Afrobeat for Freedom: Nigeria's First Family of Musical Activism

A generation after Fela Kuti invented a genre and challenged his oil-rich government, his youngest son Seun is carrying on the tradition.

Fela Feb6 p.jpg

Nigerians file past the body of Afrobeat star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at his funeral in 1997 / Reuters

It was 1969 when Sandra Izsadore first heard Fela Kuti. The Nigerian musical icon, more commonly known as just Fela, was performing at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He sang in his native tongue, Yoruba.

"I asked him what he had been singing about, and he told me, 'I was singing about soup,' so I started laughing," Izsadore said.

Not long after their first encounter, Izsadore helped Kuti politicize his music, which gradually became a voice for Nigeria's anger over corruption and inequality. "I told Fela that his music should have words that encouraged the people or at least taught people to raise their awareness," she remembered.

Today, as Nigeria confronts more issues of government accountability, Fela's son Seun has taken up the tradition of musician-as-activist.

That tradition began when Izsadore fell in love with Fela and returned with him to his home in Nigeria. With her help, he became the father of Afrobeat, half-musical genre, half-political movement, the latter a response to government corruption and negligence across Africa. Below, one of his early Afrobeat performances, from 1971 in Calabar, Nigeria:

Fela was soon writing songs about the Nigerian government, which used the country's vast oil reserves to line the pockets of its moneyed political elite. At one point, Fela declared his commune -- replete with armed soldiers to guard his legendary Africa Shrine nightclub -- a separate national entity, The Kalakuta Republic. Government thugs infiltrated the republic and burned down the nightclub, but it was rebuilt in another part of Lagos shortly after.

Izsadore eventually severed her romantic ties to Fela, who at one point had 27 wives, most of whom sang and dance with him in revealing outfits at the Shrine. In 1997, he died of complications related to AIDS.

Since her time with Fela, not much has changed for the Nigerian people, Izsadore said, citing her most recent journey to the West African nation, in 2006.

"When I looked around and I saw the infrastructure of the country, it was like it hadn't changed. And it hasn't still. If anything, it's gotten worse," she recalled, on the phone from Los Angeles, where she is now a social worker.

Izsadore said her outlook on Nigeria is becoming even grimmer as she watches news coverage of the ongoing Occupy Nigeria movement, demonstrations to reinstate the oil subsidies that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan scrapped last month.

In her song, "Nigeria," Izsadore tells Nigerian authorities, "You failed to listen to Fela."

The Democracy ReportThe removal of the subsidy, one of few ways Nigerians benefit from their country's national resources, meant drastic price increases in gas and public transportation for a country with some 76 percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to the most recent figures.

In her blog post, "Why Are Nigerians So Angry About the Removal of the Fuel Subsidy," Lagos-based British-Nigerian journalist Enô Alfred writes, "My 60-Nigerian naira (US$.40) journey from home to the bank increased to 100 naira in the space of 24-hours when the petroleum subsidy was removed."

Izsadore says her only hope for Nigeria lies with Seun Kuti, Fela's youngest son, born to one of his most famous co-performer-cum-wives, Fehintola Kuti. Seun is now 30 and living in Lagos.

A musician in his own right, Seun is also an activist helping to lead the pro-subsidy demonstrations and, in the longer term, pushing for more effective oversight for the next elections, scheduled for 2015. A presidential vote last year was considered an improvement on past elections, but is still marred by reports of fraud. Many of Nigeria's Muslims were also angered that the presidency went to the second Christian in a row, though the country has an informal tradition of rotating the office between Christian and Muslim.

"I came out in favor of the Occupy movement because the government needs to listen to people and not just take decisions and think Nigerians are fools who will accept what they say," Seun told me over the phone from Lagos, just before rushing off to a performance.

Presented by

Massoud Hayoun is a digital-news producer for Al Jazeera America.

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