Music Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
Alaba Ilesanmi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0287


An astute dissident activist, political force, and iconoclast, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (b. 1938–d. 1997), popularly called Fela, was a legendary and innovative composer, arranger, bandleader, Pan-Africanist, and the father of the genre known as Afrobeat. He used his music as a weapon against injustice and for derision and ridicule of politicians and politics. He was born Olúfelá Olúségun Olúdòtun Ransome-Kuti, on 15 October 1938, in Abeokuta, the present-day capital of Ogun State in Nigeria (then a British colony), into an upper-middle-class family. He later replaced Ransome-Kuti with Anikulapo-Kuti, Aníkúlápó meaning “the one who holds death in their pouch.” His father, Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, was an Anglican clergyman and school principal, and his mother, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (FRK) was a nationalist feminist. She was Fela’s primary ideological influence. Fela’s musical seeds were sown by his father, who was an accomplished composer. Fela furthered his artistic exploration with the Cool Cats, Victor Olaiya’s highlife band. He later studied music at the Trinity College of Music, London, in 1958, where his primary instrument was the trumpet. He formed a highlife and jazz fusion band, Highlife Rakers (later Koola Lobitos). Upon completing his studies, he moved to Nigeria in 1963, then a recently independent country, to work as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. Fela embarked on new musical explorations and experiments with Koola Lobitos and later named his music Afrobeat. In 1969, Fela traveled to the United States with his band, where they spent ten months in Los Angeles, and Fela was exposed to the works and philosophy of black leaders like Malcolm X. During this time, his mother’s influence blossomed, and his Pan-African ideology began to manifest. Upon returning to Nigeria, his emerging political consciousness drew inspiration from racial discrimination in the United States and colonial oppression in Africa. His lyrical themes shifted to addressing social issues. Name changes further marked his promising Pan-African consciousness. He rechristened his band Fela Ransome-Kuti and Nigeria 70, and later to Fela Ransome-Kuti and Afrika ’70, and Egypt ’80. Fela grew into a full-blown dissident and antagonist, confronting and lambasting the Nigerian military government and politicians. With over two hundred court appearances, he lived on the edge and suffered numerous incarcerations and physical assaults. His Pan-African messages were aimed at liberating Africans from colonial shackles. His music became a voice for the unheard and disenfranchised, and the defender of African society.

Biographies and Monographs

Fela’s unique life, idiosyncrasies, creativity, activism, and mysticism continue to attract academic engagements and have been extensively examined through interdisciplinary lenses. What follows are notable biographies and monographs. Babcock 2000 highlights significant events in Fela’s life and includes interviews with Fela’s associates and contemporaries. Coker 2004 examines Fela’s ideological and artistic developments and explorations through the different stages of his political consciousness and awareness, creative experiments, and cultural significance. Collins 2015 offers a unique perspective into Fela’s life and explores him through interviews with his Ghanaian associates and contemporaries. Fairfax 1993 foregrounds Fela’s biography through his ethnic origin and his family tradition of public service. In Moore 2009, the different facets of Fela’s life are synthesized through interviews with him and the remaining fifteen wives. Olaniyan 2004, written by an ardent lover of Afrobeat and a professor of English, African languages and literature, traces the sonic and extra-sonic features of Fela’s music. Olorunyomi 2003 explores Fela’s artistry and the Afrobeat phenomenon; its glossary is useful to understand Fela’s parlance, and the sequential appendices highlight salient events in Fela’s life. Ruskin 2019 contains a quick overview of Fela’s life and tracks his artistic periods. Schoonmaker 2003a and Schoonmaker 2003b are two books that are part of the Fela Project, a multimedia project and a collection of essays, respectively, that explore the life and legacy of Fela Kuti. These books include timelines that are helpful for quick reference to important dates and events in Fela’s life. Veal 2000, written by a professor of ethnomusicology and veteran performer of Afrobeat, is a detailed biography of Fela, conceived through musical study and extensive ethnographic work.

  • Babcock, Jay. “Fela: King of the Invisible Art.” In Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000. Edited by Douglas Wolk and Peter Guralnick, 14–50. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000.

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    Perhaps an abridged version of Moore’s biography of Fela, this essay is an excellent quick overview of Fela’s life. It dives into the salient events in Fela’s life and contains interviews with Bootsy Collins, Ginger Baker, Tony Allen, Bill Laswell, and Lester Bowie.

