Pop Star (and Ex-Polygamist) Fela Anikulapo Kuti Sets His Sights on Nigeria's Presidency
Unusual, yes, but appropriate for an African maverick bent on gaining exposure for his music and his causes. The 48-year-old creator and leading exponent of Afro-Beat, a percussive big-band fusion of jazz, African folk and American R&B, Fela has produced more than 50 record albums in his 23-year career. He also has become a leading political gadfly and prominent figure on the Nigerian military government's Least Wanted list. Their enmity is one reason he is little known in the U.S. On the day he was to leave for his first American tour, in 1984, he was arrested in Lagos and imprisoned on what he says were trumped-up charges of currency smuggling.
Freed after 18 months, thanks in part to the efforts of an Amnesty International campaign backed by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and other celebrities, he finally made his first U.S. tour last month. Crowds in 10 cities turned out to see "the undisputed major force in African music," as one critic described Fela, lead his 40-member Egypt 80 band.
Fela calls the U.S. a "very backward" and overly militarized country, but says he has always been eager to "spread the music. America needs to hear some good sounds from Africa, man. The sanity of the world is going to be generated from Africa through art. Art itself is knowledge of the spiritual world. Art is information from higher forces, by those who are talented. I'm not jiving. I've been living with my art for 23 years. My music has never been a failure."
The same can't be said of some of Fela's unusual social experiments. A commune he once led in Lagos was invaded in 1977, two years after Fela had declared it an independent republic and begun using it as a base for extolling the virtues of pot, polygamy and Pan-Africanism. Before burning the commune to the ground, soldiers went on a rampage. Fela's mother, a well-known Nigerian political activist, was hurled from a window and later died from her injuries. Still, after two years in jails and exile, Fela continued his defiance of the government by releasing best-selling, provocatively titled records such as Coffin for the Head of State.
Fela made headlines again in 1978 when he married, in a single ceremony, his harem of 27 women. He says the mass wedding was a means of protesting the Westernization of African culture. Nowadays, he says, "marriage is not part of my life." Single—he's a little vague about explaining just how you divorce 27 wives—the former polygamist says marriage "breeds jealousy, possessiveness, selfishness." That's not to say Fela is chaste. "I can't understand people who say sex is not good," he says. "Sex gives you natural power."
So, he insists, does cannabis. Kicked off a jet during his U.S. tour allegedly for smoking marijuana on board, Fela is outspoken in his belief that individuals should have the right to puff "natural grass." Though he claims that he does not use harder drugs, he says that "nobody in this world" can give him a good reason to give up smoking marijuana.
There was little in his early life to indicate that Fela was born to be wild. The son of teachers—his father was a lay minister as well as first president of the Nigerian Teacher's Union; his mother taught school and led a successful fight to win women the right to vote in Nigeria—Fela was sent to London to study law but got hooked on jazz piano and saxophone. After returning to Lagos in 1963, he became a popular nightclub performer. Married, with three children, he stuck to the middle of the musical road until 1969. Then he was "radicalized" during a visit to the U.S., where he was introduced to the writings of Malcolm X and to the music of James Brown and Miles Davis. Neither Fela nor African popular music has been the same since.
He has had to pay for his radicalism, and found jail a terrible experience. "Horrible," says Fela. "The person who invented prison was the most wicked bastard." But he says the government created a stronger adversary by imprisoning him. "Now I have a better mind, a better body. I have clarity." He also has a plan. "I intend to run for president in Nigeria," he says. "And I intend to win." His goals? "To create the first absolutely free African nation." Fela's nation will embrace Pan-African unity and "human internationalism. People will see each other as one people—not black, not white, not yellow," he says.
Fela predicts that his election might happen by "public acclaim." Otherwise, he'll have to wait until 1990 when the present government has said it might, or might not, hold elections. Until then, Fela plans to start a second commune in Lagos, where he will live with his six children, ages 3 to 26, and "the mothers of my children."
Sounds reasonable. So what will Fela call his commune? "It is illegal to call it a 'republic,' " he says, "so I will call it an 'empire.' "