21 Years After: Remembering Afro-Beat Legend, Fela “Anikulapo” Ransome-Kuti (1938-1997)


Olufela Ransome-Kuti died on this day twenty-one years ago (August 2, 1997) from a heart failure condition complicated by the HIV/AIDS virus He was 58. The musician and creator of Afrobeat music genre has built a repertoire of classic hit singles and albums in over two decades and half of his musical career.

Image of Fela Ransome-Kuti
Fela "Anikulapo" Ransome-Kuti (1938-1997)
Let’s take a look about the most controversial and enigmatic figure to have sprung up from the Ransome-Kuti clan of Abeokuta,Ogun State.

Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti (1855—1930), adopted the name "Ransome" from the missionary who adopted him but his grandson, Fela Ransome-Kuti abandoned the "slave" name and called himself "Anikulapo" meaning "he who has death in his pouch".

In 1925, Fela's grandfather, Reverend Josiah J. Ransome-Kuti, became the first Nigerian to release a record album after he recorded several Yoruba language hymns in gramophone through Zonophone Records, London. His father, theIsrael Oludotun Ransome-Kuti(1891-1955), studied Music at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone and taught it in both Ijebu-Ode Grammar School and Abeokuta Grammar School for 38 years.

Therefore, it is not a heresy to say music runs in the Ransome-Kuti's dynasty. And Fela has been described as not only "one of the most important musicians in the world of black music", but also "one of the most important musicians of the post-World War II era" by a professor of music at Yale University.

Olufela – "Fela" – Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti was born to middle-class parents in Nigeria on October 15, 1938, the fourth of five children, in Abeokuta. His father, the very Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, like his father before him, became an Anglican priest and was also a union activist and a school principal. His mother, Funmilayo, was a human-rights campaigner who was awarded the Lenin peace prize (the Soviet Union's equivalent of the Nobel peace prize) in 1970. 

Fela's older brother, Olikoye, became a doctor, and went on to become Nigeria's minister of health and deputy director-general of the World Health Organisation. His younger brother, Bekolari, also a doctor, became secretary general of the Nigerian Medical Association.
He was certainly a fearless opponent of the government, formed his own political party, was imprisoned, married 27 wives and when he died in 1997, aged 58, of an AIDS-related illness, tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets of Lagos to pay their respects.
Sent to London to study medicine at the age of 19, Fela instead enrolled to study piano and composition at Trinity College of Music. He formed a band and during the late 1960s and early 1970s, began to develop his distinctive musical style, with long, polyrhythmic songs lasting up to 30 minutes, incorporating looping guitar riffs, bass grooves, chants and a two-saxophone horn section. He described his work as "African classical music".

After touring in America and becoming politicised through the Black Power movement, Fela returned to Nigeria, where he set up his own studio compound, which he declared the Republic of Kalakuta, with himself as president. He also ran his own nightclub, the Shrine, and in 1977 he released his landmark album, "Zombie", an outspoken attack on the Nigerian government and military.

The government's response was swift and brutal: they attacked the compound, razed it to the ground, beat up Fela, and threw his mother from a second-storey window. She died of her injuries.

Image of Fela performing on Stage
Fela performing on stage.
According to the Nobel-Prize winning Nigerian poet and playwright – and Fela's cousin –Wole Soyinka, Fela was a "scourge of corrupt power, mimic culture and militarism" whose mission was nothing less than "to effect a mental and physical liberation of the race".

He was certainly a fearless opponent of the government, formed his own political party, was imprisoned, married 27 wives and when he died in 1997, aged 58, of an AIDS-related illness, tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets of Lagos to pay their respects.

Fela had seven children, and during his lifetime released more than 50 albums. His youngest son, Seun, now leads his father's band, and his eldest son, Femi, has a band of his own, the Positive Force.

In 2006, Time weekly news magazine named 60 Most Influential Persons globally from its panel of experts and Fela was identified as one of the two Nigerians who have the most profound positive impact on the world in the last sixty years. Incidentally only 3 Africans made the list.

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