Like Afrobeat itself, Fela’s career followed its own path rather than one set out by Nigerian tradition. Most importantly, Fela operated without sponsorship from the business community, political parties or traditional rulers, all of whom would have expected him to return the favour with songs praising their products, their policies, their wisdom or their families. Every Nigerian bandleader of the time either received such sponsorship or aspired to it. Fela wanted none of it. Following his 1970 return to Nigeria after a ten-month visit to the US, where his American girlfriend Sandra Izsadore had introduced him to the ideas of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon and other revolutionary thinkers, he set out to use his music as a “weapon” (his word) against the exploitation of the Nigerian people by a powerful military/commercial elite. He could not do this if he was receiving hand-outs from that same elite.
But in one respect, Fela’s career does chime with Nigerian tradition: the idea that music making is a hereditary occupation, a patrilineal succession (and yes, it invariably ran from father to son). In 1925 in London, Fela’s grandfather, the Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti, recorded a collection of hymns for the Zonophone label. Fela’s father, the Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti, was an accomplished pianist and encouraged Fela to learn music as a child (though he wanted him ultimately to become a doctor).
There is no direct connection between Fela’s career and those of his father’s or grandfather’s. Fela was not the inheritor of a lineage as much as the originator of one: the link between his life and work and those of some of his own children and grandchildren, male and female, is pronounced. Prominent among those children are his daughter Yeni and his sons Femi and Seun. Each began their careers as members of Fela’s Egypt 80. Each shares their father’s pan-Africanist outlook and unconditional belief in human rights, and actively campaigns against the corruption which, today as in Fela’s day, holds back African development.
To this agenda, Yeni, Femi and Seun have added new millennial concerns such as climate change and environmental protection, and campaigns to eradicate malaria and HIV/Aids and for the rights of LGBT people. While all these topics provide a line back to Fela, his children’s support of LGBT rights paints a particularly vivid one. LGBT communities are discriminated against widely in Africa and to support LGBT rights is certain to provoke verbal attacks - at the least - from social and religious conservatives. To take a stand requires a degree of courage such as the one possessed by Fela.
Femi and Seun have both taken high-profile positions on the issue. In 2013, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which, among other things, made anyone entering into such a marriage liable to 14 years in prison and anyone joining a campaign for LGBT rights liable to 10 years. In response, Femi issued a statement which said, in part: “My father would not support this law. He would know why the law was passed: as a way of distracting the population from the main problems we face today – poverty, lack of electricity and services, corruption, mismanagement, and so on. Fela did not have any reservations about upholding and protecting basic human rights. The right to choose your own sexuality and sexual behaviour is one such right.”
Said Seun: “"I do not support the anti-gay law and contrary to what some people think, if my father was still alive, he would not have supported the law either. I know him better than all the people who say otherwise. There were gay people living in our house in Kalakuta.”
Along with considerable domestic and international support, the brothers received a predictable barrage of vitriol on social media. Fela would have been proud of them.
Omoyeni Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela’s eldest child, was born in London in 1961, when Fela was studying at Trinity College of Music. Her mother was Remilekun (Remi) Anikulapo-Kuti (née Taylor), a British-born woman of Nigerian and African American heritage.
Yeni is best known today for founding Felabration and co-founding the New Afrika Shrine. But she was a singer and dancer with Fela’s Egypt 80 in the 1980s and with Femi’s The Positive Force in the 1990s. She sang on The Positive Force’s albums M.Y.O.B., Shoki Shoki, Fight To Win and Day By Day and choreographed the DVD Femi Kuti Live At The Shrine.
Since Fela passed in 1997, much of Yeni’s energy has been devoted to preserving and celebrating his legacy. In 1998, she conceived and organised the first Felabration, which since 2005 has been held every October in Lagos around Fela’s birthday (it also takes place in more and more cities elsewhere in Africa and across the world). In 2000, with Femi, she was a prime mover in the creation of the New Afrika Shrine. She continues to direct Felabration and is general manager of the Shrine. With the architect Theo Lawson, Yeni was also co-founder of the Kalakuta Museum, which opened in 2012 and is managed by Fela’s son Kunle.
“I loved Fela as any daughter loves her father,” says Yeni, “and I was also in awe of his bravery. Any child would be proud to have such a father. His philosophy was based on ideas of African unity and of being a proud African and about black people believing in themselves. Fela taught me those things at a very young age. I am inspired by what he stood for. His politics were expressed in his music and you cannot separate them. Fela’s identity, his pride in being an African man and being black, that is what sticks out the most when I reflect on his life and legacy. His influence has made me who I am, a proud black African person.
“As a people, Africans still have far to travel. The major problems facing Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, are the same today as they were in Fela’s day. High among them are issues of ethnicity and religious bigotry. If we consciously pursue unity we will find such things no longer divide us and we will prosper. This is the idea we are trying to take forward at the New Afrika Shrine and at Felebration. Then there is corruption, of course. Fela fought so hard against this but it is still all around us. I don’t like the idea of a corrupt minority growing rich and fat on the sweat and suffering of the people. It is a big cancer eating away at our society.”
Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo-Kuti was born to Fela and Remi in London in 1962. Remi, Yeni and Femi accompanied Fela when, after graduating from Trinity College of Music, he returned to Nigeria in 1963.
Femi has been putting his own spin on Afrobeat since 1986, when he left Fela’s Egypt 80 to form his own band, The Positive Force. With his sister Yeni, he co-directs the New Afrika Shrine, where he plays twice a week (for free on Thursdays, for a small admission charge on Sundays) when not on tour. Femi joined Fela’s Afrika 70 on alto saxophone in 1979 and stayed with the band when it became Egypt 80. He played on such classic albums as Authority Stealing, Original Sufferhead, I.T.T. International Thief Thief and Live In Amsterdam. When Fela was imprisoned on a trumped-up currency smuggling charge in 1984, Femi became Egypt 80’s caretaker leader, appearing with it at the Shrine and continuing in the role until Fela was freed.