Fela! takes place around 1977, at the height of Fela Kuti's influence as a composer and performer in Nigeria. Kuti was an originator of the Afrobeat sound, and the musical opens with Kuti addressing the audience from a concert at his club, the Afrika Shrine in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos. Kuti indicates that the Afrika Shrine had become a hugely popular venue, and a gathering place for youth opposed to NIgeria's military dictatorship. As one critic describes much of the first half of the show:
It's part musicology lesson as Kuti explains how he discovered the Afrobeat sound by pulling together the drums from West African highlife and the ragged guitars from James Brown with traditional call-and-response vocals. As a front-man-in-training rambling around London in the early 1960s, he absorbed the influences of the two different shades of cool represented by Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis.
Kuti reveals how torn he is between his respect for the example set by his mother, Funmilayo, a teacher and Nigerian civil rights activist, and his quest for fame and sometimes hedonism. He gradually becomes more involved in open opposition to Nigeria's military regime, and his lyrics become overtly political. The regime responds to the provocation with increasingly violent retaliation. Kuti perseveres and releases Zombie (album), an international hit openly critical of the Nigerian government. The show depicts the army raid of Kuti's compound (a commune he called Kalakuta Republic), reportedly by 1000 soldiers, which followed the release of Zombie. The raid culminates with the torture of Kuti, his wives and other commune residents, and the murder of his mother. The show concludes with a protest staged by Kuti in October 1979, accompanied by his family and members of the Young African Pioneers. The protest was held on the day before General Olusegun Obasanjo was to retire from the Nigerian presidency for the first time. Kuti held Obasanjo responsible for his mother's death, and publicly defied the regime once again with his protest, leaving a symbolic coffin in front of Obasanjo's residence at the Dodan army barracks. The show concludes with symbolic coffins being laid on the stage to protest injustices suffered by the people of Nigeria and throughout Africa.