Music Features

Fela Kuti and the Kalakuta Republic

On August 12, 1995, 10 days after his death, nearly one million people from all around the world flocked to the streets of Lagos to pay a teary tribute to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. For seven hours, the funeral procession pushed through the streets of the working-class neighborhood of Ikeja, passing by the burnt-out remnants of Anikulapo-Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic. It was there, during the rough-and-tumble 1970s, that Kuti and his cohorts lived and created the music that changed the consciousness of Africa. Inside those walls, Fela ran a semi-autonomous rebel community that flouted conservative Nigeria’s oppressive laws and customs. The Kalakuta Republic lasted for seven years, until the military regime of Olusegun Obasanjo sent soldiers to raise and pillage the compound. Yet, the pan-Africanist compound eventually to be called Kalakuta Republic significantly influenced a growing sense of cultural and ethnic pride that Nigeria had lacked since the onset of white colonialism.

The idea that inspired Fela’s pan-Africanist vision came to him in America. Fela was invited to play in America by a Nigerian who immigrated to New York City in 1969. However, the style Fela and his band played—a blend of Nigerian highlife and jazz—was met with little success in the States. Fela and his band were eventually left stranded in America with absolutely no support. “We weren’t in the America we’d dreamt of,” said Fela. “No, man. We were in trouble! No gigs! No bread! No shit! Nothing! And our visas finish-o!”. Desperation led Fela and his band to drive cross-country to Los Angeles in the hopes of findings gigs that would enable them to support themselves.

In Los Angeles, Fela met a woman named Sandra Isidore, who would later become his lover and mentor. It was with her, in America, that he was introduced to Black Nationalism, which sought to reject the technology of modern society for the cultural treasures of indigenous Africa. In particular, it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X that inspired Fela to explore and adapt his life and music to his African roots.

Returning to Lagos in 1970, Fela was full of half-baked ideas of ways to revolutionize Nigerian society. Desiring to find a way to help promote change in his country, he began to read widely, focusing mainly on African society. After he was fired from the Surulere Club for not being able to pay his rent, Fela came to the decision to start a club of his own—or as he said, an “African Shrine”—that would reflect his newfound African identity. This “Shrine,” which eventually evolved into the Kalakuta Republic, was where Fela tried to exhibit that an individual’s life did not have to be as constraining as it was in Nigeria at that time, where the tension of acquisitiveness, generated by the capitalist ideology of the country’s development, had almost completely denied the average individual’s sense of identity and possibility of self-fulfillment.

Barbed wire surrounded the fenced-in compound of the Kalakuta Republic, located at 14A Agege Motor Road in Surulere. The Republic was a small, yellow, two-storied building with a slanted roof of corrugated iron, and was located next to both a rehearsal space for Fela and his band, the Africa 70, as well as a small free health clinic run by Fela’s brother Beko. Inside its walls, the Kalakuta Republic housed most of the dozen or so musicians of the Africa 70, more than two-dozen female dancers and singers, as well as some less-than-obvious residents—bodyguards, drivers, a valet, a public relations officer, a lawyer, and an electrician. As Jay Hoggard remarked later of when he at chance saw Fela and his entourage:

I saw these African people coming off the plane in the Milan airport. They were mostly speaking an African language and they were wearing all the traditional jewelry, but they had jeans with holes in them, they all reeked of pot, and they had a city edge to them. They were cursing and causing a big ruckus in the airport. It was like a bunch of African hippies, unlike any African people I had ever seen. Then when I saw the instruments coming out, I realized—these were Fela’s people! Then it made sense!

Public reception at first was spotty at best. A grad student within Lagos remarked that “we… thought Fela was crazy; the music was funny and he and his boys looked like rascals." Yet, years later in 1995, at the tribute held right after Fela died, a former neighbor of the Kalakuta Republic, Madam Beulah Lasisi, remembered Fela as having a positive impact. “Unlike other artistes,” she said, “he sang and fought for the masses and he really entertained us while doing so. Fela wasn’t a bad person and Kalakuta didn’t destroy anyone I knew. I only know that it was destroyed."

