Symbolism in African Art

Fela! The Man, The Legend, The Inspiration

Fela Kuti is the originator of the music genre known as Afrobeat. Born to Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s parents played active roles in Nigerian politics. His brothers, Beko Ransome-Kuti and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, are well-renowned medical doctors. Fela is a cousin to the writer and Nobel laureate winner Wole Soyinka.

His music style is a fusion of jazz, funk, highlife, and African chants and rhythms. Afrobeat also draws influences from James Brown and Tony Allen, Miles Davis, Sly Stone and Orlando Julius. Fela’s band featured two baritone saxophones, and he performed with two bassists simultaneously, playing interlocking melodies and rhythms while using the electric guitar to give structure and create a repeating melodic groove. 

Symbolism in African Art

Fela used call-and-response elements in his songs; his lyrics were simple and figurative. His songs were 30 mins long and, when performed live, lasted for about 45 mins. His tracks had an instrumental introduction featuring jam sessions, which lasted roughly 10–15 minutes before the vocals kicked in. Fela sang mostly in pidgin English; his instruments of choice were the saxophone and the keyboards; he also played the electric guitar and trumpet and, on occasion, drums. The themes of Fela’s songs challenged collective assumptions and questioned the status quo. His songs embodied satire and parody as he conveyed the need for justice for marginalised and downtrodden people.

Fela’s concerts were often wild and energetic, and he referred to his stage performance as the “Underground Spiritual Game”. His concerts regularly featured female singers and dancers, whom he called queens, and these queens were strong influences in the growth and popularity of his music. They were colourfully and vibrantly made up, highlighting their sensuality and visual appeal. They played a backup role for Fela by echoing his lyrics or humming along.

Fela posited in Hank Bordowitz’s Noise of the World that music is supposed to have an effect, and people should feel something when listening to music. In his words, “When you hear music, you must move. I want to move people to dance but also to think. Music wants to dictate a better life as opposed to a bad one. When you’re listening to something that depicts having a better life, and you’re not having a better life, it must influence you”. 

Fela is remembered as an icon who voiced his political opinions using his music. In 1998, Felabration, an idea pioneered by Yeni Kuti, debuted and has been held each year since then at the New Afrika Shrine to celebrate the life of this music legend. Since Fela died in 1997, his influence has been revived in music and popular culture.

In 1999, Universal Music France released Fela’s track on 26 compact discs and brokered a new deal to include the debut of the Broadway cast recording of the musical Fela!. The 2003 exhibition-themed Black President debuted at the New Museum for Contemporary Art in New York. This featured concerts, films, and the work of 39 international artists. Also, Bilal, an American artiste whose music style draws influences from Fela’s music, remixed Fela’s 1977 song “Sorrow Tears and Blood” for his album Love for Sale, where he featured Common, an American rapper. 

The 2007 film The Visitor depicted a disillusioned professor who sought to play the djembe drum but soon learned from a young Syrian about the importance of listening to Fela to truly understand African music. The film features sound bytes from Fela’s songs “Open and Close” and “Je’nwi Temi.

In 2008, a production about Kuti’s life, Fela! which was inspired by the 1982 biography Fela! This Bitch of a Life began as a collaborative project between Antibalas, an Afrobeat band and Bill T. Jones. The production was an overwhelming success, and in November of 2009,  Fela! was performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Jim Lewis was one of the scriptwriters, with Jay-Z and Will Smith, among others, acting as producers. Fela! was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Book for a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Lillias White, Best Musical, and Best Leading Actor in a Musical for Sahr Ngaujah. In August 2009, DJ J.Period, in collaboration with Somali-born hip-hop artist K’naan, released a free mixtape entitled The Messengers,  paying tribute to Fela, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan. Kuti’s song “Zombie” was used in the video game Grand Theft Auto: 4, and he was given a posthumous nomination into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021. 

In 2021, a plaque was unveiled in honour of Fela by the Nubian Jak Community Trust at 2 Stanlake Road, where Fela first lived while studying music at Trinity College in 1958. In 2022, Kuti was posthumously inducted into the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame. 

This oil painting of Fela is a tribute to his creativity and ingenuity. He was a force to be reckoned with, and even now, his music has inspired hundreds of Nigerian artists, making Afrobeat a musical force to be reckoned with internationally. 

To view this this painting, click here.

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