In February 1978, a small polygamists’ commune-cum-recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria, was attacked then burnt to the ground by a thousand soldiers loyal to President General Olusegun Obasanjo. During the assault, troops threw a 77 year-old woman out of a second floor window, and after eight weeks in a coma she unsurprisingly succumbed to her injuries. She was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, venerable women’s’ rights campaigner and the first Nigerian woman to legally drive a car. She was also the mother of the owner and founder of the compound, musician, composer, Afrobeat trail-blazer, and outrageously individual political dissident Fela Kuti.
Fela had declared his communal headquarters independent from the Nigerian state as the ‘Kalakuta Republic’ in 1970. Six years later, he’d use it to record a single called ‘Zombie’ that attacked Nigerian soldiers for their drone-like subservience to political and military leaders (in fact, a large part of the problem was that was no distinction between the two) at the expense of ordinary people. In response, Nigeria’s ruling junta ordered the destruction of his compound.
Fela himself was severely beaten during the attack – he claimed that without the intervention of a commanding officer soldiers would’ve bludgeoned him to death. Another officer defecated on his dying mother’s face, and any women present were repeatedly raped. Fela was briefly imprisoned, then released to find Nigeria’s military leaders denying all involvement in the incident. Fela’s home had been razed, they claimed, by an unknown soldier acting outside their orders.
Fela responded in typically inflammatory fashion. He led a funeral parade to Dodan Barracks, the junta’s headquarters, and left his mother’s coffin at the gate. Then he wrote a song about it.
Coffin For The Head Of State might still sound fairly sprightly to the uninitiated, but, up against Fela’s standard gasket-blowing exuberance, it’s about as mournful as it gets. The surging backing voices are still present, but flatter, more hollow than usual, and the whole piece is pervaded by minor-key unease. Singing in the pidgin English he favoured for its ability to be understood by hundreds of different cultures across Africa, Fela meditates on his continent’s predicament before simply narrating his macabre delivery to the President.
In 1979 General Obasanjo would hand power to a (short-lived) civilian regime and retire from the army. Ironically enough, in 1999 he’d become Nigeria’s first non-dictatorial President in seventeen years. A then-unelected regime finally caved in to pressure to hold elections, Obasanjo, now a born-again Christian, decided to stand, and went on to win with over 60% of the vote. Fela thankfully didn’t live to see this – AIDs had killed him two years previously.