  • Coker, Niyi. A Study of the Music and Social Criticism of African Musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

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    This monograph analyzes the music and the political ideology of Fela. It examines Fela’s ideological and artistic developments, and explorations through the different stages of his political consciousness and awareness, creative experiments, and cultural significance.

  • Collins, John. Fela: Kalakuta Notes. 2d ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015.

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    This monograph emerged from the author’s encounters with and knowledge of Fela, weaved with interviews with Fela’s Ghanaian associates, colleagues, promoters, and band members. It offers another perspective into Fela’s life, especially his early and mid-career. The introduction to the second edition has been expanded to include the historiography of popular music in West Africa to provide a context for Fela’s music, politics, and influences.

  • Fairfax, Frank Thurmond, III. “Fela, the Afrobeat King: Popular Music and Cultural Revitalization in West Africa.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1993.

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    Chapters 6 through 10 of this dissertation focus on the life of Fela Kuti, his band, and its organization. In addition to the biography, it dives into the historiography of Fela’s ethnic background, the Ègbá Yorùbá people. It highlights the Ransome-Kuti family and their tradition of public service. It includes short biographies on Fela’s grandfather, Reverend J. J. Ransome-Kuti; his father, Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti; and his mother, Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

  • Moore, Carlos. Fela: This Bitch of a Life. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009.

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    It is referred to as Fela’s authorized autobiography, originally written in French by Carlos Moore, and published as Fela, Fela: Cette Putain de Vie in 1982. This book explores Fela’s childhood, artistic trajectory, ideological evolution, political views, and relationship with his mother and other women. The new edition features an introduction by Margaret Busby, a foreword by Gilberto Gil, and an epilogue covering events post-1982 by Carlos Moore.

  • Olaniyan, Tejumola. Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

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    Olaniyan, writing as a “passionate fan” and “dispassionate scholar,” engages Fela’s life along the lines of the sonic and extra-sonic features of his music: its production, circulation, and consumption; the reins and ruins of postcolonial state; and political and social circumstances. It explores how music, rebellion, and political activism in Fela’s life are intertwined.

  • Olorunyomi, Sola. Afrobeat! Fela and the Imagined Continent. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003.

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    This work highlights Fela’s unique artistry and explores Afrobeat as a phenomenon. Here, the author tracks the political and cultural context that shaped Fela’s ideology. It analyzes the Afrobeat phenomenon and its production through the lens of musical practices, countercultural and counter-hegemonic activities, indigenous cultural politics, and political ideology. The glossary is useful to understand Fela’s parlance and peculiar articulation, and the sequential appendices highlight salient events in Fela’s life.

  • Ruskin, Jesse D. “Afrobeat.” In Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Genres: Sub-Saharan Africa. Edited by Heidi Carolyn Feldman, David Horn, John Shepherd, and Gabrielle Kielich, 11–19. Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World 12. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.

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    This encyclopedic entry contains a quick overview of Fela’s life. It tracks Fela’s Koola Lobitos days and the various periods of the Afrobeat genre he created: early Afrobeat, political Afrobeat, and late-period Afrobeat. This entry also explores the Afrobeat genre after Fela: “the second wave.”

  • Schoonmaker, Trevor, ed. Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003a.

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    In 2003, Schoonmaker curated a multimedia exhibition of Fela’s life and legacy for the New Museum in New York. This exhibition was later published as a book, which contains essays, documentary images, and catalogue of works. The seventh and eighth pages contain Fela’s timeline, which is useful for quick reference for important dates and events in his life.

  • Schoonmaker, Trevor, ed. Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003b.

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    This monograph is a collection of essays that explore Fela’s life and legacy. Pages 197 through 202 contain a detailed chronology of notable events in Fela’s life, from his birth through his demise, with other global and local events weaved in.

  • Veal, Michael. Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

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    A complete biography on Fela conceived through musical study and ethnography. This monograph explores Fela as a musician and musical innovator by tracing his musical exploration and influences. It also deals with Fela as an influential social figure who, through his music and ideology, shaped Nigeria’s political, social, and cultural climate. It analyzes Fela’s artistry by situating him within the cross-cultural flow between African and African diaspora communities.

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