The Ransome-Kuti dynasty
- Article written by: Dr Janet Topp Fargion
Album cover for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow, Tears & Blood’, artwork courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977
Self-taught Nigerian artist and graphic designer Lemi Ghariokwu provided the original cover artwork for many of Fela Kuti’s albums – his bold images reflecting Kuti’s words of protest and resistance.View images from this item (1)
Arguably the epitome of a protest singer, Fela used words as a form of protest and resistance and also as a means of reflecting and commenting on political events. He was flamboyant and maverick, communicating his revolutionary politics through his songs.
Fela’s grandfather was an Anglican priest who attended the Church Missionary Society Training Institution in Abeokuta. He was musically talented and saw music as a powerful means of attracting people to the church. He was one of the first West Africans to begin translating Christian hymns into Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s major languages. He also composed new Christian songs in Yoruba, understanding the potential for music to increase awareness of Christianity. Some of his compositions were recorded by Zonophone Records in the UK in the early 1920s.
Jesu olugbala ni mo f'ori fun e (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour) in Yoruba, with piano accompaniment. Zonophone 3394, recorded in 1922
Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti; Zonophone Records
Public Domain; held by the British Library; shelfmark ref: T8357
Fela clearly inherited his grandfather’s musicality and sense of conviction, even if not his Christian beliefs – Fela was a fervent practitioner of Yoruba religious rituals.
Fela’s mother was also a notable political campaigner, particularly on women’s rights. She was involved in a great variety of organisations, including the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (where she was also President of the Women’s Association of the organisation’s Western branch), and the Women’s International Democratic Federation, springing from the French resistance movement in 1945 and backed by the former Soviet Union. Influential on both a national and international level, she was one of a number of West African female activists, including Adelaide Casely-Hayford and Mabel Dove Danquah for instance1. She was an educator, like her husband Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, together with whom she was a founding member of the Nigerian Union of Teachers. She worked ardently to raise literacy levels amongst local ‘market’ women where she was made more aware of the injustices they faced. This resulted in the formation of the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club in 1944 (later the Abeokuta Women’s Union) which rose to a membership of some 20,000 local women, later going national as the Nigerian Women’s Union.
She founded the Abeokuta Women’s Union in collaboration with Grace Eniola Soyinka, her sister-in-law and the mother of another internationally renowned member of the Kuti dynasty, Wole Soyinka.3
Wole Soyinka is one of Africa’s most well-known authors as a playwright, poet, essayist and prose writer. Like his cousin Fela, Soyinka’s work has consistently and openly challenged Nigerian authorities. Again like Fela, popular and public airing of such political views landed him in prison more than once, with much of his time spent in solitary confinement. Undaunted, Soyinka has remained politically active and highly vocal throughout his career, expressing his thoughts, beliefs and creativity in a large, often complex, and always sophisticated body of literary works.
Soyinka has referred to Fela as the ‘scourge of corrupt power, mimic culture and militarism’4 – many of Soyinka’s own works have centred on such themes. Perhaps this has resulted from what would appear to be similar backgrounds and upbringing. They were born in the same area of Nigeria (Abeokuta) with significant Christian influences, maintained a strong connection with indigenous Yoruba belief systems, with parents involved in teaching and political activism and received similar education in Nigeria and in the UK, where they became aware of Pan-Africanist issues. Importantly, they were born within a few years of one another and both lived through the ethnic and regional tensions that arose from the discovery of oil in south-eastern Nigeria in 1965, the ensuing Civil War and the various military regimes in power between 1966 and 1979, and later from 1983 to 1993.
Selections from Wole Soyinka’s annotated typescript of ‘Idanre’ (1965)
First page of Wole Soyinka’s annotated typescript of ‘Idanre’ (1965), Idanre being the place where the Yoruba god Ogun is believed to live. The poem recounts the Yoruba cosmology about the origin of the world and the heroic deeds of Ogun in particular.5View images from this item (4)
Wole Soyinka at the British Library, 8 October 2015
Professor Wole Soyinka, cousin of Fela Kuti, at the opening of West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library.View images from this item (1)
Fela Kuti in performance.View images from this item (1)
2 See Cheryl Johnson-Odim. For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria. University of Chicago Press (1997), p. 170.
4 See Ian Sansom. Great dynasties: the Ransome-Kutis. The Guardian (11 December 2010). http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/dec/11/fela-kuti-great-dynasties-ian-sansom
5 Mohamed Shukr Adbulmoneim. African-ness in style and structure: a linguistic analysis of Wole Soyinka epic poem 'Idanre'. (1999) https://www.academia.edu/6359544/African-ness_in_Style_and_Structure_A_Linguistic_Analysis_of_Wole_Soyinka_Epic_Poem_Idanre_
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