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Famed for his rebellious political views just as much as the Afrobeat genre he pioneered, Nigerian vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and human rights activist Fela Kuti was arguably one of the most radical musical figures of the 20th Century. Inspired by the Black Power movement of the 60s, Kuti made it his mission to confront the oppressive regime of his homeland during a highly controversial 30-year-career in which he was arrested 200 times, received a ten-year jail sentence and suffered personal tragedy at the hands of the Nigerian government. Kuti's message was strong, but it was undoubtedly strengthened by the equally revolutionary sound which surrounded it, an intensely rhythmic blend of funk, jazz, psychedelic rock and traditional West African chants dubbed Afrobeat. Kuti's music might not have sold in the quantities of his fellow cultural rebel, Bob Marley, but the one million fans who attended his funeral following his AIDS-related death in 1997 proved that few African musicians have made as big an impact.
Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938 to a Protestant Minister/pianist father and feminist activist mother, who no doubt helped to inspire his passion for both music and politics, Kuti was shipped off to London by his parents to study medicine in the late 50s, but instead decided to enrol at the city's Trinity College of Music. In 1961, Kuti formed his first band Koola Lobitos, a jazz/highlife fusion group who quickly became a fixture on the London circuit, and who he also later reformed and reinvented as an Afrobeat outfit while training as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. The group's melting pot of sounds took on another dimension following a ten-month stay in Los Angeles where Kuti was introduced to the Black Power movement by Black Panther Party member Sandra Smith. After quickly recording debut album The '69 Los Angeles Sessions, shortly before they were deported, the group changed their name to Afrika '70 on their return to their homeland and switched their lyrical themes of love to the various social and political issues affecting the Nigerian people.
Kuti's commitment to the cause certainly didn't end there. In 1970, he formed both the Kalakuta Republic, a communal compound/recording studio, and a nightclub, the Afrika Shrine, which allowed him to regularly question the authorities in front of his ever growing fan base, and changed his "slave" middle name of Ransome to Anikulapo ("He who carries death in his pouch"). A guest appearance on Ginger Baker's 1972 LP, Stratavarious, introduced his considerable talents to a global audience for perhaps the first time. But it was his own releases such as 1972's Shakara, 1973's Gentleman and 1975's Confusion which saw Kuti establish a reputation as the voice of Nigeria, a position which incurred the wrath of the government, who continued to hound him for the next three decades. Following the release of 1977's Zombie, a scathing attack on the Nigerian military, Kuti witnessed the government's brutality first hand when over 1000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound, destroying all of his instruments and master tapes, leaving him with a fractured skull and causing injuries to his aging mother that would later prove to be fatal.
Undeterred, Kuti remained as vocal and as impassioned as ever, responding to the official enquiry directly in the songs "Coffin For Head Of State" and "Unknown Soldier," before marrying 27 women to mark the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. A year later, Kuti formed his own political party, Movement of the People, although his attempt to run for President of Nigeria in the country's first election in ten years was inevitably thwarted. Kuti toured constantly during the start of the following decade with his new band, Egypt '80, but his career was once again disrupted in 1984 when he was sentenced to ten years in prison for currency smuggling, a charge which was dropped 18 months later following protests by Amnesty International. On his release, he divorced all of his wives, shared the bill with Bono and Carlos Santana at New Jersey's A Conspiracy of Hope concert and proved that his habit of causing controversy hadn't subsided with 1989's Beast Of No Nation, an anti-apartheid record which took aim at the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Kuti's work-rate slowed down considerably in the 90s, although an arrest for murder alongside four member of his Afrika '70 organisation in 1993 kept his name in the spotlight. In 1997, his older brother Olikoye Ransom-Kuti, a prominent AIDS activist, revealed that Kuti had died following complications from the virus at the age of 58. Over one million people took to the streets of Lagos for his funeral, which passed by the burnt out remnants of the Kalakuta compound during its seven hour procession. Kuti has since been immortalized in a Broadway stage production, "Fela!," which picked up eleven Tony Award nominations in 2010, as well as a documentary film, "Finding Fela" (2014), by Alex Gibney. A number of critically-acclaimed compilations and reissues have ensured that his provocative, pioneering and powerful body of work continues to challenge and inspire audiences across the world.
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