Political Songs | Coffin for Head of State by Fela Kuti

Coffin for Head of State is a defiant Fela Kuti’s mournful tribute to his mother.

Not Funny for General could easily have been a Fela Kuti song title. He learned the hard way that dictators in uniforms don’t have a sense of humour, especially if you poke fun at them. 

With its contagious groove, Zombie (1976), in which  Nigerian superstar, Afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti sent up the Nigerian army, was a huge hit. According to online guide AllMusic, people in the street would put on a blank stare and walk with hands affront, proclaiming, “Zombie!” wherever they would see soldiers.

Then, early in 1977, Lagos hosted the month-long Festac ’77, which showcased Pan-African and black culture, with 17 000 participants from 55 countries. Kuti, being Kuti, turned down military ruler General Olusegun Obasanjo’s invitation to perform at the festival.

Instead, every night, he railed against Festac ’77 and the corrupt Nigerian regime at his club, The Shrine. And, as musicologist Uchenna Ikonne wrote, Festac delegates and visitors started ignoring the official programme, instead partying at The Shrine. Even artists such as Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela and Caetano Veloso opted for Kuti’s “counter-Festac”.

Needless to say, like Zombie, this didn’t please the military rulers. On 18 February 1977, a week after the end of the festivities, more than 1 000 soldiers brutally raided Kuti’s compound. His wives were raped, Kuti and his followers were nearly beaten to death, and his mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, 78, was thrown out of a second-floor window, sustaining multiple, severe injuries. The buildings, with instruments and tapes in them, were burned down. Everyone was detained for a month.

A tribunal was set up to investigate the attack. The army’s justification of the attack was that Kuti treated the military institution with levity in Zombie

Kuti’s mother died from complications following the attack. Defiant, theatrical, courageous and provocative, Kuti and his followers carried his mother’s coffin to the front gate of the army barracks, asserting that his dead mother in the coffin should assume the position of president of Nigeria.

A mournful tribute to his beloved mother, the slow, repetitive Coffin for Head of State recounts this incident. Peppered with religious invocations throughout the 13’22” song, Kuti laments how the hypocritical regime is exploiting religion to justify their corruption and thuggery.

So I waka waka waka
I go many places
I go government places
I see see see
Them they do do do
Them steal all the money
Them kill many students
Them burn many houses
Them burn my house too
Them kill my mama.

The fearless Kuti mocks the Christian president (Obasanjo) and the Muslim chief of staff, or “vice-president” (General Shehu Yar’Adua) by name – “Obasanjo dey there / With him big fat stomach / Yar’Adua dey there / With him neck like ostrich.”

Kuti died on 3 August 1997 from Aids-related complications. It was almost two years before the very same Obasanjo took office as Nigeria’s first elected civilian head after 16 years of military rule. 

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