The Paris Philharmonie is paying homage to Fela Kuti, pioneer of Afrobeat – a musical current that emerged from Nigeria in a swirl of postcolonial enthusiasm, experimentation and political rebellion. A major exhibition traces the origins of Fela Kuti’s pan-African activism and his lasting influence.
Born in Nigeria in 1938, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a household name by the late 1970s and had toured the world by the time of his death in 1997.
The exhibition at the Philharmonie’s Museum of Music traces the evolution of the musical genre that Fela Kuti developed with drummer Tony Allen: Afrobeat, a blend of influences from traditional Yoruba rhythms to highlife, jazz, soul and funk.
Visitors are invited to share the sweaty, politically charged atmosphere of Kuti’s nightclub in Nigeria, the Afrika Shrine, that became a magnet for global stars.
Kuti’s music went hand in hand with his political activism, forming a rhythmic manifesto which has had a lasting influence on musicians and still echoes today.
“When we started working on this exhibition project, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged and Fela’s fight in the ’70s and ’80s found resonance there,” one of the curators, Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, told AFP.
With his loyal friend Mabinuori Kayode Idowu, Kuti created a youth movement known as YAP – Young African Pioneers, inspired by a similar movement started by N’Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. Later came the MOP, the Movement of the People.
“Our idea was to promote political awareness, especially among young people. It was to say, ‘hey, there’s an alternative to this shit that’s imposed on us, this colonial heritage’,” Idowu told RFI’s Joe Farmer.
Kuti was harassed throughout much of his life by the military authorities in Nigeria for his relentless criticism of their corruption and violent misrule.
The broken dream of African unity
In 1977, Kuti and his band Africa 70 released the album “Zombie”, a metaphor to describe the Nigerian military’s methods.
The album was a massive success and infuriated the government, who raided Kuti’s commune and recording studio. Kuti was severely beaten, and his elderly mother was fatally injured after being thrown from a window.
But this did not diminish the musician’s determination. In fact, it only made him more determined to resist the establishment.
“Instead of picking up a gun, music was the only tool he had. It was a weapon to use against authority, against colonisation and corrupt African governments,” Femi Kuti, the artist’s son, told AFP.
The son of the king of Afrobeat Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti, was made a Knight of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak in Paris in October 2022, ahead of the exbition dedicated to his father.
“He was a voice for the voiceless, the only opponent who was brave enough to tackle the hardcore military dictators at that time and he paid a very high price,” he explains.
“In my opinion, we can’t separate Fela’s music from his political involvement. His music shows his commitment. It’s full of energy, tenacious,” one of Kuti’s close musical collaborators, Sodi Marciszewer, told RFI.
“His political involvement is not just found in the lyrics. It is also in his musical composition, in the way it is played, in the way he orchestrates it and uses the instruments. It’s also apparent in the way he conducts his musicians,” Marciszewer explains.
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Kuti’s pioneering work remains as potent as ever, frequently cited as an influence by contemporary stars such as Beyoncé, who sampled his hit “Zombie” on her live album “Homecoming”.
“I’m not surprised. Afrobeat was the basic element of hip-hop, it’s where hip-hop got its sauce from,” Femi Kuti says.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Rébellion Afrobeat is on at the Cité de la Musique – Philharmonie in Paris until 11 June 2023.