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Nigeria: Fela Kuti’s ‘Zombie’ – a struggle that lives on

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Mythical African songs that made history

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Monday, 28 June 2021 07:31, updated on Thursday, 1 July 2021 10:35

People hold up a photo of Nigeria's music legend Fela Kuti at a night show in Lagos
People hold up a photo of Nigeria's music legend Fela Kuti at a night show marking the end of a week-long celebration in his honour, in Lagos October 22, 2012. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

In this 12-minute-long Afrobeat gem, Fela Kuti made a mockery of the military junta that held sway in 1970s Nigeria. The musician would pay dearly for it.

This is part 5 of a 6-part series

Of all the scathing songs Fela Kuti released over the years, Zombie is arguably the most memorable – and the one that turned the musician’s life upside down. His album, with the same name, came out in 1977 on Coconut Records in Nigeria.

Inspired by the ideas of Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon – the man who liked to call himself the ‘Black President’ – gradually took his music to a more radical direction, mixing PanAfrican  messages with diatribes aimed at Western multinationals and military juntas ruling his homeland. From the stage of The Shrine, a private nightclub where he performed concerts that resembled political meetings, Kuti criticised abuse of power, corruption, inequality and violence that plagued the country.

After playing the track before a stadium audience in Accra, Ghana in 1978, the song fired up concertgoers so much that they confronted the police and were met with a bloody crackdown.

In January 1977, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77) was held in Lagos but Kuti boycotted it. Instead, he went to perform at a free concert series that attracted a swarm of spectators and journalists. During the concert, he played Zombie for the first time with his band, Africa 70.

Just five minutes into the song, after a feverish Afrobeat trance blending Ghanaian Highlife, traditional percussion and Hard Bop, Kuti’s sings – in Pidgin English – about the mysterious undead creatures that inspired the song: “Zombie no go go, unless you tell ‘em to go / Zombie no go stop, unless you tell ‘em to stop / Zombie no go think, unless you tell ‘em to think.”

The metaphor is obvious: the mindless puppets controlled by bloodthirsty masters are Nigerian soldiers. When the song became an overnight hit in the country, it only strengthened the blow of the lyrics.

Extraordinary brutality

Zombie was one song too many for the military government but Kuti’s repeated arrests – for offences like possession of cannabis and abduction of minors – did nothing to dissuade his activism. General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s then head of state, persuaded the Supreme Military Council to strike harder, but they needed a pretext; they found it on 18 February 1977, just a few days after FESTAC ended.

The musician’s son, Femi Kuti, and several friends were accused of assaulting a police officer during a traffic stop. Soldiers went to Fela’s home, known as the Kalakuta Republic, to take the young man into custody. The musician’s band members and family lived in one of the houses inside a fenced compound in Mushin, a suburb in Lagos. But Fela refused to let the soldiers enter and activated the electric fence around the compound, injuring the soldiers. “You can come with bazookas, rifles and bombs if you want, I’m not going to let you in!” he reportedly told them.

Some 1,000 armed soldiers soon gathered around the property, setting into motion a sequence of events: they ordered residents to leave the compound, set fire to a generator then proceeded to cut down the fence before rushing into Fela’s residence. Women were raped, some band members suffered genital mutilation and everyone in the house was beaten.

Fela’s brother, Beko, was resigned to a wheelchair several months after the attack. His 77-year-old mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was thrown out of a window and succumbed to her injuries a few months later. On the first anniversary of her death, Fela left a coffin in front of the military government’s headquarters to remind them of their misdeeds.

Despite the artist’s complaints, the inquiry into the attack was not taken seriously. The grim incident inspired two songs: Unknown Soldier and Coffin for Head of State. The first song refers to the inquiry’s conclusion that an unknown soldier was responsible for the violence and destruction while the second song refers to how he proffered his mother’s coffin to Nigeria’s military leader.

Even after the horrific attack, Kuti continued to speak out against the government’s excesses and held live performances of Zombie. After playing the track before a stadium audience in Accra, Ghana in 1978, the song fired up concertgoers so much that they confronted the police and were met with a bloody crackdown. The Black President’s lyrics had hit home far beyond his native Nigeria. Kuti died in 1997.

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