Nigerian icon and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti passed away 15 years ago but to this day his legacy lives on across the globe with his still-relevant, forthright political views and powerful music. The complete works of Fela, consisting of almost 50 albums, are now being re-packaged, with in-depth track commentaries written by Afrobeat historian Chris May, and prepared for a three-batch re-launch between March and September 2013.
The re-release programme will be spearheaded on 4 March 2013 by the release of The Best Of The Black President 2, a 2CD collection with foreword written by Senegalese-American R&B/hip-hop artist Akon. The twelve tracks (none under 10 minutes) include 1975’s “Everything Scatter”, probably one of the ultimate Afrobeat tracks, as well as an extended version of the classic “Sorrow Tears and Blood”, inspired by the South African apartheid regime’s crushing of the Soweto uprising in 1976. Fela recounts stories such as police having unsuccessfully attempted to charge Fela for possession of weed (“Expensive Shit”) and speaks out about the practise of skin-bleaching among Nigerian women (“Yellow Fever”).
Fela’s final period of recording is covered too with 1992’s “Underground System (Part 2)”, inspired by Fela’s friend, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara and his assassination. A special deluxe edition of The Best Of The Black President 2 also includes a DVD of Fela’s legendary 1984 Glastonbury concert. In his introduction Akon writes: “Despite everything they threw at him, Fela’s music and his message never lost their way. He was always real and he was always with the people. That’s why we love and miss him all the more.”
Fela was very vocal in his views, with biting, acerbic critiques of European cultural imperialism, corrupt African governments and any forms of social injustice. This did not go down well with Nigeria’s military regimes during the 70s and 80s who routinely harassed and brutalised Fela and his supporters. Two hundred arrests, serious beatings that left scars all over his body whilst fighting for those who had ‘drawn life’s short straw’, never stopped him from coming forward, again and again. “Ah well, they didn’t kill me,” he would say. On 2 August 1997 Fela died – and a million people, the people he fought for, came to his funeral in Lagos to pay their last respects.
Akon, who grew up on Fela’s music, believes “Fela’s political beliefs were ahead of their time in so many ways, not least in their global vision. Today, the most influential protest movements – the environmental campaigners, the Occupy activists – have global perspectives … It is a risky business attributing opinions to people who have passed, but it’s safe to say that Fela would almost certainly have stood alongside today’s environmental and economic activists, and that he would just as certainly have approved of their global outlook.”
And Afrobeat, the music Fela created, didn’t die. Fela’s sons, Femi Kuti with his band Positive Force and Seun Kuti with Fela’s band Egypt 80, both travel the world and release their albums, keeping the flame burning brightly. But it’s not just Nigerian Afrobeat artists who make sure Afrobeat can be heard all over the planet: There are now in excess of 50 Afrobeat bands operating in Europe, the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia.
Fela even made it to Broadway: the Broadway hit musical, Fela!, recipient of 11 Tony nominations and three awards, directed by Tony award-winner, Bill T. Jones, with producer-backing from Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith among others, continues to play in the world’s most prestigious theatres. In 2011 the musical ‘came home’ to Lagos, opening at the New Afrika Shrine (the venue which was opened by Fela’s children Femi and Yeni in 2000 to replace Fela’s original Shrine) and then on to the Eko Center on Victoria Island where it received a tumultuous reception, playing to 3,500 people each night. The show commences touring once more in February 2013 across the United States (see http://www.felaonbroadway.com/) and then culminates with a season during the Chekhov Festival in Moscow.
In recognition of Fela’s burgeoning global stature, Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alex Gibney, is currently making the definitive Fela documentary, due for cinematic release in 2013. Also, a feature film of Fela’s life and times is in the works with Focus Features, directed by Turner Prize and BAFTA winner, Steve McQueen.
Back in Lagos, Fela’s old home, Kalakuta, has recently been transformed into the Kalakuta Museum, aided by a $250,000 grant from Lagos State Government who finally, and thankfully, have recognised his international cultural significance. Fela’s continuing relevance in his home country was made clear during the recent national protests at the government’s removal of the oil subsidy which effectively doubled the price of petrol overnight. His music was anthemic to the huge ensuing nation-wide public demonstrations which become known as Occupy Nigeria. “Listen to what Fela was saying 30 years ago,” was heard all over the country “and it’s still true today!”
Meanwhile, the new phenomena of ‘Afrobeats,’ performed by a digital-age generation of young African artists, is entering the mainstream charts with Nigerian acts like D’banj and Wizkid leading the way. While musically and lyrically departing from Fela’s Afrobeat these artists are still paying homage to the man by adopting Afrobeats as the genre’s name, and at the annual Felabration festival in Lagos, held around Fela’s birthday (5 October), many of them perform in honour of one of Africa’s true icons.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz7mMJD5LeQ]
‘The Best Of The Black President 2’ – Track-listing
1. Everything Scatter 10:31
2. Expensive Shit 13:11
3. Underground System (Part 2) 15:19
4. Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am 12:03
5. Monkey Banana 11:31
6. Sorrow Tears and Blood (Original Extended Version) 16:41
1. Black Man’s Cry 11:35
2. Mr Follow Follow 12:55
3. He Miss Road 10:45
4. Yellow Fever 15:10
5. Na Poi 13:30
6. Colonial Mentality 13:41
DVD (Deluxe edition only):
Fela Kuti performing at the Glastonbury Festival 1984 (60 mins)