Steve McQueen to make Fela Kuti biopic
Turner prize-winning artist and film-maker, who won a Bafta for debut feature Hunger, will direct and write a movie about the Afrobeat creator and Nigerian activist
Fela Kuti, performing in 1980
African superstar … Fela Kuti, performing in 1980. Photograph: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tuesday 8 December 2009 15.40 GMT Last modified on Monday 19 May 2014 18.01 BST
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British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen has signed up to direct a biopic of Fela Kuti, the larger-than-life musician who created Afrobeat, inspired James Brown to make funk music, almost ran for the presidency of Nigeria, and at one point had 27 wives.
Variety reports that McQueen will also co-write the screenplay for Fela with Biyi Bandele. The film, partly based on Michael Veal’s book Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon, is announced at a time of renewed interest in the controversial Nigerian star – he is also the subject of a new Broadway musical.
Fela Kuti, who died of an Aids-related illness in 1997, fused American jazz and funk rhythms with highlife to form Afrobeat, which became hugely popular across the continent and beyond in the 70s. He is said to have coined the phrase upon his return from a US tour with his group Africa 70.
The musician, who practised traditional African spiritualism, also spoke out publicly against the Nigerian dictatorship – and suffered the consequences. His 1977 album Zombie, with its attack on the country’s military, resulted in a raid on Kuti’s commune home and his elderly mother being thrown from a window to her death. Kuti responded by placing the coffin outside Nigerian president General Olusegun Obasanjo’s home.
In 1979 the musician, who called himself the Black President, attempted to run in Nigeria’s first elections for more than a decade, though his candidature was refused. In 1984 he told the Observer’s Peter Culshaw: “Anything could happen in Nigeria. If they get to the point that everyone trying to rule the place isn’t making any headway they might drop their guard and ask, ‘Fela, do you want to rule us today?’
“It would be a cultural and spiritual revolution. Every individual would feel like a president – nothing would obstruct people getting what is due to them.”
When he died, more than a million mourners filled the streets of Lagos.
James Schamus of Focus Pictures, which is producing Fela, said the musician might be “the most globally influential pop artist outside the Beatles in the last 50 years”. He added: “The Broadway show is pure joy, but Steve and Biyi’s vision is very cinematic and distinctive. Fela was a revolutionary figure in world culture, and Steve is an artist who had a strong vision of politics and the world even before he made his first film. They are kindred spirits.”
Hunger, McQueen’s feature-length directorial debut, about the last six weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands’ life, won him a Bafta for most promising newcomer earlier this year, as well as the Golden Camera award at Cannes and two gongs at the British independent film awards in 2008. McQueen turned to feature film-making after making his name as an artist, winning the Turner prize in 1999.