One dramatic showdown, depicted in the musical, shows Kuti singing in a nightclub called the Shrine as 1,000 soldiers march to silence him. Another bloody controversy is described by the creators of the musical: “In 1977, during a government-sanctioned attack on his Kalakuta Republic commune, Fela and other members of his commune were arrested; Fela himself suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; a number of women living at Kalakuta were beaten and raped; and his 82-year-old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments and the only known copy of his self-financed film ‘Black President’ were destroyed.”
Watch: Fela Kuti’s Teacher, don’t teach me no nonsense
Arrested more than 200 times during his lifetime, Kuti would die in 1997, not at the hands of government, but from complications from Aids. His death came as a huge blow to his fans and lovers of Afro-beat across the world.
But Afro-beat is reborn and on 13 June Kuti’s fans new and old across the world will watch with baited breath to see which of the 11 nominated categories “Fela!” will take. The categories in which the musical is nominated include Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Actor, Best Featured Actress and Best Direction as well as nominations for choreography, orchestration, scenic design, costume design, lighting design and best sound design.
By Mandy de Waal
Photo Credit: Photographs of “Fela” the musical by Monique Carboni
Watch: Fela! opening night on Broadway with Jay-Z, Questlove and Spike Lee