The Strange Love Affair Between America and the Afrobeat Superstar

Fela Kuti is enjoying a renaissance in the U.S. But until recently, for most Americans Fela Kuti was the greatest musician that you’d never heard of.

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Barkley L. Hendricks, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen..., (detail) 2002.

It’s been a long, slow dance between the United States and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, one that started 40 years ago when the Nigerian musician first toured America and is finally picking up tempo today, with the Broadway show Fela! opening to raves this week and a movie biopic reportedly in the works.

That the Afrobeat star and political firebrand is reaching the wider American consciousness only now, 12 years after his death from AIDS, is just one more piece in the complicated life story of an exceedingly complicated and controversial man. Suffice it to say that the Broadway show didn’t spring out of nowhere. Rather, it’s the culmination of a number of factors: U.S. interest in the Nigerian superstar grew slowly, fed by the creation of new Afrobeat bands (led by the New York-based Antibalas), artistic exploration like 2003’s Fela Project and “Black President” exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the wider availability of his recorded music.

Curator Trevor Schoonmaker started the Fela Project in 1999 by looking for artists, musicians and writers inspired by the musician. He initially met with two kinds of reactions: “those who had no idea who Fela was, and those who knew about Fela and were extremely enthusiastic about the exhibition and publications,” Schoonmaker said in an e-mail exchange. “There was very little in between.”

Why the fascination with Fela? “Fela was one of the most extraordinarily complex and creative figures of the 20th century and was virtually unknown to the U.S. public,” Schoonmaker said. “Imagine the U.S. mainstream not knowing who Bob Marley is ... seems preposterous, right? Fela was just as significant of a musician and cultural figure—just not as well known.”

And for Fela, the U.S. proved to be just as significant. He first came here in 1969, looking for commercial success. Instead, he found something else: A sense of national identity and pride. "I should impress my own people first,” he once said. “When my people accept me, then foreigners will see a need to accept me. They will now appreciate my music."

Fela’s musical journey stretches back to 1962, when he formed his first band while a student in London. (His middle-class parents sent him to England to study medicine, but music soon won out.) Koola Lobitos was essentially a highlife band, but even then, Fela was trying to create something new, injecting jazz and salsa elements into the mix. He returned to Nigeria with band in 1963.

The band went to America in 1969, in a journey that has been widely described as a turning point for Fela in both his musical and political evolution. It started off as an almost comical disaster, though, according to Michael E. Veal’s 2000 biography Fela: Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, with an AWOL tours sponsor and multiple legal and immigration tangles.