The next time you get Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” stuck in your head, throw on Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Coffin for Head of State.” Fela had a pretty bad day on February 18, 1977, when over a thousand soldiers from General Olusegun Obasanjo’s military government stormed his communal house, the “Kalakuta Republic,” and dragged the bandleader out by his balls. While some of the soldiers beat and mutilated Fela outside, others threw a Nigerian Army-style party for the 60 or so Kalakuta residents still in the house. According to Fela biographer Michael E. Veal’s account, “A number of the men reportedly had their testicles smashed by the soldiers, and the women were beaten, forced to strip, and carried naked through the streets on flatbed trucks to the army barracks, where they were reportedly raped and tortured.” The soldiers threw Fela’s 78-year-old mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, out of a second-floor window and burned Kalakuta to the ground. Then they arrested everybody and threw them in jail for a month.
The following year, Funmilayo died from the injuries she suffered in the raid. On September 30, 1979, at the end of Obasanjo’s first regime, Fela Kuti and members of his Afrika 70 organization drove a van through hails of machine gun fire to the entrance of the military leader’s barracks, where they deposited a coffin. The military later arrested and beat all of Afrika 70 when the group refused to remove it. The black and white photo collage on the cover of “Coffin for Head of State” reproduces Afrika 70’s seemingly near-suicidal act of protest and its aftermath. It shows Fela et al. delivering the coffin to the barracks gate and the group walking away from the Black Maria (police truck) three days later. The coffin itself sits in the center of the collage, above the painted caption “FELA’S MOTHER’S COFFIN IN FRONT OF DODAN BARRACKS.”
Though not a merry tune by any stretch, “Coffin for Head of State” is surprisingly upbeat for a song about state violence killing your mom. Kuti’s saxophone solo is not a dirge, and Afrika 70’s groove is more menacing than sorrowful. The original 12-inch vinyl release (Kalakuta, 1981) split the 23-minute song across a vocal side and an instrumental side, but on contemporary digital releases that restore the original performance to a single track, Fela’s vocal comes in after about 10 minutes. He describes the corrupting influence of monotheistic religions that he sees as he walks “anywhere in Africa,” interrupting himself now and then to mock Christian and Muslim prayers. A brief discourse on the corrupting influences of both Christianity and Islam on African traditions leads the singer to the “bad bad bad” deeds of General Obasanjo, a Christian, and his vice president, Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim. “Them steal all the money / Them kill many students / Them burn many houses / Them burn my house too / Them kill my mama / So I carry the coffin.”
In 1999, two years after Fela Kuti died of AIDS-related illness, Obasanjo was elected president of Nigeria. Don’t you feel bad for Kings of Leon?
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