Nigerian icon and Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti passed away 15 years ago but his legacy lives on, thanks to his still relevant, forthright political views and powerful music. The complete works of Fela, consisting of almost 50 albums, are now being re-packaged, with in-depth track commentaries written by Afrobeat historian Chris May, whose thoughtful perspective sheds new light on Fela’s nuanced work.
The return of Fela continues with the release of The Best Of The Black President 2, a two-disc collection with foreword written by Senegalese-American R&B/hip-hop artist Akon. The twelve tracks include 1975's "Everything Scatter," one of the ultimate Afrobeat tracks, as well as an extended version of the classic "Sorrow Tears and Blood", inspired by the South African apartheid regime's crushing of the Soweto uprising in 1976. Fela recounts stories such as police having unsuccessfully attempted to charge him for possession of weed ("Expensive Shit") and speaks out about the practice of skin-bleaching among Nigerian women ("Yellow Fever"). Fela's final period of recording is covered with 1992's "Underground System (Part 2)", inspired by Fela's friend, Burkina Faso's revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara and his assassination. A special deluxe edition of The Best Of The Black President 2 also includes a DVD of Fela's legendary 1984 Glastonbury concert.
In his introduction Akon writes: "Despite everything they threw at him, Fela's music and his message never lost their way. He was always real and he was always with the people. That's why we love and miss him all the more."
Fela was very vocal in his views, with biting, acerbic critiques of European cultural imperialism, corrupt African governments and any forms of social injustice. This did not go down well with Nigeria's military regimes during the 70s and 80s who routinely harassed and brutalized Fela and his supporters. Two hundred arrests, serious beatings that left scars all over his body whilst fighting for those who had 'drawn life's short straw', never stopped him from coming forward, again and again. "Ah well, they didn't kill me," he would say. On August 2, 1997 Fela died—and a million people, the people he fought for, came to his funeral in Lagos to pay their last respects.
Akon, who grew up on Fela's music, believes "Fela's political beliefs were ahead of their time in so many ways, not least in their global vision. Today, the most influential protest movements – the environmental campaigners, the Occupy activists – have global perspectives … It is a risky business attributing opinions to people who have passed, but it's safe to say that Fela would almost certainly have stood alongside today's environmental and economic activists, and that he would just as certainly have approved of their global outlook."
And Afrobeat, the music Fela created, didn't die. Fela's sons, Femi Kuti with his band Positive Force and Seun Kuti with Fela's band Egypt 80, both travel the world and release their albums, keeping the flame burning brightly. But it's not just Nigerian Afrobeat artists who make sure Afrobeat can be heard all over the planet: There are now in excess of 50 Afrobeat bands operating in Europe, the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia.
Fela even made it to Broadway: the Broadway hit musical, Fela!, recipient of 11 Tony nominations and three awards, directed by Tony award-winner, Bill T. Jones, with producer-backing from Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith among others, continues to play in the world's most prestigious theatres. In 2011 the musical 'came home' to Lagos, opening at the New Afrika Shrine(the venue which was opened by Fela's children Femi and Yeni in 2000 to replace Fela's original Shrine) and then on to the EkoCenter on Victoria Island where it received a tumultuous reception, playing to 3,500 people each night. The show is touring the U.S. in February 2013 (see http://www.felaonbroadway.com/) and culminates with a season during the Chekhov Festival in Moscow.
Back in Lagos, Fela's old home, Kalakuta, has recently been transformed into the Kalakuta Museum, aided by a $250,000 grant from Lagos State Government who finally, and thankfully, have recognised his international cultural significance. Fela's continuing relevance in his home country was made clear during the recent national protests at the government's removal of the oil subsidy which effectively doubled the price of petrol overnight. His music was anthemic to the huge ensuing nation-wide public demonstrations which become known as Occupy Nigeria. "Listen to what Fela was saying 30 years ago," was heard all over the country "and it's still true today!"