Skip to content

Activism through Afrobeat

Remembering the legacy of Fela Kuti

Despite being arrested over 200 times, Fela Kuti demonstrates that not even a military-run government could silence his anti-colonial message. October 15, 1938 marks the birth of Nigeria’s beloved musician, activist, and political leader. 19 years after his death, Fela’s fans continue to spread his message of Pan-African revolution. DJ Asma, a Montreal local with West-African roots, commemorated his legacy at a tribute concert held on October 14 at Groove Nation.

Music was Fela’s tool of resistance against the corruption that persisted after Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. Combining poetry with politics, Fela’s lyrics opposed the systems of oppression that Nigeria inherited from British colonialism. However, Fela didn’t simply identify these structures, but created a collective call to action through his pan-African worldview. Pan-Africanism, a movement that seeks to deconstruct the physical and internal borders created by colonialism and foster solidarity throughout the African continent, unites African people in the shared struggle against colonialism.

Fela also pioneered the Afrobeat genre: the convergence of jazz and Yoruba music. Through juxtaposing modern music – largely influenced by his trip to the U.S. – with precolonial music, Fela demonstrated how modern innovation can coexist with the art forms that colonialism attempted to erase. Typically, his songs involve large ensembles with an elaborate horn section and complex rhythms to create individual pieces that can last up to 45 minutes in concert.

Fela demonstrated how modern innovation can coexist with the art forms that colonialism attempted to erase.

The song “no agreement” exemplifies the fusion of old and new. The song begins with a techno-style synth solo – improvisational and spacious, backed by a steady guitar riff. Then, the song introduces various percussion instruments and an explosive saxophone section with harmonies reminiscent of cuban jazz. After 12 minutes, the horn section takes a break; a call and response section takes its place, layering the language of Pidgin English over the original techno beat.

Fela was inspired by the Black Panther movement in the U.S. and the writings of Malcolm X, exploring ideas of Black nationalism and negritude among the Black diaspora in his music. His song, “Who No Know Go Know” critiques the lack of “togetherness” in Africa, implying that fragmentation creates unnecessary conflict that thwarts the fight for freedom.

As an outspoken Pan-Africanist, Fela strove to reclaim African identity as Nigeria healed from the trauma of colonialism. The militaristic Nigerian governments of the 1970s and 1980s and the exploitative racial hierarchy were lasting effects of colonial rule. One of his goals was to dispel the racist idea that Africa was destined for internal conflict, by reconfiguring the idea of African unity. This is especially important considering how colonialism sought to exercise control by politicizing Indigeneity. African intellectual Mahmood Mamdani explains how colonists created small groups based on their racist and shallow interpretations of African cultures, and assigned these groups to specific territories, governing them through “chiefs” under “customary law.” This also pitted groups against each other to distract from the root struggle against colonialism, fostering Eurocentric propaganda that portrayed Africa as an inherently corrupt continent.

As an outspoken Pan-Africanist, Fela strove to reclaim African identity as Nigeria healed from the trauma of colonialism.

The emphasis on unity present in Fela’s music shows that decolonization doesn’t simply mean to dismantle economic and political structures – but also to reclaim identity. However, it’s important to recognize the complexity of individual experience and the danger of creating one homogenized narrative. Fela Kuti’s activism was far from perfect – and many of his political stances generated, and continue to generate, great controversy.

“Zombie” was not only considered one of his most influential albums, but the spark for intense political controversy that led to Fela being banned from entering Nigeria. In the title track, Fela used the metaphor of a zombie to criticize the Nigerian military-run government, saying they still had to wake up from the colonial framework from which they were entrapped. Moreover, through the song’s repetition of military orders, Fela simultaneously condemns the way the armed forces don’t even question this structure – obeying orders like zombies. The voices echoing the word “zombie” throughout the track are hypnotic as well as taunting – criticizing, whilst pointing out the absurdity of it all.

August 2, 1997 may mark the loss of a revered leader, but the continuation of his revolution demonstrates the power of his activism.