The spirit of Fela Kuti haunts his old house — the musician’s colourful clothes in the bedroom, his shoes on a rack — but the marijuana smoke, his many wives and his beguiling sax playing are long gone.
Thursday marks 15 years since the death of Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat musician who became a global icon thanks to his unique sound, his wild lifestyle and his harsh criticism of his country’s corrupt military regimes.
He is far from forgotten, both here and in many places abroad, and his family has been working to further preserve Kuti’s legacy, including efforts to turn his last house into a museum — the reason his bedroom was left as is.
“It’s gone beyond a Nigerian story,” his son Femi Kuti, also a musician, said recently before taking the stage at the family’s New Afrika Shrine club in Lagos. “It’s gone beyond an African story. It’s like jazz.”
Kuti’s legend has in some ways only grown since his death aged 58 in 1997 from an HIV-related illness, especially following a recent Broadway musical about his life that drew rave reviews.
His outsized personality and social activism made him a hero to many while he was still alive, and his funeral in the giant economic capital of Lagos drew massive crowds into the streets.
The saxophone player was a harsh critic of Nigeria’s corrupt elite, lashing out in songs like “Coffin for Head of State” or “International Thief Thief”, but with irresistible grooves that combined jazz, traditional music and other sounds.
His songs repeatedly landed him in trouble with the authorities, including arrests and the burning, allegedly by soldiers, of his compound, which he had christened the Kalakuta Republic and declared independent.
His original Shrine club where he regularly performed was shut after his death, but his family later opened the New Afrika Shrine at another location.
He was also known for marrying 27 women on the same day, most of them his dancers, and his love of marijuana was well-documented.
To some, echoes of his campaign for justice can still be heard in Lagos.
His name was invoked repeatedly during a national strike and mass protests in January over the removal of fuel subsidies, which caused petrol prices to double.
President Goodluck Jonathan was eventually forced to partially reinstate the subsidies.
Seun Kuti, another of Kuti’s sons, played politically charged concerts before thousands at the main protest site in Lagos. Femi and his sister Yeni Kuti also helped lead rallies there.
For Kunle Tejuoso, who runs a record label as well as a bookstore and music shop that caters to Lagos intellectuals, Fela Kuti was “bold enough to shout out and use music as a weapon against a very, very vicious system.”
Kuti was raised in a middle-class family and studied music in England, but was able to connect with ordinary people even after his fame grew, Tejuoso said.
“He stuck to the basics, he stayed with the people, and I think he was immersed in his music,” he said at his store, which sells framed photos of Kuti.
— ‘Be with the people’ —
“And to get to that music, you have to be with the people. In order to get the message across, you have to understand what they’re saying.”
Asked whether his father’s legacy had more to do with music or social activism, Femi Kuti said they were equally important.
“You cannot forget the fight for social justice, making, especially, Nigerians aware of their predicament,” he said.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer, and is often ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. It was ruled by successive military regimes before a return to civilian government in 1999.
But it was not only Nigeria’s leaders that concerned Kuti. Femi points out that he was also intent on speaking out against the injustices of colonialism. Nigeria, a former British colony, gained independence in 1960.
After the first Kalakuta Republic was destroyed, Kuti moved to the three-storey building his family is now seeking to turn into a museum in Lagos, with renovation work underway.
His pyramid-shaped tomb sits out front, the building situated on a narrow road in a crowded neighbourhood.
“It is very important to me, and this is why we buried him here in the first place — because we wanted to turn this place into a museum after he passed away,” said Yeni Kuti as she stood on the building’s rooftop terrace.
The Lagos state government has provided the family with 40 million naira (200,000 euros, $250,000) for the museum, according to Yeni, who estimates they will have to raise around 25 million naira more to complete the job.
The aim is to open the museum in October during “Felebration”, an annual series of events honouring Kuti around his birthday.
They plan to install glass around his bedroom so fans can see inside, with exhibits in other rooms in the house and a small hotel.
“It’s a global issue of mankind oppressing one another for wealth, for corruption, greed,” Femi Kuti said. “And my father is just part of this big story.”
Story by M.J. Smith, AFP Lagos Bureau