Famous Nigerian Drummer Babatunde Olatunji Was Influential in the US Civil Rights Movement

Otosirieze Obi-Young
Famous Nigerian Drummer Babatunde Olatunji Was Influential in the US Civil Rights Movement
Babatunde Olatunji. Credit: The Alchetron.

A new BBC story, by reporter Aaron Akinyemi, has revealed the long involvement of the famous Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji in the US Civil Rights Movement.

Born in 1927 in Lagos, Olatunji received a scholarship to study at Morehouse College, Atlanta. His debut album, 1959’s Drums of Passion, is, Akinyemi writes, “widely credited with helping to introduce the West to ‘world music.'” Over his career, he released 17 studio albums, received a Grammy nomination, composed for Broadway and Hollywood, performed at the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences, and appeared on the civil rights jazz album We Insist! He died in 2003, and two years later, his autobiography The Beat of My Drum was published.

While still at Morehouse College, Olatunji performed African music at gatherings and at both Black and White churches in Atlanta, challenging stereotypes about African cultures. He was an organiser in the resistance against the Jim Crow Laws.

In 1952, three years before Rosa Parks’ resistance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, Olatunji led students to protest on buses, wearing traditional African clothes, and they were allowed to sit wherever they wanted. “We started the protest quietly,” Olatunji is quoted as saying years later. “We were part and parcel of the struggle for freedom in the early 1950s.”

As president of the Morehouse student boy, Olatunji met civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, and the Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah at the All African People’s Conference of 1958 in Accra. He was one of the 250,000 people listening as Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on 28 August 1963. “He had a close relationship with both Martin Luther King and Malcom X,” Robert Atkinson, his collaborator on his autobiography, tells the BBC. “Baba was a bridge between the two approaches of the time: King’s was non-violent and Malcolm’s not so much sometimes.”

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, Famous Nigerian Drummer Babatunde Olatunji Was Influential in the US Civil Rights Movement
Mowalola Ogunlesi. Photo by Joyce NG.

“He was committed to social activism throughout his life,” Atkinson continues. “He really deserves to be remembered more for his role as a political activist in the US civil rights movement – before it was even a movement. . . Baba sparked a deep sense of pride among African Americans by strongly promoting images of African culture, which in a subtle but significant way, helped set in motion the currents of the early civil rights movement.”

Read the BBC story HERE.

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