He pioneered one the most influential, far-reaching musical genres of the past 50 years. He became a galvanizing force, too, in the cause of human rights. When he died, more than a million people turned out to witness his funeral cortege. Among those mourning his loss were the 27 women who had once been his wives.
The extraordinary story of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti inspired the 2009 musical "Fela!" which garnered three Tony Awards. Judging by the ecstatic reviews, the international touring production that comes to Baltimore this week has only increased the show's reputation.
The local run will be at Morgan State University, not a normal stop for a touring Broadway musical, but "Fela!" is far from traditional. The tour itself is out of the ordinary, too.
"It is very unusual for shows to tour with their original casts, and we have two — the London and Broadway casts combined," said "Fela!" producer Stephen Hendel.
It was Hendel who set the stage for the musical's creation and attracted some starry additional producers along the way — rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Baltimore-born actor Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will.
"It's like a fantasy, right?" Hendel said of how "Fela!" developed. "I bought a CD of Fela Kuti by chance and it was mind-blowing. I had never heard such rich, stirring, intoxicating music. The lyrics are very poetic, like Bob Dylan's. I couldn't stop listening."
The hypnotic pull of Afrobeat, the rhythmically vibrant style Fela fashioned from myriad African and Western influences and spiced with brass and saxes, has had a similar affect on many others.
In a 2004 profile of Fela in The Guardian, Paul McCartney described how he "just couldn't stop weeping with joy" the first time he heard Fela's band in Lagos. A similar reaction came from James Brown's bassist William 'Bootsy' Collins: "They're the funkiest cats we ever heard in our life ... we were totally wiped out."
The music would have been enough to spread Fela's name beyond Lagos. The message in the lyrics, delivered mostly in pidgin English, added to the artist's stature.
Fela's band Afrika 70 emerged in the 1970s as a potent rallying point for opposition to the Nigerian dictatorship. He created a commune christened the Kalakuta Republic, where the band performed and recorded. The government was not pleased.
In 1977, a reported 1,000 soldiers descended on the commune and destroyed it. During the raid, Fela was beaten severely. His 82-year-old mother was thrown from an upper floor and died a few weeks later from her injuries. Fela's response to the attack was more politically barbed music clearly aimed at the military authorities.
In 1978, he married 27 women, many of them musicians and dancers with his band, in a single ceremony (over the years, he divorced them all). During the 1980s, Fela continued to write and perform provocative music with his band (renamed Egypt 80). By 1997, at the age of 59, he was dead of complications from AIDS.
"It's an amazing story," Hendel said. "He had a big life. Not only was Fela the greatest musician of my time, but the most courageous artist. He stood up against oppression and dictatorship. He was a heroic champion of human dignity who sacrificed himself for the people of Nigeria."
Hendel and his wife, Ruth, who have produced such Broadway shows as "Legally Blonde" and "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," obtained the rights to Fela's music from his estate in Lagos. Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones was engaged to write a book for the musical (with Jim Lewis), and direct the show.
"Most musicals now have a familiar plot structure, and the music is mostly familiar, too," Hendel said. "Fela sang 20 to 25 minute songs, not three-minute catchy tunes, and he sang them in pidgin. How do you turn that into a musical? How do you take a man of enormous talent and complexity and entertain people for two hours and 15 minutes?"
The solution turned out to be a play-within-a-concert, set in 1977 in Fela's commune. The military raid and Fela's response to it are depicted in the show, but not the nature of his death.
"We have been criticized for not mentioning that Fela died of AIDS," Hendel said. "We don't have to, do we? This isn't a biography of Fela Kuti. It is designed to entertain people and take them on a journey, to leave them with more than a catchy tune in their head that they hum for a day."
Fela's polygamy cannot be avoided in the show (nine actresses are used instead of 27).
"I know that in America and other countries the fact that he had so many wives disturbs something fundamental inside of people," said Sahr Ngaujah, who portrayed the title role in New York (Tony nominee) and London (Olivier Award nominee). "But only one of Fela's wives came from a family that wasn't polygamist, so this was part of the culture."
Ngaujah, who heads the touring cast, sees the musical as a means for exploring the "intensity and the contradictions" of Fela.
"Something I really appreciate about his music," the actor said, "is that it encompasses the duality and ambiguity we see in our human existence — light and dark, good and bad."
Melanie Marshall, who portrays Fela's mother, Funmilayo, finds the relationship Fela had with his mother to be a major key to the man and his art.
"I love the bond she obviously had with her son," Marshall said. "A lot of his political ideas came form her. She's the voice of reason, and she's an omnipresent spirit in the musical."
For Hendel, the ultimate message of "Fela!" is that people need to "stand up for what's right. The things Fela wrote about in 1977 still, unfortunately, exist. I don't think the show is going to be out of date any time soon," the producer said.
For all the volatile issues raised by the show, the main ingredient is never obscured.