The name Kalakuta Republic came to Fela midway through the compound’s lifecycle, when he was imprisoned for “corruption of minors and possession of cannabis." For eleven months in 1974, he was locked in a jail cell called the Kalakuta cell. “In that cell… I met people of high intelligence…so I decided to name my Republic after Kalakuta because the people of Kalakuta Republic are intelligent people." Fela would often talk of when he went to East Africa, where he learnt that the Swahili word for ‘rascal’ was Kalakuta. He was quoted in saying that “if rascality is going to get us what we want, we will use it; because we are dealing with corrupt people, we have to be ‘rascally’ with them."

The Kalakuta Republic like the American hippie communes of the late 1960s to mid-1970s, with the core difference that it was essentially African. The commune was well-organized, highly disciplined, and extremely tidy, existing as a sort of traditional village in the middle of the city. Kuti ran the compound as a traditional chief would, hearing and adjudicating all disputes, requests, and discussions. The New York Times Nigeria correspondent John Darnton criticized the way Fela ran his compound, pointing out that Fela ran his compound “in many respects [as] a mirror image of the militaristic society he criticizes.” In his compound he controlled everything, from the distribution of resources, to the resolution of disputes, to the meting out of punishments, especially among the women. Beatings were often used.

In the months leading up to February 1977, tension between the Kalakuta Republic and the soldiers stationed at the nearby Abalti barracks had been building for a while. Many of the soldiers felt that Fela’s ‘men’ had come to dominate the neighborhood, undermining their own governmental authority within the area. On February 17, a couple of the drivers living at the Kalakuta compound got into a fight with an army corporal who was directing traffic. Later on, a group of soldiers came to the Kalakuta Republic to demand the drivers be turned over to them. Fela had refused, noting that, unlike the police, the army had no authority to arrest citizens. The following day, 1,000 soldiers surrounded the Kalakuta Republic. When the army cut off the compounds power supply, Fela responded by powering up a private generator, electrifying his fence.

The standoff that ensued ended when a soldier set fire to the generator with a jerry can full of kerosene. When the electric fence went down, all of the 1,000 soldiers stormed into the tiny two –story house compound. In April of the same year, the government heard testimony from 183 witnesses who remembered the brutality of the soldier’s breach into the Kalakuta Republic. Fela, along with many of his musicians and staff, were beaten into unconsciousness. Fela’s mother, who was an active and respected member of Nigeria’s earliest political party, was thrown out of a first-floor window. She would later die from the injuries she sustained from the fall. A number of the women in the compound were raped by some of the soldiers, and were being violated with knives, bottles, and sticks. The Kalakuta Republic was burnt to the ground, and Fela’s studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela later claimed that, if it weren’t for the intervention of a commanding officer, he would have been beaten to death. The injured residents were taken naked through the streets on open courts to either jail or to the hospital. Firemen testified that when they arrived at the burning Kalakuta, the soldiers forcibly kept them from entering. The Kalakuta Republic was completely destroyed. Fela was kept in jail for 27 days, and the Lagos State Government exculpated the military of any responsibility for the destruction.

Eventually, the Kalakuta Republic became a symbol of resistance and rebellion, where freedom and individuality had flourished within a country under oppressive militaristic rule. Fela’s artistic statement in the Kalakuta Republic was to show Africans a different version of a modern Africa, where the state of the individual within the greater community was more important than the individual’s position within the state.

Kuti felt that art should have political purposes—especially African art, due to the complex and tumultuous economic and social situations that much of his continent experienced during his lifetime. The compound exhibited Fela’s theory that art and music should be an integral component of both ‘ordinary and extraordinary activity’. An essential element of this was traditionalism—Kuti wanted Africans to reclaim their African identity in their postcolonial environments. Kuti was quoted as saying that “You cannot think European and want to write or create something African. You have to think African in everything." Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will always be remembered for how he sought to divorce himself from the corruption within his motherland by creating his own society focused around beautiful music.