Still a Riot Goin’ On: Fela Kuti, Celebrity Gramscians, and the AIDs Crisis in Africa

Strand: “Nelson, don’t. This could be your career . . .”
Nelson “You know about my name, right?
Strand: “It was your mother’s last name?”
Nelson: “No. It was my mother’s first name. And her mother’s before that. Over a hundred years. For this political leader who got put in jail in what used to be South Africa.”
Strand: “I Know”

51; from Jewelle Gomez’s “Lynx and Strand” Don’t Explain

“I use politics in my music. That’s the only way a wider audience will get acquainted with the issues. It makes sense culturally as well. In Africa, we don’t really sing about love. We sing about happenings. That’s the tradition”

51;Fela Kuti (quoted in Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon)

Jewelle Gomez’s short story, “Lynx and Strand”, centers on the relationship between two women in some alternative world, not too far removed from a post-Ashcroft America. The relationship between Lynx and Strand is keep under wraps, not simply because they are engaged in a same-sex relationship, but also because Lynx is an empath and thus technically the property of the State. The couple is able to survive because of the friendship and assistance of Nelson, a decidedly queer, bald-headed, black male character. The above passage from “Lynx and Strand” is significant, because as Gomez, through Nelson, reveals the history of his name, she subtlety “Queers” the African continent, by tracing the homosexual Nelson to one of the continent’s grand icons. Gomez’s simple literary gesture challenges the deep-seated homophobia that flows through various parts of Africa (and those invested in romantic notions of a “classic” Africa) — a homophobia that renders homosexuals as invisible in the continent’s rich history and culture(s).

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, is arguably one of the most rabid examples of that homophobia. Mugabe’s homophobia first became an international story when he banned members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) from the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995. Ironically, the theme for the 1995 book fair was Human Rights. Mugabe has been a proponent of “natural rights”, arguing that homosexuality is not natural and thus not even protected under the banner of human rights. In response to public criticism of the ban, Mugabe asserted that homosexuals had “no rights at all” and they were “worse than dogs and pigs and should be hounded out of society.” (The Nation, 18 September, 1995) When US congressional members Maxine Waters and Barney Frank fired off a critical missive (signed by 70 members of Congress) to Mugabe he responded in kind: “Let the Americans keep their sodomy, bestiality, stupid and foolish ways to themselves, out of Zimbabwe. We don’t want these practices here. Let them be gay in the United States and elsewhere. They shall be sad people here.” (The Nation, 18 September, 1995). Seven years later, Mugabe jettisoned one of his trusted advisors, Alum Mpofu — at the time head of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation — after he was witnessed having sexual relations with another man in a Harare restaurant.

Mugabe’s scapegoating of gays and lesbians buys into a well worn theme (dutifully embraced by some hard-core nationalists and Afrocentrics in the US) that homosexuality among Africans is the product of an “infection” caused by the scourge of whiteness. Mugabe’s “gay” policy is particularly dangerous at this moment, because the African continent faces a monumental AIDs crisis. According to the Red Hot organization, more than 20 percent of the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa is believed to be infected with the HIV — the virus that causes AIDs. Efforts to educate the African masses about HIV and to directly address the AIDs crisis have been hampered by perceptions that AIDs is a “gay” disease, and by the homophobia that is entrenched among many African tribal cultures. As Lynn Duke noted, Mugabe’s attacks of gays and lesbians actually helped strengthen support among his constituency adding that “though no love has been lost between the [whites] and Mugabe, with his perennial attacks on [them] since independence, even these whites agree with his hard line on homosexuality.” (Washington Post, 9 September, 1995).

It is in the context of these events that the Red Hot Organization geared up to fight the good fight (again) to address the increasing crisis on the African continent. Red Hot + Riot is the fourteenth in a series of projects aimed at raising awareness and money to combat the AIDs crisis. Most recently the organization released Red, Hot, Indigo (2001), using the music of Duke Ellington to specifically address the HIV/AIDs crisis in communities of color. The project featured music from the Roots, Mary J. Blige, Amel Larrieux, Black Star, Medeski Martin and Wood, and legendary jazz figures like Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Clark Terry and the late John Patton.

The focus of Red Hot + Riot is arguably one of the few musicians in the African Diaspora that could match Ellington’s stature. Nigerian born musician Fela Kuti was the father of Afrobeat, a style of music described by Michael Veal as a “heavily politicized, African-American influenced variant of the Nigerian dance-band highlife tradition, or, conversely, as a ‘re-Africanized’ form of African-American funk music.” (Fela, 11)

With Afrobeat as his anchor, Fela offered critical beatdowns to a wide range of despot Nigerian leaders including the notorious Sani Abacha. Fela became a celebrated icon of the Human Rights community globally, for the number of times he was illegally incarcerated, and his willingness to continue to hold Nigerian leadership up to intense scrutiny. Fela’s disgust with the policies of the Nigerian government was best expressed with the creation of the Kalakuta Republic, where Fela erected a fence around his family owned property and claimed that the site was a sovereign government. The numerous attempts by Nigerian government officials to disrupt Fela’s autonomous space and the subsequent routing of the Kalakuta Republic, which led to the demise of Fela’s mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, fueled much of the inspiration for Fela’s music when he was at his peak from 1973-1979. Fela died of an AIDs-related illness in 1997. Red Hot + Riot brings communities of HIV/AIDs activists together with the legacy of one of the most celebrated political activist of the last 30 years.

