Femi Kuti: Shoki Shoki

Femi Kuti
Shoki Shoki


WORLD MUSIC IDEALISTS once hoped that listening to formerly colonized people jiving and wailing would nudge Westerners toward empathy as much as solidarity--that we might see ourselves as colonized too, in a thousand ways. "Pop," "youth," and "mass" culture might be our own, but then again they might not, or so pan-Africanists and punks have been arguing for years. Both of those crowds put their money where their music was: They pushed the antiapartheid movement, and they supported the late-Eighties bum's rush on rock's hegemony from two angles: hip hop and Afropop. To everyone else, Africa registered as nothing more than Paul Simon's best backing band. "Talk about Nigeria/People used to laugh at ya," rapped KRS-One in 1988, adding a zinger: "Now I take a look/I see USA for Africa?!"

Twelve years later hip hop's black nationalists are finally positioned to place Nigeria on the pulse, if not at the heart, of mainstream culture. With Mos Def's Brooklyn bookstore rockin' and the Roots' extended family clockin', MCA gave Common budgetary leeway to collaborate, on his forthcoming album, with Femi Kuti, the heir in every sense to late Afrobeat inventor Fela Kuti. Fresh from sequencing his late dad's music on The Best of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian bandleader and saxophonist now lets labelmates the Roots remix his own track "Black Man Know Yourself" into a swirling dub-hop cap to his own bracing debut, Shoki Shoki. What would cultural theorist Frantz Fanon make of this raw, husky singer scolding his countrymen for going nonnative--"You regret your culture for Western sense"--over ?uestlove's American-as-apple-fritters beat?

And would he be dancing too hard to care?

Thing is, Fela's music was already plenty American--all James Brown horn bursts, funk-guitar twitters, wahwah everything. Femi just crunches papa's bag into a smaller ball, stripping down those giant, communal jams with songful expedience--most cuts clock in at under seven minutes. Programmed and synthesized by producer Sodi to the tastes of Lagos disco dwellers, even its most electronic moments never come canned. The basslines sound as distinct and propulsive as any Aphrodite throb, and the ensemble's climaxes have the chaotic immediacy of a New Orleans brass band barging into your living room.

Though Femi softens his dad's sexism, he doesn't wimp on grit--"Beng Beng Beng" finds his lover telling him not to "come too fast." And he takes on Nigeria's militarism (and, um, sports violence) with admirable verve. Femi's raw voice may assume an authority his father earned, but it's no less convincing. And he writes in the colonial tongue because it cuts across tribe, not just to sing truth to power. Besides, speaking in the Queen's language allows Femi to speak to Queens, New York. To paraphrase Fanon, Shoki Shoki suggests nothing less than two nations finding their mutual destiny, without compromise.

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