Why Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat is still shaking the planet

On 18 February 1977 a thousand soldiers from the Nigerian army stormed a communal compound in Lagos that outlaw bandleader Fela Kuti had declared his own independent state: the Kalakuta Republic. They brutally beat Kuti, burned his home and studio to the ground and threw his mother Funmilayo from a second floor window, injuring her so severely that she died within weeks. What sparked all this carnage? A song called ‘Zombie’.

Released earlier that year, the track clearly touched a nerve with Nigeria’s ruling military junta. Over 12 minutes and 26 seconds of relentless polyrhythmic groove, Kuti took aim at the mindless obedience of his country’s military. This combination of irresistible music and insurrectionary politics would define Afrobeat, the genre Kuti created and made his own.

“Afrobeat is like taking a bitter pill with a sweet drink,” explains Kuti’s eldest son, Femi, speaking over Zoom from his home in Lagos. “The music and the rhythm is nice, but the message is hard. For you to be able to digest this very serious message, you need something sweet.”

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