Though he’s my music idol of all time, Fela’s life holds some very deep business lessons for me. In this article, I’ll share six key business lessons from Fela Kuti.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (1938 – 1997) was a gifted Nigerian musician whose creative genius, social and political activism were far reaching and international in dimension.
His very eventful life, struggles, triumphs, colourful and charismatic personality provokes careful thought and provides inspiration to the personal and business lives of Africans.
I’ll share with you six key lessons all of us could learn from the man who came to be known as ‘The Black President’.
(1) Dare to be different
Fela was born into a regular middle-class family. The son of a Reverend, he was sent to the United Kingdom to study medicine so he could become a doctor (just like his brothers). Instead, he went ahead to study music at the Trinity College of Music, London.
Even with music, his style was visibly different. He pioneered Afrobeat, a new genre of music that fused Jazz, Funk, West African High Life and psychedelic rock.
His performances were always electric and his style of music was like nothing any one in Africa and the word had seen before.
He chose to sing only in Pidgin English despite his impeccable fluency in the English Language. This was totally different and strange for a musician who enjoyed international appeal; but it surely set him light years apart from the rest of the pack.
Many of us were raised to conform to society’s expectations. Due to habit or unfounded and unchallenged tradition, we always think things must be done in a certain way, even when there is no reason or logic to them.
The world appreciates people who stand out. Maybe it’s because we envy their bravery or the freshness that comes with experiencing something we’re not used to. We saw this happen when Microsoft changed the way we used computers and how mobile devices like tablet computers and Smartphones are revolutionizing our lives nowadays.
Change only starts when we think and do things differently. This is how many new business ideas are born everyday. Are you scared of being different with a new way of doing stuff? Why fit in when you can stand out?
It always pays to be unique. The rewards are huge!
(2) Be Bold – Never succumb to fear
Fela has turned out to be one of the most vocal musicians and social commentators Africa has ever seen.
Even in the face of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s, Fela was one of the fiercest critics of a government that was notorious for intimidating and taking out its opponents.
Under the current democratic rule in Nigeria, very few people can stand up to the government the way Fela did. He was very critical of the deep corruption in government and the flagrant abuse of human rights. He used his music as a platform to expose the evil deeds of the rulers and the upper class.
Under the climate of fear and suppression that ruled his day, Fela became a thorn in the side of immoral leadership. Listening to his music today, his courage and defiance is eternally astonishing. Fela was a man of great conviction and bared his mind, even at the risk of paying with his life.
Life is tough, more so in the world of business. Many African countries are terribly difficult places to start and run a business. There are uncountable obstacles and challenges to doing business here, the more notorious ones being: corruption, red tape and very bad governance.
While Africa affords the timid ‘would-be’ entrepreneur with a ton of excuses to avoid taking action on a business dream, boldness provides the brave with the strength to fight on and make a way. Does it ever surprise you how some people emerge dollar millionaires in the same ‘third-world countries’ where more than 60 percent of people live below one dollar a day?
No, I’m not talking about the politically-connected and looters of public funds. I’m talking about people like these who started from scratch and are making it to the top.
Anyone can blame the government and corruption for their inaction. However, a few smart entrepreneurs are squeezing out juicy lemonade from the rotten lemons we’re being handed down in Africa. The successes of these few prove the amazing abundance of opportunities on our continent.
Fela could have easily shut his mouth, but he didn’t. Boldness, like fear, is a choice.
(3) – Never ever give up!
Following his unrelenting criticism of the military dictatorship, one thousand soldiers were ordered on his house and ended up ravaging it. Fela was beaten within an inch of his life. His mother was attacked and later died from the injuries. His house was burnt to the ground and he lost his music studio, musical instruments, equipment… everything.
With no home and no mother, Fela rebuilt his music band from scratch and launched further harsher criticisms against the government. In fact, he took his late mother’s coffin to the gates of the President’s residence as a mark of protest! What courage!
The albums Fela released after his terrible ordeal are his greatest hits to date! He went on to several successful global tours and even tried to run for the office of President of Nigeria in the 1979 general elections.
Almost everyone is aware of the popular statistic that 9 out of 10 businesses fail within the first five years. Failure’s not the problem. The problem is usually what we do when, and after, we have failed. Many of us become discouraged and refuse to stand up to try again.
If it wasn’t for failure our world would have been full of boring and unambitious millionaires. Failure is the ultimate test of your commitment and hunger for success. Because many of us never try again, we never get to find out what success truly tastes like.
