Fela Kuti: unwrapping genius in a box

Rob Garratt believes Fela Kuti still does not have the recognition he deserves, 20 years on

UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS - 3rd NOVEMBER: Nigerian musician and composer Fela Kuti (1938-1997) performs at Vredenburg in Utrecht, Netherlands on 3rd November 1988. (photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)
Powered by automated translation

Commemorating the 20 years which have passed since his death, the latest Fela Kuti collection to hit the market – simply titled Box Set #4, and released today – says much about the bewitched legacy of the Nigerian pioneer most observers credit with inventing an entire musical genre.

Hailed as the propagator of Afrobeat, Kuti might be the continent’s most fetishised musical export. The style he both fathered and coined the name of is a quixotic brew, crisscrossing poppy Ghanaian Highlife and West African Yoruba traditions with thick grooves repurposed from American funk, the soaring improvisational impulses of jazz, and the trippy indulgence of psych-rock.

As a singer, songwriter, saxophonist and bandleader, Kuti's sound casts a long shadow over multifarious streams of modern music, from hip-hop to electronica. Moreover, his outsider life story – an anti-establishment renegade who tried to found his own country and political party, marry 27 women on the same day and run for president of Nigeria – is the kind of myth legends are made of.

Yet while revered by musicians and geeks – and lauded as a hero across much of Africa – Kuti's achievements have been incomprehensibly side-stepped in swathes by the Western-dominated pop culture canon at large. By rights, his legacy and legend are comparable to that of, say, Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix, yet instead, Kuti's renown sits somewhere frustratingly closer to that of a cult minority interest than global icon – a fact amply illustrated by this latest anniversary release, which appears to have snobby exclusivism.

Box Set #4 was compiled by Erykah Badu, who follows guest curators Questlove, Ginger Baker and Brian Eno in digging out favourite cuts from the close-to-50 albums Kuti recorded. The neo-soul queen's seven selections, each full LP-reissues, stretch from vintage mid-1970s offerings Yellow Fever and No Agreement, to Kuti's penultimate album, Underground System, released five years before his death, in 1997 aged 58.

Badu has also penned a selection of essays spelling out Kuti's genius to the world but is condemned to preach exclusively to the converted. Because Box Set #4 is surely the very definition of a niche release, its obscure vinyl-only format ruling out not just all but devoted Kuti collectors, but narrowing the target audience to those who enjoy the act of collecting as much as the music itself. Just 3,000 copies will be made available outside North America. Earlier editions of the series, which began in 2011 with Questlove's entry, are advertised for resale at more than Dh3,000 a pop.

For savvy early buyers, Box Set #4 is a relative steal, with a pre-order price of Dh395 for the lavish seven-LP set, which also includes unseen photos and a poster by Lemi Ghariokwu – who designed more than half of Kuti's album covers – that will sadly be glimpsed by few outside the aficionado elite. This is the Kuti dilemma; he appears destined to mean a great deal to just a small number of people.

It's a sorry fate. A magnetic multi-instrumentalist versed in keyboard, guitar and trumpet as well as his saxophone, the Afrobeat aesthetic Kuti authored alongside drummer and musical director Tony Allen was immutable. The dense instrumental arrangements of his Afrika '70 and Egypt '80 bands were stacked like building blocks – thick polyrhythmic percussive layers, melodic basslines and staccato guitar hooks punctuated by rousing, jagged horn riffs, searing solos and communal call-and-response refrains – presented as heady free-wheeling cuts often running for 30 minutes or more.

The spread of previous curators called on by Knitting Factory Records – the indie label which has distributed the bulk of Kuti's output since 2009 – says much about the resounding fascination the Black President's work has commanded across diverse genres: Questlove boasts both credibility and popular appeal as co-frontman of The Roots, the seminal live hip-hop group who double as the backing band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Brian Eno is the electronic pioneer renowned for popularising the ambient genre, and the architect behind David Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy" of LPs. The first "superstar drummer", Ginger Baker was at the heart of the hard-rock revolution in Cream – and recorded alongside Kuti, most notably on 1971's Live!, which opens Baker's box set.

Critics and creatives are likewise united in their craze for Kuti; his life and legacy the subject of books (Carlos Moore's Fela: This Bitch of a Life), films (Alex Gibney's Finding Fela!) and even a Jay-Z-backed musical (Fela! opened on Broadway in 2009). The title of that three Tony Award-winner highlights how Kuti has ascended to that rare plateau of iconography – alongside, say, Miles (Davis) and Bruce (Springsteen) – commonly identified by just their first name. Yet outside of muso circles, citing Kuti's full moniker might not even warrant a nod of recognition.

Fela Kuti box set #4
Fela Kuti box set #4

Looking at the seven albums which make up Box Set #4 offers some clues to this paradoxical injustice. Badu has delved deep into the back catalogue, concentrating on more overlooked cuts from Kuti's fertile mid-to-late-1970s period – during which he recorded more than 20 albums of new material in just three years – pulling out Yellow Fever (1976), No Agreement (1977), J.J.D. (1977) and V.I.P. (1979), as well as cherry-picking militant later works Coffin for Head of State (1980), Army Arrangement (1984) and Underground System (1992).

Even a Kuti newbie scanning the record sleeves would recognise a stumbling block to a wider audience: Four of these seven LPs feature just a single song, split in two by the length of a vinyl record. Often the vocals don't come in until the second side. These tunes were never going to corner mainstream radio – and whatever grooves might have crept onto the airwaves would never be heard live, as Kuti refused to gig recorded work.

But more than its inaccessible length and unfamiliarity, it was probably the music's charged, explicit politicism which turned off western tastemakers. Shaped by early exposure to the Black Power Movement and the writings of Malcolm X, Kuti's outspoken attacks on both Nigeria's corrupt ruling regime and colonial legacy made him both a hero of the masses and a scourge of the government – Kuti was reportedly arrested 200 times and spent 20 months in jail for trumped-up charges. 

Box Set #4's most vehement moment is Yellow Fever, which calls out Nigerian women for using skin-whitening creams, as the symptom of a post-colonial, cultural inferiority complex – earlier addressed in the suited, booted male with 1973's classic Gentleman. On J.J.D. – shorthand for Johnny Just Drop – Kuti turns his wrath on privileged Nigerians studied abroad but returned with Western airs and graces. The album was subtitled Live!! At Kalakuta Republik, after the politically independent commune Kuta founded in Lagos which was razed by government soldiers in 1977.

A stark divide opens here between the slick showbusiness shtick of James Brown – Kuti’s most often-inferred influence – and Marley’s culture-crossing brand of “One Love” and Hendrix’s hazy hippie collectivism. Kuti’s messages were both localised and challenging, and wider audiences would only rarely engage with such heated antipathy, preferring to keep African problems and music alike out of sight and mind.

Even posthumous revivals of interest in Kuti may have been tinged by the antagonism for the oppressor. Which best explains why Kuti remains a hero across much of the world's second most-populous, and poorest, continent but a cult interest abroad. Sadly, 20 years after his death, the release of Box Set #4 will do little to change that. 

Fela Kuti Box Set #4 is out on Friday, December 15


Read more: