Zombie is not Fela Kuti’s only song with a political meaning.
On the contrary, Fela was a political activist who used music as his weapon against the Nigerian government’s authoritarian line and the lack of freedom in his country. This is a song that marked the beginning of a dark period in his life, one without his mother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, always a source of inspiration for the musician.
Fela was born in a well-educated family and studied in England. However, he inherited the rebellious soul of his mother Funmilayo Kuti, a teacher and women’s rights activist, and the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria.
Zombie was released in 1976 by Coconut Records, and was immediately a success among the people. The song starts off strong with a rousing horn fanfare that holds the clue to the important message Fela delivers: the zombie he refers to, who does whatever he is told unthinkingly, is a soldier of the Nigerian Army.
Fela was a provocateur, and his criticism of the Nigerian government made him a constant target. His revolutionary way of being was reflected in many aspects of his life. Fela had created a commune in his house, treated like an independent state, called the Kalakuta Republic. There, it was the typical rock and roll life, faithful to his anti-establishment nature.
Even more, his rebellious character was strongly represented in his music. He became an architect of his songs, carefully selecting each sound. His songs were extremely long, which he explained was the result of what he felt at the moment, and he was unwilling to shorten them to meet music business standards.
And indeed, that is the specialty of his music, it is a journey, and when you think the song is ending, it actually is about to begin.
Liberty of expression and freedom is directly felt through his songs. In fact when listening to a Fela’s song, it seems that each musician is going on his own individual journey. Listening closely to each instrument will make you realise that this is infact not true, but the immediate feeling is one of pure artistic freedom of every member of the band.
In Zombie, he narrates the military in motion comparing their orientation to the Zombie, without minds of their own (unfree). The soldiers are portrayed as brainless figures, brainwashed to do whatever higher authorities want.
“Zombie no go think, unless you tell them to think”
This bold condemnation of the military institution led to a raid in Kalakuta, and finally to his mother’s death. One thousand members of the Nigerian army attacked and burnt down his house after the release of the record. Fela was badly beaten, his records and instruments destroyed; tragically, his mother was taken and thrown from the second floor leading to fatal injuries.
The tribunal set up to investigate the cause of the attack as a result of the public outcry against the army. The army justification of the attack was that Fela treated the military institution with levity. His response to the attack was to take his mother’s coffin to the main army barrack in Lagos, and the writing of the song Coffin for the head of state.