This week in civic media, our focus shifted from hip hop music and political expression to a more specific artist, namely, Fela Kuti.
Fela Kuti was able to see music’s hidden monumental purpose as a form of political expression. For Fela and those listening, Afrobeat was more than just danceable and catchy music. Rather, his songs contained a political message meant for all of Africa to hear.
During the time of Fela and his rise with Afrobeat, the people of Africa were struggling under incarcerated societies. Specifically, the Nigerian and broader African government was employing corrupt and oppressive leaders. As a result, Fela considered it his mission to reclaim Africa’s dignity and stolen identity from the government.
Beginning in 1975, Fela called his home a republic, as he was determined to secede and leave Nigeria. His home became known by many as the Kalakuta Republic – all were welcome to his republic as a place of safety and solace from the corrupt government.
After police forces stormed and destroyed Fela’s compound in 1977, the Kalakuta Republic was no longer a place of safety for Fela and his people. The police responded with vengeance to Kuti, as they recognized his relentless challenge to Nigerian authorities through his music, lifestyle, and community of followers.
An important theme that should be noted from the events of Kalakuta is the immense difference between the intensity of activism in the global North vs. the global South. For those in Africa, activism is more than going into the streets and participating in protest; rather, it is a powerful and dangerous commitment that may result in injury or death by police force.
The tragic events of the Kalakuta Republic led to a turning point in Fela’s music. One of these changes can be seen in his song, “Unknown Soldier,” which directly addresses the events that occurred during the Kalakuta destruction in 1977. The more the government attacked Fela and his music, the more defiant he became. This back and forth relationship between Fela and the government continued throughout his musical career.
By comparing Fela’s music with much of today’s top hits heard on the radio, it is evident that Fela’s unique sound goes against the music of our modern pop culture. Unlike songs of today, his music refuses to align with “KIS,” or the theme of “Keep It Simple.” Instead, his lyrics are packed with substance, meaning, and political messages. Listeners are able to find something to connect with through his lyrics, usually drawing from their own personal experiences or background.
Despite its differences from what is coined as today’s “top hits,” Fela Kuti’s work still resides with many individuals as a reflection of his musical genius. Afrobeat is all about social, political, and cultural change. That change, believed by Fela Kuti and many others, is essential to society and can be initiated through the power of music.
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