The untold story of Fela Kuti and Thomas Sankara’s Friendship

Fela Kuti and Thomas Sankara
The friendship between Fela Kuti and Thomas Sankara should hold little or no surprise for those who have spent the shortest period of time familiarizing themselves with the duo.

But this relationship between the two African legends, although very public, is still strangely one of the most under-discussed friendships of a famous African pair.


Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a musician with a thousand and one things to say about the corruption of unforgiving military governments in Nigeria while Thomas Sankara, on the other hand, was the populist’s darling committed to the undoing of what he saw as the asymmetries of Burkinabe society.

The two men would have bonded together over their views of what power should be translated into. They loved Africa and its peoples and thought community was much preferable to the individuation fostered by westernization.

The musician was not an ideologue but the soldier was a Marxist. But there was a simplistic confluence between the kinds of Africa sought by Kuti and Sankara: all they wanted was to see their people eat, stay healthy and be free from all kinds of oppression.

But it could not have been simply politics that brought the two men together because Sankara was a consummate guitarist and a learned fan of African music. Fela Kuti would arguably have found common grounds with the Burkinabe leader even if not for politics.

We do not have much in the way of documents that detail the friendship between Sankara and Kuti. On top of this, we know of only two instances that the two men met.

One of the occasions on which they met was the Panafrican Film and Television Festival or FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 1987.

That meeting has been immortalized in a spoken-word song by IR, Kabaka Labartin and Bassilar Membrane. The song described the meeting in these words:

When Thomas Sankara and Fela Kuti met, there was laughter.

When they spoke, they had no fear.

These and other sentences were interspersed with portions of speeches delivered by Sankara. This ode to the famous friendship has become many people’s evidence that the two men were indeed friends.

By all indications, the two men remained in correspondence after meeting. A year after Sankara was riddled with bullets by mutinous members of his own army, Fela was asked in an interview what he felt about the coup and he responded:

“His departure is a terrible blow to the political life of Africans, because he was the only one talking about African unity, what Africans need, to progress. He was the only one talking.

His loss is bad (Long silence) but my mind is cool because Sankara’s death must have a meaning for Africa. Now that Sankara has been killed, if the leader of Burkina Faso, today, is not doing well, you will see it clearly. This means that in [the] future, bad leaders would be very careful in killing good leaders…”

Whatever tears he may have shed, Kuti did away from the eyes of the public. But it was quite clear that in Sankara, Kuti found a leader likable enough not to criticize, something about which Nigeria’s leaders of the time had sleepless nights.

Thanks for reading, highlifextra.


  • Felabration – Remembering Fela Kuti; All You Should Know, highlifextra
  • The untold story of Thomas Sankara and Fela Kuti’s friendship, Face2FaceAfrica

The Evolution of Afrobeats – The Great 80s

Fela and band members during a dance rehearsal at Kalakuta Republic | TheNetNG
Fela and band members during a dance rehearsal at Kalakuta Republic

Born from a fusion of Jazz, highlife, funk, and traditional Nigerian music, the Afrobeats genre burst onto the Nigerian music scene in the 1960’s, changing it forever.


Created by legendary musician and performer, Fela Anikulapo- Kuti, Afrobeats quickly made waves spreading across the world with its killer sound and vibe, influencing generations that would come after.

Afrobeats was distinct from other genres. It combined high-energy, electric, groovy music with political undertones creating a mass appeal that had people thumping and chanting in the streets.

Hypnotic, mystical and untamable, the Afrobeats pioneer, Fela, used it to propel messages of social change, African identity and revolution.

“With music I create change… I am using my music as a weapon,” he once said.

Fela was undeniably addictive in personality and unmatchable in music. He created such memorable hits as ‘Yeye De Smell’, ‘Gentleman’ ‘Lady’ and ‘Zombie’, while still having the free time to perform such legendary personal acts as forming the Political Party Movement of the People (MOP) and running for president twice, and infamously marrying 28 women in a single ceremony and eventually divorcing them all.

He affected dozens of musicians both during his lifetime and after. Paul McCartney who traveled to Lagos in the 70s to see him perform, hailed him and his band “The best band he had ever seen alive.” Virtually every Nigerian artiste from a range of generations, including Tuface and Wizkid, have been influenced by him in some way.

But Fela was not alone. The eighties saw a height of Highlife music; a jazzy combination of western instruments and African expressions. Beginning in different parts of West Africa like Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria in the 1920’s, Highlife combined instruments like the African drums, harmonicas, guitars, trumpets and accordions to produce sound that delighted people for decades.

Records like High Life by Sonny Okosun, Yellow Sisi by Dr. Orlando, Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga, Gowon Special by Jim Rex Lawson changed the landscape of music, making it that much sweeter.

Much celebrated and immeasurably talented Highlife Singer Victor Olaiya, and his band the ‘Cool Cats’, later renamed the ‘All Stars Band’, actually hold a place in history, performing for Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Nigeria and during the Independence and Republic celebrations in the 60’s. A renowned trumpeter, Dr. Olaiya is still active today, collaborating with Tuface in as late as 2013 for the song “Baby Mi Da”.

One of the most influential musicians of our time and Master of Juju music, King Sunny Ade also has roots in Highlife, tutored by Moses Olaiya, more popularly known as comedic genius Baba Sala at the beginning of his career.

King Sunny Ade's songs
King Sunny Ade

He evolved, becoming one of the greatest proponents of Juju music in history. In fact, the release of his album ‘Juju Music’ to overwhelming critical acclaim, cemented him as a critical music icon of our time. The New York Times credits him with beginning the “world beat movement” in the United States.

The first African to be nominated for two Grammys and a pioneer in sound and technique, he continues to inspire a new wave of musicians such as Lagbaja.

And who can forget Michael Jackson? The undisputed King of Pop, undoubtedly one of the best performers of all time, the eighties were an integral period in Michael Jackson’s career. He created some of his most beloved songs ‘Thriller’, ‘Billy Jean’, ‘Bad’, Beat it, Smooth Criminal. The list is seemingly endless.

He transformed music into Art. Even after his death, he’s remembered as the one of the most beloved musicians and innovators in his music, fashion and dance moves. Everyone knows the moonwalk.

All this great music was pushed on the then revolutionary new technology, the compact disc- CD’s. Created in a joint effort between tech giants Sony and Phillips, it became the primary method of distributing music for the next thirty years. In that time over 200 billion CD’s have been sold.

But all this was just the beginning. If the eighties brought revolution, the nineties brought magic.


  • How and why Fela Kuti married 28 women in a day – highlifextra
  • Jaguda – Nigeria’s leading music blog
  • All you need to know about Felabration – highlifextra
  • Trace Magazine