Fela Kuti was an AIDS denialist

US arts media in an attempt to give Bill T Jones's musical "Fela!" a leg up, are trying hard to avoid the unsavory parts of Kuti's legacy.

Fela Kuti in the 1980s.

The New York mainstream press is all over Bill T Jones’ musical “Fela!,” about the late Nigerian Afrobeat king. The musical recently opened in the city.  Everybody wants the show to succeed in a downmarket for the theater industry on Broadway. “The New York Times” has done a few pieces– a preview and a review, while “The Village Voice” published a long piece by one of its music writers, Rob Harvilla, who, among others, also wondered aloud about Fela’s treatment of his 29 wives or queens that he wed all at once and who he regularly physically abused. According to Harvilla, this violence and abuse is “… mostly played for laughs in a goofy mass-wedding-photo scene, though that arrangement had, of course, far more serious and transgressive overtones.”  He quotes one of the writers: “The nature of his relationship with the multiple wives is very complicated,” Finally, Harvilla notes about Fela’s death by AIDS: “An onscreen title card notes that Fela died in 1997, but omits the cause: complications caused by AIDS, a disease he denied existed.”

This comes as disingenuous as Fela’s cause of death is fairly well known and confirmed by those close to him.

For example, days after his passing in 1997, his brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a doctor and former health minister, read a statement on behalf of the family (in the presence of other family members), “… confirm[ing] that Fela had died of heart failure caused by AIDS.” At the time, the AP added in its report, that this revelation “immediately raised questions about whether any of Fela’s 27 wives had contracted the disease.”

In 1999, Mark Schoofs, who did a lot to popularize journalism about AIDS in Africa, did a story for the Village Voice in New York City about Fela and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti. Schoofs reported that one of the main obstacles to the success of prevention programs in the Nigeria, was “the abject denial of the existence of AIDS rooted in anti-White, pan-African ideology.” He singled Fela out as a key public figure fueling this belief. The problem, according to Schoofs was that “Fela’s most ardent fans, who have adopted Fela’s nonbelief of AIDS, are often the groups most vulnerable to HIV.” As Schoofs wrote:

‘… About the only concession Fela made to white medicine was to let Olikoye stitch up his head after the police had gashed it. There was hardly an illness African herbs couldn’t cure, Fela maintained, and he dismissed condoms as unnatural, unpleasurable, and a white plot to reduce the black birthrate. He believed, says Olikoye, that “all doctors were fabricating AIDS, including myself.” By the time Fela allowed himself to be taken to a hospital, he was so far gone he never heard the test results confirming that he was infected with HIV. A few days later, deep in a coma, he choked on his own vomit and died …’

Schoofs also notes how Fela’s misogyny and AIDS denialism presented a dangerous cocktail and undermined attempts to build awareness and encourage safe sex:

‘… The humor in his dismissal of condoms-“After I remove my trouser,” he was fond of saying, “why I got to wear trouser for prick?”-has become grotesque as the AIDS epidemic swells into one of the worst tragedies in Africa’s history. Fela was risking his own life, but he was also risking the lives of his partners, many of whom were the street girls he took into his home. Fela was often criticized for his views on women-“Woman got no other role than making the man happy,” he once said-but HIV armed his attitude with the potential to kill …’

At the time, the Village Voice was a publication read widely in the arts community.

In a 2000 interview with the Guardian, Fela’s son Femi said the family “… suspected much earlier, in 1986” that his father had AIDS, but could only confirm it when he died as Fela was never tested when he was alive.

In 2002, the organization Red Hot Organization, which raises awareness about AIDS, brought together a group of musicians to pay tribute to Fela’s music. They included Femi Kuti. The result was the compilation album, “Red Hot + Riot.” The connection was clear: Fela was picked because he died of AIDS and focusing on his life would bring attention to the pandemic. That Fela was a denialist and that did a lot of damage to fight against AIDS on the continent, was also foregrounded by the Red Hot Organization.

Fela’s last song was apparently called “C.S.A.S (Condom Scallywag and Scatter),” according to British music and arts broadcaster, Peter Culshaw. In a 2004 reminiscence of Fela, Culshaw summarized the song as describing “…the use of condoms as ‘un- African’.” Culshaw, who met Fela a number of times from the 1980s onwards, wrote that right up to his death Fela refused to be tested “to determine the cause of his weight loss and skin lesions.”

This all to say, by the time “Fela!” hit Broadway, nearly seven years later, Fela’s AIDS diagnosis and his denialism was fairly well known and an open secret.

Further Reading

Fela enshrined

Fela Kuti’s friend, Carlos Moore, the black Cuban emigre writer, is the subject of a film about their at times difficult relationship. The result is complex.