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News > Culture

New Nigerian Museum Honours 'Father of Afrobeat' Fela Kuti

  • A videographer films images of Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti during the opening of a museum in his honour in Lagos October 15, 2012.

    A videographer films images of Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti during the opening of a museum in his honour in Lagos October 15, 2012. | Photo: Reuters

Published 26 October 2017

Nigerian political maverick Fela Kuti set the music world on fire with his energetic, syncretic sound.

Nigeria has opened a new museum honoring "King of Afrobeat" Fela Kuti at the start of a week-long annual "Felabration" in Lagos to mark the 74th anniversary of the activist musician's birth.

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"We have always said that one of the important assets we have is our cultural heritage, our history," said Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed at the Wednesday launch. "This project, which is going to immortalize the Ransome-Kuti family, is laudable and admirable."

"The family, as you know, represents different things to different people, whether you talk about education, emancipation, music or entertainment. Therefore, this attempt by the government at immortalizing the family by preserving and restoring the ancestral home is very commendable."

Ogun State Governor Ibikunle Amosun, who also attended the opening, said that "the Kuti family is one of those illustrious families that conquered the world, not only Ogun State or Abeokuta or Nigeria. Indeed, at times when I am away in the United States and I take a cab, the music I hear is that of great Fela himself."

Kuti, who died in 1997 at the age of 58, electrified not just Nigerians but music lovers the world over with his hip-shaking, strangely hypnotic blend of jazz, funk and West African folk rhythms.

Kuti is considered the father of Afrobeat, which integrates elements of funk, jazz, salsa, calypso, juju, highlife and traditional African percussions with anti-colonialist politics. His signature sound uses multiple instruments, vocal lines and musical structures, all of which are held together by an "endless groove."

The musician became something of a maverick during his lifetime, describing Nigeria as a "prison of peoples" and campaigning passionately for Pan-Africanism. He was an icon for the Black Power movement in the U.S.

Kuti also created the Kalakuta Republic: a collection of living areas, a recording studio, and ground zero for a socio-political movement which he later declared as being independent of the Nigerian state.

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By the the late 1970s, Kuti had become a symbol of the struggle against military dictators. In 1977, his smash hit "Zombie" infuriated the military by accusing soldiers of being violent, brainless automata. About 1,000 soldiers soon descended on his commune and burned down the house, cracking the activist's skull and throwing his mother, then in her seventies, out of a window.

In the early 1980s, Kuti — born Fela Anikulapo Kuti in 1938 — created his own political party, the Movement of the People, MOP, "to clean up society like a mop," and ran for president of Nigeria. A military coup immediately followed the elections and the new government renewed its attacks on Kuti.

The political maverick's fondness for smoking marijuana on stage and his rejection of Nigeria's two monotheistic religions — Christianity and Islam — in favor of traditional Yoruba gods did little to endear him to conservative elites. 

Speaking to Reuters ahead of the museum opening, Kuti's youngest son, 30-year-old Seun, said: "This is a chance for everyone to see for themselves, not follow the myths that being in Fela's house meant you're a hooligan, or a prostitute or all we do is smoke weed. I grew up here. This house was a house of education."

Kuti had two sons, both of whom believe their father's most enduring message — a call to peaceful rebellion against corrupt elites — still resonates in Nigeria today. "Corruption is now like a cancer in our society," his eldest son Femi, 55, announced in the museum's rooftop bar. "Everything will take time. The youth will see this is not the way to go."

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