Fela Kuti’s political sensibilities were initially shaped during the time that he spent in Los Angeles in the late 1960s touring with his band, Koola Lobitos. During that time Fela, linked with Sandra Smith (later Iszadore), a former Black Panther member who introduced Fela to the ideas of Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X). Reflecting on the impact of the Black Power Movement Fela told the New York Times, “in the States people think the black power movement drew inspiration from Africa. All these Americans come over [to Africa] looking for awareness. They don’t realize they’re the ones who’ve got it over there. Why, we were even ashamed to go around in national dress until we saw pictures of blacks wearing dashikis on 125th Street.” (24 July, 1977)

Informed by romantic notions of the Black Power Movement in the US, Fela returned to Nigeria in 1970, renamed his band Nigeria 70 (later Afrika 70) and began the work of building the Afrobeat movement. According to Michael Veal, Fela and Nigeria 70 returned to Nigeria at a critical moment when the country’s “popular cultural climate was primed for four developments.” Veal suggest that Nigeria was ready for a “homegrown popular music style capable of competing internationally”, a “cultural nationalist ideology reflecting the nation’s rich cultural composition,” a music representative of the concerns of a “growing underclass, who were increasingly marginalized in the midst of the oil boom prosperity”, and finally a style of music that expressed the “ideals and aspirations of college educated students from the emerging middle-class.” (Fela, 80)

The music of Fela and Nigeria embodied many of these components. Fela’s emergence fits the profile of what has come to be known as the Gramscian or organic intellectual — the terms derived from ideas expressed in the prison writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. According to Stuart Hall (the father of Black Cultural Studies), organic intellectuals “align themselves with the emerging popular forces and seek to elaborate new currents of ideas.” (Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, 433)

What distinguished Fela from more traditional examples of organic intellectuals was the fact of his celebrity, both in Nigeria and abroad. Veal notes that a “distinct, full-fledged subculture coalesced” around Fela, adding that its “primary creative expression was afrobeat music and yabis (abusive joking), while its prominent ritual practice was marijuana smoking. Its mode of communication was the pidgin English of the streets infused with African-American slang, and its stated ideology was a mixture of Pan-Africanism and black power.” (Fela, 136) Much of this subculture came to life at the Afrika Shrine; musical home to Fela and Afrika 70 for a five year period in the mid-1970s. The Shrine, as it came to be referred to, was a classic communal site much like Harlem’s Apollo Theater or Chi-town’s Regal Theater that, according to Veal, “became a vital center for the exchange of ideas, as well as a place to explore progressive visions of a new Africa.” (Fela, 99). Within the sphere of The Shrine, Fela very much functioned as a public intellectual.

Fela’s celebrity has only been heightened in death, as he shares the stage with figures like Bob Marley, Che Guvara and Malcolm X, who have become the popular fetishes of wide range of political movements. Fela Kuti was the prototype for what I would term a “celebrity Gramscian”: those folks who wed their political passions and activism with their celebrity, in the hope that their celebrity will help mainstream their message. As Veal asserts in this regard, Fela could be distinguished from other socially conscious musicians in Nigeria because “as a popular artist working via mass media such as radio, television, and sound recording, he could impact society on a much broader level than his traditional forebears.” (Fela, 138) Fela’s celebrity was so widespread in Nigeria doing his peak popularity in the mid-1970s that he could legitimately claim that he was “The Black President”. A film biography and soundtrack of Fela’s life, bearing the title, was in the works when the recording masters were destroyed in the attack on Fela’s Kalakuta compound in 1977. The account was recounted in Fela’s song, “Unknown Soldier” (1979).

Fela’s status as a “celebrity Gramscian” is crucial to understanding the role of contemporary artists like Meshell Ndegoecello, Common, Dead Prez, Michael Franti, Ani Defranco, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Sarah Jones and The Coup, who also use their relative celebrity to flow counter-hegemonic political and social ideas into the mainstream. The point is not to suggest that any of these figures be read as “the Michael Jordan of resistance” (though I hear my man Henry Giroux loud and clear on this), but that their celebrity opens up a new space to conceive of political resistance in the era of Viacomization. Thus it is fitting that some of these artists contributed their time and energy to Red Hot + Riot. The project not only celebrates Fela’s music and his role as a creative agitator, but also allows the talents of this generation of celebrity Gramscians to labor in the name of HIV/AIDs education and anti-homophobic politics. Red Hot + Riot is as much a cross-generational effort as it is a transnational effort, drawing on the artistic sensibilities of D’Angelo, Femi Kuti, Res, Nile Rodgers, Sade, Baaba Maal, Taj Mahal, Tony Allen, Archie Shepp, Roy Hargrove, Common, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Macy Gray.

