Culture Re-View: The day Afrobeat legend and political activist Fela Kuti was arrested

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4 September 1984: The day Fela Kuti was arrested.

Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti was the Nigerian musician best known for his pioneering work on Afrobeat, a genre that combined West African music with jazz and funk rhythms. More than just a musician though, his life was also defined by the political activism that came hand in hand with his music.

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Take one of his most famous songs. ‘Zombie’, Kuti’s 1976 album and its titular song were explicitly critical of the unthinking ways the Nigerian military behaved following the military coup in 1966.

The album was a critical and commercial success. But this success came at a price. In 1977, the Nigerian military sent 1,000 soldiers down to the militarily-independent Kalakuta Republic commune Kuti established seven years prior. Kuti was severely beaten and his mother was murdered. The soldiers then burnt down the commune.

Kuti’s troubled interactions with the government would continue throughout his career, with another particularly notable event coming on this day seven years later.

On 4 September 1984, Kuti was arrested by the Nigerian authorities of Muhammadu Buhari’s government. Charged with attempting to unlawfully export foreign currency by withdrawing from his British bank account, Kuti was sentenced to five years imprisonment that November.

Kuti’s arrest sparked international outrage. Herbie Hancock, David Byrne, Ginger Baker, Little Stevens, and many others joined a chorus of famous musicians fighting for his release. Significantly, his arrest was also part of a campaign by Amnesty International to release prisoners of conscience. They argued he’d been unfairly convicted — that important witnesses were barred from testifying at his trial and Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon, Chief of Staff, had personally announced the government would see Kuti “rot in jail.”

After nearly two years of international pressure, on 24 April 1986, Kuti was given unconditional release from prison.

Kuti spoke about the awful conditions of prison, where “people were dying every day.” Luckily for him, his fame allowed him slightly nicer treatment from sympathetic guards. “They are ordinary Africans. They suffer the same things we suffer,” he explained. “They just work for their pay. They don’t necessarily have to be hostile towards me, because they understand what I’m doing. They aren’t really against me.”

Upon his release, Kuti divorced his 12 wives and continued touring with his band, Egypt 80. He continued to preach for peace, his belief in a Pan-Africanism movement, and his growing support for the American Black Power movement.

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