PHOTO ESSAY

Rebel Yells

A protest music mixtape

By Matthew McKinnon
August 12, 2005
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Fela Kuti. Photo Universal Music Canada. Fela Kuti. Photo Universal Music Canada.

Unknown Soldier, Pt. 2, Fela Kuti

(King of Afrobeat: The Anthology, 2000; originally released 1977)

Fela, the father of Afrobeat, meant everything to Nigerians that Marley did to Jamaicans. Many observers speculated, with good reason, that Fela would have been elected Nigeria’s president had it ever held a free vote during his prime. (Fela died of AIDS-related illness in 1997. He was 58.) Instead, he fought an interminable struggle against the military government of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

In 1977, 1,000 members of Obasanjo’s army raided Fela’s home in Lagos — Kalakuta Republic, a communal compound that he had declared independent from Nigeria. Fela suffered a fractured skull and other broken bones, and was made to recover in jail. Many of the compound’s women were raped. His mother, 78 at the time of the attack, was thrown from a second-story window. A month later she died of complications from her injuries. The attackers burned Kalakuta to the ground, blocking firefighters who tried to fight the blaze. Afterwards, an official police report labelled the violence the work of “unknown soldiers.”

Fela left detention dripping venom. He quickly recorded an album titled Coffin For Head of State. The name held no irony: Fela and his supporters marched an empty coffin to Dodan Barracks, Obasanjo’s government headquarters, and left it there to shame him. Fela intended the same with Unknown Soldier, Coffin’s B-side, a direct retelling of the Kalakuta attack.

(Psst. If you’re counting mixtape minutes, this is an edited version. Fela’s original, two-part Unknown Soldier runs past 33 minutes; this one is only, uh, 17. That kind of length is typically a deathblow to mix-making, unless the music is faultless. Lucky us: this is.)

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