The project opens with a version of “Kakaluta Show”, featuring MixMaster Mike and Lateef and The Gift of Gab of Blacklicious. The song was originally recorded as the title track of the Fela 1975 disc, which documented a search of The Kalakuta Republic, in which Fela was injured. Both Lateef and Gab provide new lyrics that challenge police brutalitylyrics that resonate powerfully after the shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999. Law enforcement officers were also a target of Fela’s when he recorded “Zombie”, a song that offers a stinging critique of Nigerian soldiers (“Zombie won’t think unless you tell him to think . . . No brains, no job, no sense — left, right, left”). The Fela original was released when the world’s eyes were on Nigeria as the country hosted the Second World Black Festival of the Arts and Culture (FESTAC). The Red Hot version, produced by the London based collective Bugz in the Attic, features Wunmi on lead vocals and backing grooves by trumpeter Roy Hargrove, legendary producer Nile Ridges, and Femi Kuti and his band Positive Force. The track is followed by an instrumental version of the song featuring Rodgers, Hargrove and keyboardist Money Mark.

Nile Rodgers is best known as one half of the creative team that propelled the group Chic into Disco stardom in the late 1970s. The group’s sound always featured what I called a “pro-funk Disco” groove, and Rodgers and his late production partner Bernard Edwards used that groove to craft signatures tunes for Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”) and of course, Chic. During his post-Chic years, Rodgers got down with David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), raising his profile as one of the most accomplished producers of the 1980s. Less well known is Rodgers’ history as a Black Panther party member. In this regard, his role in the Red Hot + Riot is a return to his early years teaching Black Panther Party members the martial arts and working in house bands at The Apollo Theater and on the Sesame Street program.

Rodgers is the proverbial glue that brings a rather disparate group of artists together to record a version of Fela’s signature “Water No Get Enemy”, which is one of the clear highlights of Red Hot + Riot. Originally recorded in 1975, Fela uses the metaphor of water to discuss the natural flow of society: a reminder to the Nigerian government that they needed to heed to the desires of the people (“Nothing without water/Water has no enemy”). The Red Hot version of “Water No Get Enemy” was co-produced by D’Angelo and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, who appear on the track along with Fela’s son Femi Kuti, Hargrove, Rodgers, Macy Gray and the Soultronics (James Poyser, Nikki Costa, and Pino Palladino).

It is a totally different, disparate clan that comes together to record Fela’s “No Agreement”. The song features Fela’s longtime collaborator and comrade Tony Allen on drums, and vocals by Philly’s most lovely Res, and legendary Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal. The original version of “No Agreement” (1978) featured a solo by the late trumpeter Lester Bowie (he of the Art Ensemble of Chicago). In the spirit of that collaboration the Red Hot version features a solo by Archie Shepp (still “filthy mcnasty” after all these years). A smoking version of the song in its own right, the song gets amped when Senegalese rappers Positive Black Soul get in the mix.

Not all of the tracks on Red Hot + Riot are Fela originals. Vocalist Ugochi Nwaogwugwu and producer Doc (who was behind the boards from Res’s debut) contribute “So Be It”, which features the underrated Kelis on lead vocals. Even the usually somnambulant Sade gets ready to riot as her “By Your Side” gets Fela-mixed courtesy of Cottonbelly who remixed the song using samples of Fela’s and Afrika 70’s “Who No Now Go Know” and “Jealousy”.

The most powerful track on Red Hot + Black brings together two Blues men, Taj Mahal and Baaba Maal, as the two trade vocals on the moving “Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am”. The song was originally written by Fela in tribute to those Nigerians who were imprisoned and struggled to find their sanity amidst an unjust system. Other standout tracks include “Gentleman” which features Meshell Ndegeocello and Yerba Buena!, and the caustic “Shuffering + Shmiling” which includes spellbinding vocals by Jorge Ben Jor and Bilal and lyrics by Dead Prez and Talib Kweli.

Fela Kuti was important because he complicated the role of the popular musician. He also complicates our ideas about political activists and intellectuals as he regularly embraced the unorthodox as a response to the rigidity of Nigerian society. Fela’s well-known hedonistic tendencies are but a few examples of this. But as Red Hot + Riot so powerfully captures, Fela remains un-compromised and it is in that spirit that the Red Hot organization forges forward to fight against the HIV/AIDs crisis in Africa and the rest of the world.


AID for AIDS is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization committed to improving the quality of life of Africans, Caribbean and Latino American living with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers by providing access to medications, education and promoting leadership and capacity building.

Youth Against AIDS in Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda.

Life Vanguards (LIVA) is a leading Nigerian youth serving non-governmental organisation on health and development. It is non-political and non-profit oriented. Its main focus is on adolescent sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS prevention and youth development. It was established in 1994.