Fela fused music and politics to fight oppression. Now the U.S. is discovering him.

CLARIFICATION: The following story should have mentioned the Museum of African Diaspora’s involvement as a co-presenter.

For artists, fellow musicians, even people who had just learned who he was, he is known simply as Fela.

That’s partly a testament to the impact Fela Anikulapo-Kuti had with his dynamic stage presence and his dedication to speaking out against the oppression of his fellow Nigerians. Now he has a growing appeal in the United States, where, seven years after his death from AIDS, Fela keeps popping up everywhere, from bookstores to art galleries.

Bay Area audiences can learn more about him through “Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti,” a multimedia exhibition that opened earlier this month at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Though Fela wielded music as a weapon, his message was largely confined to Africa for much of his life. His songs, while inspiring and unrelenting, were not radio-friendly: They sometimes went on for up to 35 minutes. He couldn’t afford to tour often because he kept a huge entourage. And though he is often considered the Bob Marley of Africa because he fused quality music with a social message (and because he liked to smoke large marijuana spliffs, while adorned in tiny nylon briefs, no less), Fela’s Africa-specific and explicitly political brand of Afrobeat — a combination of Yoruba highlife, jazz and funk — made him more akin to Marley’s compatriot Peter Tosh.

Until his death in 1997, few people besides disc jockeys, scholars and fans of African music had heard of Fela. Then, four years ago, MCA began reissuing some of Fela’s 80 albums. Last year, Yale professor and ethnomusicologist Michael Veal published “Fela: The Life and Times of an African Icon,” the most comprehensive biography of the musician’s life.

The Fela renaissance can be attributed to his status as “the original African punk rocker,” said Martin Perna, the founder of the New York-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra — a tribute band formed after Fela’s death. In Africa and now in the United States, Fela is regarded as “one of the strongest black minds and spirits of our time,” Duke Amayo, Nigeria native and lead singer of Antibalas, said in an e-mail. Veal says it was only a matter of time before the hip-hop generation — which includes Fela’s son, Femi, also a musician — unearthed Fela’s funky political songs.

Just as his Nigerian audiences found guidance and inspiration in Fela’s music while he was alive, his posthumous fans in the United States are now drawn to his music for similar reasons. Fela was a “role model as a musician and as an artist trying to live out his ideals, persevering the face of all frustration, being original and yet respecting tradition,” Perna said.

Not everything Fela did was progressive. There are differing opinions, for example, on why he married 27 women, many of them dancers with his band. But most agree on the basic facts of his life.

He was born Olufela Olusegun Oludoton Ransome-Kuti in 1938 into a family known for its political activism. His mother was a feminist who died after being thrown from a window during a raid on Fela’s compound in Lagos; his brother was the country’s minister of health.

Fela attended the Trinity College of Music in London instead of studying medicine as his family had hoped. Marrying and having children early in his life, he later created his own compound, which he called the Kalakuta Republic. Within its barbed-wire confines he enclosed himself and his dancers, friends and band members. His nickname for himself, “Black President,” was a moniker he used after running for office a few times and establishing his own political party.

After a trip with his band to America in 1969, Fela incorporated James Brown’s funk-infused “black pride” message into his own jazz-influenced music. His first club was established shortly before he declared his own commune sovereign and free from the laws of Nigeria. A series of raids would leave him repeatedly hospitalized but undeterred.

Fela went on to tour in Europe and the United States in the early 1980s. He was arrested in the late ’90s in Nigeria on a range of charges, including drug possession. Assassination attempts followed his release from prison, but it was AIDS, which he openly regarded as “a white man’s disease,” that would eventually claim his life at age 57. His funeral was attended by a million mourners.

As flawed and complicated a figure as Fela was, “Black President” curator Trevor Schoonmaker says he is worthy of an exhibition because he dedicated his life to fighting for “equality and justice on a very basic level … His whole message wasn’t just pro-African, but about civil rights and human rights. And I think that’s what really inspires the artists in the exhibit. He was didactic, but also warm and fun, full of life.”

Schoonmaker was initially exposed to Fela when he went to Nigeria as a college student. He was so intrigued by the musician that he started an independent visual arts project in 1999 — the Fela Project (felaproject. net) — which later evolved into a multimedia exhibition.

The show was a big hit for the New Museum in New York and drew 1,500 people to its opening at Yerba Buena.

And while Ghariokwu Lemi, Fela’s primary album cover artist, who attended the show’s opening this month, called it “an excellent starting point” for Americans just now learning about Fela, the exhibition is an intriguing education, if a bit overwhelming. It combines the sculpture of well-known artists such as Kara Walker with the cross-stitching of Adia Millet, for example, while also offering continuous screenings of documentaries, mock video games and, naturally, music.

“An exhibition about an African historical figure is kind of unprecedented in contemporary art,” Schoonmaker said during a brief visit to San Francisco. “Fela was a complex and conflicted figure, and fully flawed like the rest of us. Just to have an exhibition about a person like him is almost a political statement.”

Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti Runs through July 4.Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. (415) 978- 2787 oryerbabuenaarts.org.

E-mail Joshunda Sanders at jsanders@sfchronicle.com.


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