Overnight, Fela became known as much for his politics as for his music; after military rule ended in 1979, he established his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People). In the early '80s, he responded to the rise of conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with the blunt, threatening Beasts of No Nation. He was arrested in 1984 at the Lagos airport as he was preparing to leave for a U.S. tour. The charge: illegally exporting foreign currency. He served 18 months of a five-year sentence.

By Tom Moon

The 58-year-old Nigerian had elements of James Brown, Prince, Marley and Seeger. His "Afro-beat" had worldwide influence.

It's impossible to find another recording artist with the precise combination of skills possessed by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian singer and activist who died on Saturday of heart failure caused by AIDS.

The 58-year-old Fela, as he was known by fans worldwide, had the groove sense of James Brown, Prince's poised skills as an arranger, the articulate indignation of Pete Seeger, the galvanizing charisma of Bob Marley, and -- for a time -- the inescapable popularity of Bruce Springsteen at his peak.

He was a lover. At a ceremony in 1978, the performer -- whose favorite stage attire was a pair of bikini briefs -- married 27 women. He later divorced them, but retained a throng of female admirers.

He was also a fighter, who ran into trouble with a string of Nigerian regimes. In 1984, he was sentenced to five years in prison on what Amnesty International later called "spurious'' charges of currency violations; he served two years, and was released when a new government came to power.

Most of all, the man who called himself "the chief priest" was one of the music world's most skilled agitators: His songs, which could stretch over an hour, were filled with passionate chants about military corruption and social inequality. Singing and shouting in pidgin English, a marijuana cigarette ever-present between his teeth, he conveyed both indignation and political awareness within a genre many outside of Africa had dismissed as mere dance music. Among his most famous rants: "Teacher, Don't Teach Me No Nonsense," "Black President" and "Coffin for Head of State."

Accompanying Fela's antigovernment rhetoric was fierce, carefully polyrhythmic music unlike anything else from Africa. He called his blend of funk vamping, jazz improvisation and Nigerian high-life "Afro-beat," and it was perfect for live performance. A brief sermon -- about, say, Nigeria's need for modernization -- would be followed by a forlorn blast from a horn section, or a high-intensity call-and-response between Fela and his battalion of backing singers. When he finished singing, he turned his attention to the keyboard or the tenor saxophone, and crafted patient solos that took his large, interactive band down unlikely avenues.

The results were hypnotic. A typical Fela show was a marathon that could be appreciated on several levels: as incessantly funky party music, as a mix of overt and subversive political messages, and as a sophisticated improvisatory excursion.

Asked recently what was in his CD player, the artist and record producer Brian Eno said that he'd grown tired of most pop music. "All I really find myself listening to are Fela's records. I have about 30 of them, more than any other artist.''

In fact, Fela recorded more than 50 albums. He played a key role in the spread of African pop music around the world, and served as a godfather to other well-known artists. "He is a legend,'' Malian singer Salif Keita told a reporter several years ago. "All modern African singers and musicians owe a lot to him.''

"For us, he was a monument, a reference point,'' said singer Lokua Kanza of Congo. "To hear him was like a blast of fresh air.''

Fela was born in 1938 in Abeokuta, a Yoruba town in western Nigeria known as a haven for freed slaves. His father was a well-known priest and educator; his mother was an activist involved in Nigeria's quest for independence, which was realized in 1960.

Fela worked briefly for the government, but persuaded his parents to send him to London's Trinity College of Music. He formed his first band there, and upon returning to Nigeria in 1963, began playing jazz with little success. His concept for the politically charged Afro-beat came together in the late '60s, after he heard the Sierra Leonean singer Geraldo Pino and visited the United States, where he encountered the ideas of Malcolm X and others.

Afro-beat became a huge phenomenon in Nigeria, and by the mid '70s, Fela and his band, Afrika 70, were stars throughout Africa. Recordings spread their unique sound around the world: Between 1975 and 1977, the extra-large Afrika 70 (which later became Egypt 80) recorded 17 albums, including the classic No Agreement. Many were available, at least briefly, in the U.S.

As his popularity grew, Fela utilized his platform for ever-more-public antigovernment agitation. He opened a nightclub, the Shrine, and a commune, Kalakuta Republic, in a Lagos suburb. And in 1977, after he'd sung forcefully about civil liberties in what was becoming a military state, he got an official response: 1,000 government soldiers burned the compound to the ground.

Overnight, Fela became known as much for his politics as for his music; after military rule ended in 1979, he established his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People). In the early '80s, he responded to the rise of conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher with the blunt, threatening Beasts of No Nation. He was arrested in 1984 at the Lagos airport as he was preparing to leave for a U.S. tour. The charge: illegally exporting foreign currency. He served 18 months of a five-year sentence.

Rumors about Fela's health began to circulate in 1995, and though he occasionally appeared at the Shrine, he no longer toured. In April, he was held by Nigeria's drug squad, which attempted to get him to renounce marijuana publicly. They eventually gave up and released him.

That probably didn't surprise Fela's fans or family -- which includes a brother, Beko Ransome-Kuti, currently in prison for his involvement in an alleged coup attempt, and another brother, Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a former deputy director-general of the World Health Organization, who used the announcement of Fela's death to criticize the Nigerian government for not implementing effective AIDS-prevention programs. That was Fela: stubborn, committed to what he believed was a righteous path, and blessed with the rare ability to translate that passion into intense, evangelical music.

Tom Moon is Inquirer's music critic.