Fela Kuti and Bob Marley: two ports of the Black Atlantic

This post is part of the series Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. Click here to read the first post of the series, here to read the second and here to read the third

AiW Guest Tiago C. Fernandes


Fela Kuti

Fela Anikulapo Kuti was born in 1938 in the city of Abeokuta, south-eastern Nigeria, to a Yoruba family. At twenty, he moved to London, where he had the opportunity to study at Trinity College of Music and formed his first band, the Koola Lobitos, which was very influenced by highlife, a popular rhythm in West Africa from the early twentieth century.

Returning to Lagos in 1963, Fela Kuti sought to assimilate local rhythms, integrating them with soul music (James Brown) and jazz (Miles Davis and John Coltrane), establishing a new genre afrobeat, which reached certain notoriety in the regional circuits. In 1969, the band settled for ten months in the United States, where Fela matured his political awareness, especially through the influence of Sandra Smith, a Black Panther militant whom he dated.

The American experience resulted in a general reorientation of his career: more elaborate lyrics and themes; claims of Africanness; and inseparability between artistic expression and political statements were some of new features acquired by the band in the United States. After moving back to Nigeria, the band was renamed Afrika 70 and began an extraordinary musical production. Their music was strongly critical towards authoritarian governments, dictatorial political regimes, and powerful cultural industry in general, which caused him serious consequences: arrests, demands, defamatory campaigns and a military invasion of his “Kalakuta Republic” which culminated with violent assaults to his companions and family.

Video: Sorrow, tears and blood

His first album was produced in 1971 and was part of an independent production system, which was the only way to meet his demands of frequent releases.



Robert Nesta Marley was born in 1945 in Saint Ann, Jamaica’s northern region, the same place as Marcus Garvey, pioneer of pan-Africanist movement. Son of a military white man and a young black girl, Marley lived with his mother in Trenchtown, the main slum of Kingston. In 1963, Marley founded The Wailing Wailers with his friends Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Reggae was already prominent amongst the prolific music market of the small Caribbean island. However The Wailers projected it in the international scenario.

One of the constitutive pillars of reggae is the Rastafarian ideology: a religious movement influenced by Marcus Garvey’s ideas, which has its own reading of the Bible, and recognizes the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) as the prophet and liberator of black people. In the Rastafarian ideology – assimilated by Marley in his youth – a diasporic condition emerged, articulating postcolonial identities, Caribbean folk traditions, memories of resistance over slavery and the evocation of African origins.


Marley released twelve studio albums and four live albums between 1965 and 1983, and was raised to the category of international pop icon, recognized around the world for the quality of his compositions and the strength of their messages.

Rehearsing jam sessions through history: between the Caribbean and Atlantic Africa

The analogous colonial and postcolonial context between Jamaica and Nigeria provided the necessary elements for a dialogue through the Atlantic: both countries were under British domination, both became independent almost at the same time (in 1958 and 1960 respectively) and both were scenario of strong anti-establishment campaigns, along with the Unites States and other countries in the America and Africa.

There are three features of these anti-establishment movements that formed and influenced Kuti and Marley: the anti-imperialist discourse that permeated the liberation movements in Africa and Asia; the civil rights struggles in the United States and the subsequent radicalization of the black movements symbolized in the slogan ‘black power’; and alternative ways of development advocated by some new independent African governments.


Both Marley and Kuti synthesized issues of their time in their music and activism and their production influenced and intervened uniquely in the artistic and political scenario of their generation. Fela Kuti had a more aggressive and explicit style than Bob Marley. In his lyrics, he depicted the various political clashes he was involved during his life. Marley, on the other hand, used a more metaphorical language, especially through references to Rastafarian ideology. Such stylistic choices are clearly reflected in the rhythmic and melodic styles of the afrobeat and reggae, and the difference is easily noticeable.

The concept of Black Atlantic presented by Paul Gilroy emerges as a key reference in the recent literature to analyze the Atlantic as a space of historical affirmation of subaltern populations, providing the framework for a comprehensive analysis of these and many other manifestations.

The Black Atlantic is understood here as a geo-historical dimension, in which the epicentres are in Lagos and Kingston. This supranational approach introduces a perspective of modernity from the Afro-subalternity; a history built by numerous transatlantic trajectories in which the subjects (individual and collective) recreate and interchange the most diverse experiences.

The language that unifies this wide and diverse space is fundamentally music, according to Gilroy: “I wish to propose that the sharing of black cultural forms post-slavery is addressed through issues that converge in the analysis of black music and the social relations that sustain it. A particularly valuable procedure for this is provided by the distinctive patterns of language use that characterize the contrasting populations of the modern and Western African diaspora”.

Both Kuti and Marley developed works of unquestionable artistic value, which transcended their aesthetic dimension. Music is assumed as a mission and it is intentionally designed to engage with theoretical and political debates. Pamphlets, poetry, performance, politics, sexuality, religious and mystical appeal are intertwined and superimposed according to the occasion. If the ports have been throughout history crossing points where the oppressed classes and their culture circulated more freely, maybe that’s a good metaphor for understanding the position of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley in the Black Atlantic.



Tiago C. Fernandes is a historian with a MA in Social Work. His previous researches were related to the praxis of indigenous movements in Latin America. Last year he elaborated a PhD research project on the work and life of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, using the concepts of diaspora and Black Atlantic. He lives in Niteroi (Rio de Janeiro – Brazil) and works at Alexandre de Gusmão Foundation, an institution linked to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brazil.

Categories: And Other Words...

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3 replies

  1. First, I will like to commend you on your article and your evaluation of these two legends. I agreed with you, that It is of no irrelevance however, the mannerism to which each of these blessed individuals expressed their political views and their activism via their musics. it is cleared and important to note that they shared the same ideology and have a common goal. I also believed, we need more of the new generation stars to continue the mission/works without monetary intention. The injustice is still very active and more so apparent, to the extent that, lack of new generation proceeding with the journey will render the mission and dreams of these political activism musical pioneers and those before them in Vain.


  1. The Black Atlantic – A Lesson on Afro-Subalternity | Mente Maravillosa
  2. Fela in performance | 21st Century Theater

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