Starting, running and growing a business is tough. If it was easy, everyone would own one. Entrepreneurs are always known for standing back up. Sir Thomas Edison, the great inventor, tried one thousand times to make a light bulb before he got it right. And when he did, the money couldn’t come fast enough. The reward of profits and wealth will only come to those who refuse to stay down after every failure.
This article may never have existed if Fela didn’t stand back up after the beat down.
Never, ever, ever give up!
(4) Be versatile and creative
Fela was a creative and versatile musician. He could play several instruments including the saxophone, keyboards, trumpet, electric guitar, and the drums.
His skill with instruments combined with his reflective music and sonorous voice always made him a wonder to watch on stage. He found ways to captivate and thrill his audience through wild and theatrical performances which he popularly called ‘underground spiritual games’.
His creativity transcended music and was evident in his social and political activism.
As a thought leader, Fela featured in self-sponsored daily and weekly newspaper columns (under the nickname: Chief Priest) which ran his social and political commentaries throughout the 1970s and 80s.
We live in a fast changing world. Your ‘regular’ customers will enjoy your products and services until some other business comes along with cheaper, higher quality and much more convenient options. Serious businesses must continue to look for ways to excite their customers in order to keep them engaged and invested in the products and services they offer.
More so, it’s always better when the business leader is multi-skilled. Adding more skills to your toolbox is a necessary strategy to succeed in today’s business world.
It’s no longer enough to hand down IT stuff to the techie guys. It has now become necessary to learn new languages and understand foreign markets. Smart entrepreneurs understand that learning never ends, and this remains the ultimate key to continued success.
This is not a call to become a ‘Jack of all trades.’ It’s a reminder that in today’s world, successful entrepreneurs should, and are expected to, know the nuts and bolts of their businesses. It does a lot of good to your credibility and self-confidence!
(5) Cultivate a fiercely loyal and cult-like following
Fela’s boldness and uniqueness struck a chord with many dispirited Nigerians and Africans in general. He naturally provided the leadership that was clearly lacking in a society overrun by poor social welfare, police brutality and corruption.
It wasn’t too long before he was aptly nicknamed ‘The Black President.’
His connection with his followers proved to be very strong and largely exists till today. He formed the Kalakuta Republic (also known as the shrine) that was the rally point for his band and supporters for whom he performed regularly.
When Fela died in 1997, more than one million people attended his funeral with millions more sending their condolences from overseas.
Apple loyalists would know what it means to belong to a brand cult. Upon product release, thousands of enthusiasts across the world line up outside Apple stores throughout the night (and sometimes in the cold) all in a wild rush to have a first taste of a new iPad or iPhone model.
European football clubs have also succeeded in cultivating a similar cult-like following in many parts of Africa. In West Africa for example, support for European club football rapidly oscillates between manic and extreme emotions. Many of these teams are worth billions of dollars today. A huge thanks to skyrocketing sales of match tickets, television distributorship rights and merchandise (jerseys, mementos etc.)
In a climate of depressed economies, tight budgets and intense competition, smart businesses are cultivating their customers into die-hard ambassadors of their products and services.
As word-of-mouth continues to emerge as the most successful and cost-effective means of advertising a business, successful entrepreneurs know that they stand a greater chance of growing their customer base through the referrals and recommendations of satisfied clients.
Exceptional customer loyalty can often be a ruthless competitive advantage. Your customers defend and promote your business and also speak for you. What’s more, they come free-of-charge and are usually more effective than an overpaid sales force and overpriced radio and TV commercials!
(6) Remember to leave a legacy
Fela’s creative music genius and his magnetic personality has been widely influential on African music, popular culture and social activism. His Afrobeat creation has birthed several other music forms including Afropop, Afrojuju and several others.
His influence on his country’s history and evolution is symbolic in many respects and has crossed generational lines.
While his polygamous bent and open use of marijuana will always keep him in the controversial spotlight, Fela has undoubtedly left a legacy that has outlasted him many generations over.
Most African businesses find it difficult to outlive their founders. It is true that the primary motivation for starting a business is to make profit and create wealth, however, there should be an overriding motivation to leave a legacy that lives beyond the business’s creator.
Our situation in Africa at the moment may be ugly, but it leaves an amazing opportunity for brave entrepreneurs to make a lasting change. Our continent has become very used to broken infrastructure, poor services and low-quality products.
However, in our climate, very little changes can go very very far.
If African entrepreneurs commit to making small improvements in their products and services, they would undoubtely be laying the foundation for a host of similar improvements. History is a constant reminder that founding fathers (and mothers) are never forgotten.
It’s time to become the change we want to see in Africa.
And there is always a place in history for those who do…
Amazing Business Lessons from Fela Kuti…
Forever in my heart, Abami Eda.
Thank you Mr. Black President!