Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was an unlikely opposition leader. A musical mastermind who once married 27 women on the same day in an idiosyncratic protest at government harassment, he was compulsive and rebellious, a kind of gifted and outspoken teenager who never quite grew up. But in the dark days of military rule in Nigeria in the 1970s, perhaps a musician who made people groove and smile was exactly the right figure to take on Africa's autocratic and corrupt leaders.
It helped that his revolutionary soundtrack was so damn good. Fela fans always called him by his first name alone was the king of Afrobeat, which mixes jazz, funk and the call-and-answer style of traditional African song. On stage, his grinding bass-heavy rhythms anchored his political rhetoric. Perhaps fearing his popularity, Nigeria's leaders tried to shut him up, on one occasion raiding his self-proclaimed Kalakuta Republic in Lagos, beating him and throwing his elderly mother from a window. When his mother, who had been a feminist activist during Nigeria's liberation struggle, died of her injuries, Fela delivered her coffin to an army barracks and wrote the song Coffin for Head of State.
The man had his flaws. For someone who railed against dictatorship he could be autocratic himself. But his resistance through musical theater gave Nigerians spirit at a time when hope was the rarest of commodities. When he died of AIDS in 1997, with a military man still in the President's house, attending his funeral became another form of national protest. Officials estimate 150,000 thronged the streets of Lagos, but people who were there put the figure closer to a million. They came to mourn a musical shaman, a political ideologue whose ego and genius were as large and colorful as Africa's most populous country itself.