Fela started his Afrobeat sound in West Africa, but a trip to America in 1969 introduced him to the critical elements that changed his music forever: James Brown and the civil rights movement. Fela was deeply impressed, and began incorporating chicken-scratch guitar and politically inflammatory lyrics into his music. He amassed a stage show featuring a huge horn section and traditional Nigerian dancers (he later married all 27 of them at once), and led the act with his forceful, complex saxophone playing, his brightly colored one-piece suits and his infectious dancing. He chanted fierce accusations like “You be thief! You be rogue!” (from his song “Authority Stealing”), and “Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go” (from “International Thief Thief”) through pumping dance jams that lasted as long as thirty minutes.
As Fela’s popularity grew and his message spread, the Nigerian government struck back. Fela endured more than 200 court appearances; and repeated raids, assaults, and incarcerations. In 1977 over 1,000 soldiers attacked his compound in Lagos. They beat Fela and his family severely, threw his 82-year-old mother from a window, and set his home on fire. Undeterred, Fela had his mother’s coffin carried to military ruler Obasanjo’s barracks and released “Coffin for Head of State,” in which he accused Obasanjo and his deputy by name. Fela then started his own political party and ran for president, while continuing to tour and record.
Fela died of AIDS in 1997, but his fierce, funky legacy seems to grow in power. His sons Femi and Seun Kuti continue to perform Afrobeat; countless American and African musicians draw inspiration from his work, and his life story has recently been turned into a Broadway musical. Fela changed the meaning of music, strengthening and establishing its power as a weapon for social change. He stands as a symbol of fearlessness and pride for all people who seek to improve their societies.