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Fela Kuti: Activism as Art

February 22, 2023

Back in October 2021, when I was beginning to adjust to the college experience, I gave myself a goal. You might be thinking this goal was something like turn in all my assignments on time, or average a 4.0 GPA for the semester. But unfortunately, my compulsive tendencies manifested in a different way, and I decided to focus on trying to listen to 100 albums in the next year, and rate them out of 10. Fast forward to February of 2023, and the list in my notes app that I started early in freshman year now boasts a total of 233 albums, with corresponding ratings next to them. When I first looked at that number, I felt a sense of accomplishment, like I had achieved something noteworthy. But what did I have to show for it besides an obnoxiously long page in my notes app, and an awkward conversation with a psychiatrist regarding a preliminary OCD diagnosis? Truthfully, I can scarcely remember details about most of the albums that I listened to. The only distinction I have between them a lot of the time are my fairly generous 1-10 ratings. Writing anything beyond that in my notes app felt a little ridiculous, as nobody else would ever even see it. But now that I have a self serving bi-weekly column as a vessel to exercise my demons, well, all bets are off.

Throughout this discographic journey, I tried to listen to genres of music that I was largely unfamiliar with. One such genre that I found myself particularly enamored with was Afro-beat. And you can’t talk about Afro-beat without talking about the legendary Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. Fela Kuti was a Bob Marley-esque figure, both in stature and musical similarity. His albums infused elements of Jazz, blues, funk, and traditional Yoruba music with a message of social resistance that resonated strongly with the oppressed Nigerian people. Kuti toured the US in 1969, and it is well known that he took influence from American civil rights movements such as the Black Panthers. Unfortunately, the great musician’s accomplishments are muddled by a complicated and fascinating personal life, involving a cult, polygamy, currency smuggling, dismissed murder charges, and a tragic demise from complications with AIDS in 1997. But it is impossible to listen to his music and not respect the man’s talent.

While people love to sing the praises of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker for his multi instrumental prowess, Fela Kuti was doing this way back in the 60’s and 70’s. Along with being a master of the saxophone and keyboard, Kuti was also skilled in trumpet, electric guitar, and even drums. In what I feel is his best song, “Zombie”, Kuti has one of the most robust saxophone performances you will ever hear, as well as a fiery solo on the organ. The 12 minute jazz, spoken word fusion contains some of the most visceral political commentary I have ever heard, with Kuti impersonating a military officer barking commands at his subordinates, who reply with one mindless droning phrase: Zombie! The song highlights the blind obedience of the Nigerian military in carrying out orders to oppress the civilians. 

Though he is considered an important figure in the history of social resistance movements, Fela Kuti did not experience the commercial success that I personally feel he deserved. This can be partially attributed to his infatuation for 10+ minute long songs, as well as his stubborn but somewhat admirable refusal to play his greatest hits during live shows, instead opting to never play anything he had already recorded. Despite his somewhat lackluster commercial success, Kuti is still one of the most prolific artists in history in terms of output, producing roughly 50 albums replete with his signature long songs. 

During Black History Month, a lot of people give well deserved praise to iconic African American musicians who participated in the civil rights movement. However, foreign artists like Fela Kuti, who did just as much for social justice as any artist you could name, get left behind in the conversation. Not to mention he is an absolute demon on the sax. In my notes app, I gave 2 of his albums, Shakara and Sorrow Tears and Blood, a score of 8/10, but I would suggest that first time listeners start with the song “Zombie” to get a sense of what Kuti is about.

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