LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — "FELA LIVES," reads the Gothic-lettered tattoo on the back of one of the sons of the legendary Afrobeat singer from Nigeria. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti died 15 years ago but his name seems to be mentioned more now than ever.
Radio stations across Africa's most populous nation continue to play his trumpet-and-saxophone-infused songs, the girlish cries of his female backup singers ringing out of tinny speakers in crowded buses. Leaders he linked in songs to corruption remain close to the levers of power in this oil-rich but poverty-stricken country. He's a legend among unemployed gang members and academics alike and was the subject of a smash Broadway musical produced by some of the biggest celebrities in the U.S.
Now, the family house where his remains lie has become a government-endorsed museum that offers a look inside his life, as well as the challenges still facing Nigeria years after his death.
"In one of his songs, (Fela) said it takes 10 years for us to catch up to his message," said Theo Lawson, the architect who helped design the new museum. "The expectation, I think, would be that the people would rise up and demand their rights and this didn't happen because everybody was scared.
"Fela's been dead for 15 years and unfortunately, we're still where we are. It's probably longer than he anticipated."
Fela created Afrobeat in the late 1960s, mixing the rhythm of jazz, the catchiness of pop music and traditions of African mysticism into 10-minute-long songs riffing on politics and sex in a nation only recently freed from colonialism. He embraced the idea of pan-African leadership and openly criticized the military rulers who revolved in and out of power in Nigeria when others had been cowed into silence.
Many in Nigeria, at times a very religious and conservative nation, shied away from Fela over his heavily publicized sexual appetite and marijuana use. His escapades became the fodder for endless and titillating newspaper headlines, including marrying more than 20 women at the same time, living in a free-sex commune and smoking massive spliffs during performances. The military and police, never amused, conducted raid after raid on his home, which he declared the Kalakuta Republic. In one such assault, soldiers so severely beat Fela's mother, an activist in her own right, that she later died of her injuries.
Those government crackdowns, as well as disapproval of his lifestyle, stopped some Nigerians from accepting Fela, said Lemi Ghariokwu, who designed many of the musician's album covers. That coldness continued even after Fela died in 1997 of complications brought on by AIDS. The disease sapped his energy to perform in his last years, even though he dismissed AIDS in song and called safe sex "unnatural." His children since have been advocates of safe sex and AIDS awareness.