HERE COMES THE SON
Femi Kuti carries the sounds of his father, Fela, forward.
Only one year has passed since Nigeria’s Femi Anikulapo-Kuti released Shoki Shoki, his first record with The Positive Force for the MCA record label, and a highly acclaimed body-shaking metaphor for a new consciousness.
His take on the rise-up-and-dance-fight-love Afrobeat sound that his father, the late great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, originated, stretched far outside “world music” boundaries and had hip-hop heads, dance kids and rock fans all shouting, “Beng Beng Beng.” It was a beautiful and unifying call to action, even if the action was of a more, ahem, physical nature.
With last month’s Fight to Win, Femi Kuti has proven just how much difference one year makes — especially through the sensitive eyes of an observant global tour trotter. Where in Shoki, he kept alive the legacy of his father through a feast-for-the-eyes stage presence and politically infused lyrics, the message was just that — infused and somewhat hidden within a greater context of love and suffering. In Fight, the young Kuti communicates more directly, confronting the world’s current crises while still maintaining his colorful broken-and-pasted-together lyricism: “Me I no go preach to you / Say make you no dey do oh / But if you must do sha! / You better cover your bamboo / For AIDS my brothers / This disease dey for real / Think of the consequence / You better protect yourself.”
It’s no surprise that Femi has taken an interest in actively providing a voice in the fight against a disease that continues to ravage his home continent and even claimed the life of his own father in 1997.
The international music community first recognized Femi Kuti’s charisma when he stepped up from his father’s band to front the 40-piece Egypt 80 in 1985 at the Hollywood Bowl. Fela couldn’t make the gig after being (most likely) unjustly arrested and jailed at a Lagos airport on a fraud charge. Two years later, Femi formed The Positive Force and has continued to develop his own funk-soul-jazz percussive and muscular sax-heavy beat.
Perhaps early on in his career he was afraid to step into the shoes of his father and inherit his political responsibility. As Mabinuori Kayode Idowu so eloquently points out in Fight’s liner notes: “While it is impossible to have another Fela, nature has its ways of giving answers to human wishes. Hence, the inequality of their shoe sizes. Fela wore (European) size 43 shoes, while Femi — a head taller than his late father — wears size 44/45 shoes. For him, his feet are too big for Fela’s shoes.”
As Femi incorporates his own style into his Afro-beat heritage — incorporating elements of Western R&B and hip hop, for example, with guest appearances from Common, Jaguar Wright and Mos Def, not to mention touring with Jane’s Addiction and Live — he does right by his father. In the process he is introducing Fela’s musical message to an even wider audience.
In one stop-and-go psychedelic interlude on Fight called “Tension Grip Nigeria,” muted horns and crowd noises make way for an announcement spoken into a cheap microphone: “So you’re taking your roots and translating it into something contemporary.”
In a tribute to his roots (his family), Femi has included on Fight “’97,” a song about that tragic year in the Kuti family. The title not only remembers the death of his father — one of Femi’s favorite cousins, Frances Kuboye, and his younger sister, Olusola Anikulapo-Kuti, also died that year.
“The time don come! For me to talk! / Before I talk! Make I thank everyone! / For the support! You na give my family! / During our troubles! You my friends! / U na dey with me! / Ninety-Seven / I shall never forget! / Ninety-Seven / The pain! The sorrow! The stress!”
While this troublesome year threatened to quiet Femi, he came back with two of his most powerful works, Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win. And while many are drawn to this famous son because they see something of his heroic father within him, Femi has risen to the challenge of stepping outside Fela’s shadow and into his own international spotlight.
A Yoruba proverb states, “The son of the tiger remains a tiger.” And audiences that have experienced Femi Kuti and The Positive Force, live in the funky flashy flesh, know that this tiger has a voraciously vibrant bite.