If you want to treat to yourself to a good read, I recommend picking up this biography about legendary Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I just finished re-reading and I have to say it’s one of my all time favorite music books. It’s the definitive book on one of the most fascinating and controversial artists of our time.
The author, Michael Veal, is a professor of Ethnomusicology at Yale University. He’s also a saxophonist, who actually got the chance to jam with Fela and his band, Egypt 80, in the 1990´s. As you would expect from a Yale music professor, Veal has an extensive musical knowledge, but he’s also a very talented writer. This makes him the perfect tour guide through the life, music and times of one of the first true countercultural figures in Africa who also happened to be one of the continent’s most important musicians.
In the early 1970´s, Fela created a new musical style, which he dubbed Afrobeat. Stylistically, Afrobeat was a brilliant fusion of Nigerian High Life, Afro-Cuban music and Afro-American styles like jazz and funk. The compositions were long, funky, polyrhythmic workouts and the lyrics were confrontational and very political in nature.
Afrobeat took shape at a time when Nigeria was trying to find stability and forge a new national identity after gaining independence from years of British colonial rule. It was a chaotic period and the country ended up being ruled by a series of repressive military regimes.
Fela was from an upper middle class family with a history of political activism. He received a musical education in London and later lived in the United States while the counterculture of the 1960´s was in full swing. There he was exposed to the many radical cultural and political ideas of the time and this effected both his music and his political views greatly. When he returned to Nigeria he became one of the country’s most popular musicians as well as an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government.
Influenced by ideas such as American Black Power-philosophy and drawing on a long African tradition of “abuse singing” , Fela used Afrobeat as a vehicle for social commentary, satire and scathing political attacks. Songs such as “Zombie”, “Yellow Fever”, “Shakara” and many others dealt with injustice, corruption, racism and many other issues facing Sub-Saharan Africa at the time.
Fela became notorious for his verbal diatribes against Nigeria’s political elite as well as his rebel lifestyle which outraged large parts of Nigerian society. This included a prolific weed habit and a sexually promiscuous lifestyle of legendary proportions. In one famous incident, he married 27 women in a single ceremony.
The authorities often responded violently to Fela’s provocations and he was beaten and jailed a number of times. This, however, only drove him to make even more confrontational music. It also made him a hero to many African poor as well as an international symbol of resistance.
One of the interesting things we learn in the book is that a serious effort was made in the 1980’s by Western record executives to turn Fela into the next “World Music” superstar after Bob Marley’s death. Fela, however, turned out to be a little too controversial and uncompromising for that to happen.
Michael Veal’s knowledge of both African and Western music history is impressive and his storytelling impeccable. He paints a richly detailed picture of contemporary Lagos, a city whose chaotic energy was crucial to Fela’s ideological development as well as the Afrobeat sound. He also brilliantly contextualizes the uniqueness of Fela’s artistry by comparing it to the political role musicians have traditionally played in West African societies.
One of the things I love about this book is that it isn’t an uncritical celebration of its subject. Veal objectively highlights the complexities and inconsistencies of a man who was very progressive on some issues and pretty reactionary on others.
There’s been a renewed interest in Fela over the last few years and it seems like Afrobeat bands are popping up all kinds of strange places around the world. So if you want the goods on where it all started, look no further than this book.