The Strange Love Affair Between America and the Afrobeat Superstar

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

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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.”

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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.

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The band’s cultural visas expired after three months, leaving them stranded in Los Angeles and facing deportation hearings. But Fela was not willing to go home without scoring some success; eventually he succeeded in getting visa extensions.

Los Angeles proved to be an awakening of sorts for Fela. It was there that he met and moved in with singer Sandra Smith (now Sandra Izsadore), an activist and former Black Panther whom Fela often credited with his political education. Among the many books she turned him on to was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It affected him profoundly. He saw strong parallels between U.S.-style racism and the British-style colonialism in Nigeria.

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At the same time, Fela was immersing himself in black literature and political philosophy; culturally, he was witnessing the sexual and drug revolution of the ‘60s firsthand. And through Smith (who is a pivotal character in the musical), he also learned and absorbed the modal jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others. Fela (with his longtime musical collaborator, drummer Tony Allen) renamed the band Egypt 70 and embarked on a three-month residency at a Hollywood club, where the sound that became known as Afrobeat—a unique amalgam of American and African influences—was invented on the fly. The band came home in 1970.

Yomi Durotoye, now a professor of history at Wake Forest University, was a student at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria during this period. An acquaintance of Fela’s, he saw a marked change in the musician who came home from America.

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"It was not just his music that changed. It was his comportment," Durotoye said in a phone interview. "His message changed … I loved it. I loved it because it was a brand new kind of music."

In 1972, Fela opened the Afrika Shrine club in Lagos, where he held court until his death. He created his Lagos compound/commune, and declared it the breakaway “Kalakuta Republic” in 1975. And through the ‘70s, his music grew more political, taking on organized religion, multinational corporations and, always, the Nigerian authorities and power structure. That dissidence was repaid with an almost unbroken string of arrests, police beatings, army raids and other indignities, up until the months before his death.

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Through it all, he maintained a connection to the world outside Nigeria, particularly to the U.S., with which he nurtured an intense love-hate relationship. He had loyal fans in the States and beyond, particularly among musicians. Some, including Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, traveled to Lagos to see him on his home turf. Fela toured the U.S. frequently, but by and large the American music industry was at a loss on how to market him. His songs (running at least 12 minutes, and often 20 or more) were too long for radio, his message too strident.

By the time he died in 1997, his recordings were virtually impossible to find here, and his musical creation—Afrobeat—threatened to die with him. But a seemingly unconnected series of events and activities served to keep the flame alive and eventually led to what is undoubtedly an unprecedented level of U.S. interest.

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Antibalas, the Afrobeat collective that provides the musical backbone of Fela!, formed in 1999. In 2000, MCA Records began a massive reissue of Fela’s albums, capped by an excellent best-of collection, which coincided with the Internet file-sharing revolution. "All of a sudden, this stuff was readily available,” said writer Piotr Orlov, who was music co-curator for the Fela Project. “People could talk about it." And rap and hip-hop artists could sample it. The albums are out of print now, but the best-of collection has been reissued by Knitting Factory Records in New York, which also plans to reissue 45 Fela albums on vinyl and CD in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the Fela Project began hosting monthly “Jump n Funk” parties with D.J. Rich Medina, leading up to the 2003 museum opening, which drew 1,500 people to opening night.

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The exhibit (which later traveled to Cincinnati, San Francisco and London and resulted in a book, Fela: From West Africa to West Broadway) included listening stations, where many museum-goers heard Fela for the first time. Orlov said listeners often respond to the music first, and get the message later.

"I think they're responding to music that is so foreign and yet so familiar," he said in a phone interview. "If you're exposed to it long enough, you can't help but pick up the political message. You can't do 'Fela, the Love Songs.'"

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And the influence continues spreading. Durotoye said that there are two courses at Wake Forest on Fela’s music and message—neither taught by him. "Incidentally, my son, who is a freshman, is taking this course," he noted with a chuckle. When other students hear the music, his son reports, "they get blown away."

Sometimes when someone who was so closely aligned with a musical movement dies, the movement dies with him. Not so with Fela, says Vivien Goldman, a New York writer who chronicled Fela’s travels in the British music press.

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"There are Afrobeat bands everywhere now—it's a global subculture of Afrobeat,” she said. Fela has “come back,” she added. “That's the beauty of it. The music keeps doing his work after he's gone."

Rick VanderKnyff is a writer and editor who lives outside Seattle.

Photo Credit: Barkley L. Hendricks, Fela: Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen…, (detail) 2002. Oil and variegated leaf on linen canvas, wooden frame, altarpiece armature, 27 pairs of high heels. 66 3/4 x 46 3/4 inches (60 x 40 inches unframed), with 60 inch altarpiece. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY. Photo: Peter Geoffrion.

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