16/10/2017 12:27 SAST | Updated 17/10/2017 09:56 SAST

Fela Kuti -- A Musical Hero And A Renegade

The Fela Kuti we have come to know became the voice of many Nigerians through his music.

Fela Kuti.
world music network
Fela Kuti.

On Sunday, what would have been Fela Kuti's 79th birthday, the government and people of Lagos State celebrated with the unveiling of a Liberation Statue.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was meant to be a doctor. Born to an Anglican pastor who had founded the Nigeria Union of Teachers, and his mother, an aristocrat, a nationalist and fiery feminist who had won the Lenin peace prize -- the musician we have come to know became the voice of many Nigerians through his music. Not surprising as music ran through his bloodline; his father was a pianist and his grandfather recorded hymns.

For Fela, music was often a life-threatening fight against corrupt military dictatorships that ruled Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s.

Kuti's Africa Centre Of The World with Roy Ayers speaks to his hopeful belief in Pan Africanism.

Kuti's biographer Carlos Moore said of him: "Until his last breath, Fela was a proud thorn in the flesh of every military or civilian despot that occupied the revolving presidential chair in Nigeria, a distinction that made his position nearly untenable". His determination to use music as a medium to disrupt the Nigerian political landscape and address the socioeconomic issues in the country can be heard in Coffin For Head of State.

In the 70s, Kuti married 27 women (many band members and dancers from his performances) in a Yoruba ceremony. They were all called Queens. As a Nigerian activist Kuti and his entourage, including the Queens, constantly faced intimidation and torture from the police. In 1985, he came out of jail and divorced all of them, claiming that he didn't believe in marriage anymore.

His song Lady releasedin 1972 has been both a dancefloor hit and the cause of debate for many, with discussions about whether the song is misogynist or feminist.

Some 20-years since the passing of Kuti, the memories he has left speak to his fight for human dignity; social consciousness; courage and Pan-Africanism. His body of work remains a vibrant celebration of the arts, as is shown by the musical Fela!

Alastair Muir
Alastair Muir/ BBC/ Fela! Musical

Fela Kuti may be no more, but his legendary music continues to speak to some of the political and societal issues that we continue to face.