Icon: Fela Kuti
The incontestable king of Afrobeat, with a career that spanned over 30 years, Fela Anikulapo (née Ransome) Kuti’s prodigious musical output is overshadowed to the point of cliché by the stuff that’s made him such a mythical figure. A bramble in the claw of Nigeria’s ruling dictatorship; a total dickweed who might have outdone both Miles Davis and Pablo Picasso for total dickweediness; a cult leader with his own compound, the Kalakuta Republic, and a harem of 27 wives; and a ganja horticulturist extraordinaire, it’s easy to forget that Fela actually sang, wrote songs, played saxophone, led a band (in the ’70s, Africa 70; in the ’80s, Egypt 80), performed innumerable concerts and cut dozens upon dozens of albums.
But he did, and though even committed fans would hesitate to recommend everything Fela and his bands and disciples recorded, his peaks stand with those of his most obvious influence, James Brown, and the world of Funkadelic as the most body-rocking music of the ’70s. But while Brown’s music was the sound of a runner getting leaner and leaner in preparation for a marathon, Fela’s overstuffed songs jiggled like a dancing, galloping gourmet. And Fela’s jams certainly rival Clinton and Co.’s for length — as the decade wore on, Fela’s songs would stretch from the lip of the vinyl straight to the label in the center. (Often, one song would occupy both sides of a record; in the digital era, the halved tracks have been joined into uninterrupted wholes.) As for the political fire so central to his music, what the man himself said at the beginning of “Shuffering and Shmiling” says it all: “You Africans, please listen to me as Africans, and you non-Africans, please listen to me with open minds.” — Jess Harvell