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Fela Kuti, Afrobeat’s King of Pain

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Arts, music, books, Fela Kuti, Afrobeat, biography,

Fela biographyThe legendary Nigerian musician and dissident Fela made big, powerful music that celebrated a reborn Africanism and made funky fun of colonial powers. But he also had plenty of rough edges, and they are on display right away—along with his caustic, critical sense of humor—in the 1982 authorized biography Fela: This Bitch of a Life by Carlos Moore, which has been out of print but has been newly republished by Lawrence Hill Books. Here is how it starts:

After three years of waiting, my mother and father really wanted a baby. But it wasn’t me they wanted. No, man! No! They wanted any fucking baby.

You know, the meek, quiet type. Well-mannered. Yes-Sir this. Yes-Sir that. They didn’t want a motherfucker like me, man! Well, here I am now. I came. In spite of them. . . .

When I was born my father wanted to imitate his own father. They were both Protestant reverends. So to make some white man happy, my father asked this German missionary to . . . name me. Can you imagine that, man? A white man naming an African child! . . .

You know what that motherfucker named me? Hildegart! Yes, man. Hildegart! Oooooooooh, man! That’s how much I wasn’t wanted. Me, who was supposed to come and talk about Blackism and Africanism, the plight of my people. Me, who was supposed to try and do something to change that. Oh, man. I felt that name like a wound.

Fela’s sense of destiny, along with his arrogance and aggrieved psyche, continues to drive the narrative throughout This Bitch of a Life. It’s a riveting read as Fela describes the police-state brutality that only solidified his political opposition and drove him to ever-more intense personal and political extremes—and eventually wore him down.

One disturbing undercurrent is Fela’s over-the-top sexism and patriarchy. Sam Baldwin at Mother Jones notes that “Sexism, sadly, is what comes through most strongly” in the book, adding, “Well, sexism and police brutality.”

A new epilogue by Moore adds valuable perspective on Fela’s legacy, which has taken on Marley-like proportions and spawned a string of reissues such as the impending 45-album onslaught from Knitting Factory Records, tributes such as the multimedia Fela Project, and even a Bill T. Jones-directed Broadway musical, which opens November 23. As Fela’s legend grows ever larger, This Bitch of a Life reminds us that the man behind the music was full of mystery, paradox, and pain.

Sources: Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Fela Project, Mother Jones, World Music Central, Playbill