Music is often a cultural and political force as much as it is entertainment. It is a means to get views of a counter movement across to a mass audience. Music has derived that power from its Folk roots all over the world, when music was the primary a source of communication for the poor. Before there was recorded music that made musicians into stars, musicians were simply carriers of the messages, story tellers. No one knew who originally wrote the songs they were singing, in a time before publishing this was not important. When music came into the recording/publishing age this political aspect became more personalized, associated with the artist. It also started to become diluted in favor of commercial interests. Rarely there was an artist so political in the recording age as Fela Kuti. Rarely there was an artists who refused to compromise as much as this African force. Rarely there was an artist so close to the Folk roots of music while pushing the boundaries of music at the same time. Fela Kuti revolutionized in music as much as he did in thought and politics. Even though is ideas were often unrealistic and far fetched he played the confrontational game like no other. During his career he was living proof that Music can be a life changing and political force.
The Nigerian Kuti, produced album length singles that literally seemed to start revolutions. His Afro Beat was an explosive mix of African Rhythms and James Brown Funk, cooking and sweating in a way that might have even made the God Father jealous. Although in his biography James Brown denies being aware of African music before seeing Fela play in Nigeria, it is clear that his JB's picked up on that beat. After visiting Africa, James Brown's Funk seemed to grow more ferocious, getting into locked into the beat even tighter. Fela Kuti's Afro Beat seemed to suit the radicalizing atmosphere of Funk in the seventies like a glove. Nothing quite took the message home the way Fela's relentless and hypnotic Rhythms did. Fela's records often start with a beat, slowly building rhythm on rhythm. Punching horn lines start to spar with each other, the pulsing rhythm getting thicker and thicker. It would not be uncommon for you to be in a sweat drenched dance, minutes into the song before the vocals would even start. But when it did Fela's voice commanded immediate attention. Maybe that's why Fela was feared as much by the various regimes in Nigeria he lived through. The powers that be must have realized Fela got people to listen. Fela told the story the politicians of Nigeria refused to tell, blinded by their power. Fela tapped into the realities of the average Nigerian during shows that would stretch on for hours while explaining where their poverty came from. Although Fela aimed at the powers that be, in songs like "Colonial Mentality" he addressed the apathy of the common African as well. Kuti's music was designed to move more than your feet, he wanted elevate the political conscious of his audience as well, get them to confront their rulers.
Name dropping vice president Moshood Abiola, former ITT employee (an American manufacturer with large defense contracts), in his single "International Thief Thief" got Fela arrested in the late seventies for the first time, but it wouldn't be the last. Fela's politics didn't stop there. Kuti was highly influenced by the Black Power movement and Malcolm X in his political thinking. A glance at Kuti's political career makes it apparent that Kuti took Malcolm's "By all means necessary" quite literally. Kuti claimed independence for his large estate in 1974, declaring the Kalakutu Republic, building a large fence around his estate. In '77 his "republic" was overthrown by the Nigerian government in an attack by a 1.000 soldiers. The attack left Fela's skull fractured. This however didn't stop Kuti, he formed his own political party in 1979 and tried to run as president. His campaign spearheaded one issue, he'd make every Nigerian citizen a police officer. Claiming that would stop police brutality since you cannot beat a colleague. His candidacy was denied. Fela was no doubt feared by the political establishment, his music had literally incited a riot in 1978 during the Accra show when he performed "Zombie". No telling where Fela would have ended up might he have run.
Kuti eventually died of AIDS in '97, though his supporters claim that he died because of government harassment. Fela was paid tribute on the excellent "Red, Hot and Riot" AIDS benefit lp. The guests on that LP stand as a testimony of his influence on modern music. The likes of Sade, Roy Hargrove, Common, Meshell N'Degeocello and D'Angelo all contributed to this Hip Hop infused LP that did Fela the justice he deserved. Bootsy Collins and Ginger Baker were amongst his early admirers but his legacy continues even today. A few years back Damon Albarn from from Blur fame produced an album for Kuti's drummer Tony Allen, bands like Antibalas made their careers by copying Fela's sound, while his own son Femi Kuti continues to carry the torch with his own ban the Positive Force. His legacy also means countless compilations that often need to be approach with caution. The nature of Fela's music means that his songs would often stretch over two album sides. I believe they are best enjoyed that way. But it does leave the starting listener with quite the challenge on where to begin. Wrasse records' recent release offers a good starting point. Mind you, much of Fela's most notorious work is missing from this collection, but it does give you a good sense of the force that was Fela. It comes with a DVD to boot. The two disc Universal compilation Universal released in '99 does much better on picking key tracks, and since there is hardly any overlap between that one and the Wrasse's anthology I simply recommend buying both. For those who want the complete picture try to find the LP boxed sets Barclay issued some ten years ago reproducing the original LPs. Where ever you start, you'll find that diving into Fela's music is an addictive journey leaving you wanting more, more, more.......
See also the interview with Fela on the Shrine.