Fela Kuti was fated for greatness but not the musical kind. Son of Nigerian elite, Kuti was raised by a father who served as an Anglican minister and teacher’s-union organizer and a mother who was both an aristocrat and a women’s-rights advocate.
Then he landed in London, where he discarded a promised career in medicine – both of his brothers were already doctors – and quickly became a fixture on the club scene. Something new had sprung to life inside of Kuti, who quickly formed his first band and began constructing a sharp new mixture of traditional West African sounds, soul and R&B with a touch jazz.
This exciting hybrid would be called Afrobeat, and Kuti died as its king. Along the way, however, he became much more: A political gadfly, Kuti subsequently declared himself the president of his own Kalakuta Republic – really a personal compound in Lagos where he recorded, performed and provided sanctuary to all manner of sidemen, hustlers, outsiders, hangers-on and lovers. He was just as apt to denounce Nigeria’s corrupt leaders as pay tribute to ancient deities while onstage at his in-house nightclub. Either way, Kuti would play until dawn in a haze of igbo smoke.
“Music is supposed to have an effect,” Kuti once memorably said. “If you are playing music and people don’t feel something, you are doing shit. That’s what African music is about. When you hear something, you must move. I want to move people to dance, but also to think.”
He was jailed and relentlessly harassed by local authorities then succumbed as the plague of AIDS continued to sweep through Africa, but not before becoming hugely influential as the genius chef behind this new gumbo of music from Africa and Black America. That didn’t necessarily translate into sales. Blame, in part, goes to his propensity to bring along an entourage that could balloon to 50 people, while recording albums populated with 20-minute groove-based tracks. A 1984 world tour was halted before it began when Kuti was jailed on trumped-up charges. Eventually, he became more shaman-esque, only emerging to play the Shrine.
By the time of his death in the ’90s, his profile had greatly diminished internationally. That may have left some observers scratching their heads when Kuti was unexpectedly nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But his influence on music remained, and interest in his life and times has been on the uptick – particularly after a biographical musical called Fela! became an unexpected hit, first off-Broadway and then on the Great White Way. Brian Eno said Kuti is as relevant today as he was in his heyday, calling him “one of the great musicians of the 20th century — and the 21st.”
Here are 5 Reasons Fela Kuti Should Be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
He Had a Huge Influence on Rock
Talking Heads made a huge leap forward musically with 1980’s Remain in Light, and they never would have gotten there without Fela Kuti. The band listened obsessively to 1973’s Afrodisiac, mapping out a sort of template for their rhythmic explorations. “We deconstructed everything and then as the music evolved, we began to realize we were in effect reinventing the wheel,” David Byrne later told the Library of Congress. “Our process led us to something with some affinity to Afro-funk, but we got there the long way round, and of course our version sounded slightly off. We didn’t get it quite right, but in missing, we ended up with something new.” One of the unfinished outtakes from these sessions was actually called “Fela’s Riff.” Paul Simon‘s Graceland also wouldn’t exist without Kuti. Eno and Peter Gabriel were surely absorbing “Expensive Shit.” You can also hear Kuti’s direct influence on Bootsy Collins’ 1976 solo record, Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band. All of those guys are already in the Hall of Fame.
He Had Direct Rock Connections
Fela Kuti was an old hand at collaborating with huge rock stars by the time he took the stage in 1986 at Giants Stadium for Amnesty International’s “A Conspiracy of Hope” concert with Bono, Carlos Santana and others. In fact, some of Kuti’s most celebrated early recordings were sparked by his turn-of-the-’70s friendship with Ginger Baker. Newly split from Cream and then Blind Faith, Baker was seeking new directions. He found them in a series of layover jams with Kuti while in Lagos during a cross-desert trip. (The 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa explores this frankly nutty adventure.) Baker later made official contributions to Live! and Stratavarious, both of which were released in 1972, and also made uncredited contributions to the seminal Fela’s London Scene and Why Black Man Dey Suffer in 1971. Bobby Tench, singer and guitarist with the Jeff Beck Group, was also part of the Stratavarious sessions. Oh, and Kuti and Paul McCartney once got super, super stoned.
He Shared Rock’s Activist Attitude
Kuti came by his interest in music honestly: His father played piano. But his parents were also deeply involved with making Nigeria a better place, doggedly advocating for home rule while working to improve teachers’ lives. Kuti combined both family impulses in 1974’s Alagbon Close, the first album to directly take on corrupt government figures, and he never looked back. His outspokenness defined his music and his public persona, but it also led to problems with the authorities. He and his bandmates and followers were arrested, even beaten. This only deepened Kuti’s resolve. When 1977’s Zombie took on the local army, however, General Obasanjo ordered his troops to overtake Kuti’s Kalakuta compound. The buildings were burned to the ground, Kuti was nearly beaten to death and his mother ultimately succumbed to injuries after she was thrown from an upstairs window.
He Was an Iconoclast’s Iconoclast
Fela Kuti was hard to nail down. On one hand, he was a voice for Pan-African justice, a moral leader for those suffering under the iron-fisted rule of military juntas. But he also smoked weed all the time, married 27 women in a single ceremony and tended to perform in bikini briefs and nothing more. He shared the same political bent and free-spirit sensibilities as Bob Marley, but never matched the late reggae legend’s tandem popularity because Kuti’s music remained stubbornly unconventional. He’d sometimes let songs go on for up to an hour. He wanted self-rule for Nigeria but created his own micro-republic – then said it was exempt from state law. Several of his bandmates, including his late drummer Tony Allen, had such lengthy tenures that they became famous in their own right. But when saxophonist Igo Chico suddenly quit in 1974, Kuti stayed up all night – reportedly practicing for some 17 hours straight – so he could replicate Chico’s tenor parts himself during a regularly scheduled Friday-night show.
He’d Make International History
Much attention has been paid recently to the paucity of women in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They make up less than 10 percent of total inductees – and that’s after a trio of women were honored in 2019-20, including Stevie Nicks, Janet Jackson and Joan Jett. A year later, the Rock Hall added seven more female nominees – making the 2021 ballot the most woman-focused in history. But they’re not the only underrepresented constituency. Fela Kuti would be the first solo African artist to ever be inducted. Two others have joined with their bands: South African Trevor Rabin, in 2017 with Yes, and Tanzania-born Freddie Mercury, in 2001 with Queen. Other than that, reggae stars Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff are apparently the only two artists who are not from the U.S., Britain or Ireland to have joined the HOF.