Music Is (Still) the Weapon

Is Femi Kuti the Nigerian Jakob Dylan?
Universal Music France

Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti: The Definitive Collection
Wrasse Records

It's not easy being the son of a musical icon. Ask Jakob Dylan, Damian Marley, Shooter Jennings—or Femi Kuti. The heir to his late father Fela Anikulapo Kuti's Afrobeat throne has a new greatest-hits two-CD set (Femi Kuti: The Definitive Collection) and a new tour, but he just can't escape the comparisons to his dad.

"My father was a great man," Femi says in an email interview. "He fought for his rights again and again and taught us to fight for our rights and not to sit back and accept what was going on. I suppose I am not as rebellious as my father," he concedes. "Having said that, my music does carry various messages about AIDS, injustices, and corruption."

Where Fela directly spoke truth to power, frequently incurring the wrath of the Nigerian government for doing so, Femi has been somewhat more diplomatic in his approach. The younger Kuti has become a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and streamlined Afrobeat's dense, tribal grooves—a mixture of traditional Yoruban chants, jazz orchestration, and James Brown-esque funk—into a more accessible, commercially viable form. Just as Fela worked with Western musicians like Roy Ayers and Ginger Baker, Femi has collaborated with hip-hop artists like the Roots and Mos Def, and has been remixed by international technorati like the U.S.'s Joe Claussell, England's Ashley Beedle, and France's François Kevorkian. His biggest hit, "Beng Beng Beng," reveled in the orgasmic joys of coitus, and he's been marketed as something of a global sex symbol. That's also a part of Fela's legacy, however—as evidenced by sex-positive tunes like "Na Poi" and "Open & Close."

Being compared to his legendary parent is nothing new for Femi. "I get this question a lot," he admits. "Of course, from a Western point of view I will always be in the shadow of my father, but in Africa we don't see it that way." He adds that ancestor worship is an essential part of African culture, so it's natural for Femi to follow in Fela's footsteps. "Music is now a tradition in our family," he says, noting that his son currently plays with him in the band. "In Nigeria [my son] isn't compared to me, he just becomes part of the tradition."

There are differences between the Afrobeat of Fela's day and today's version, Femi says. For one thing, "the time (now) is different to the time Fela created Afrobeat. He was brought up in the swinging '60s and '70s where the political climate was more raw.... He was introduced to the teachings of Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement. This obviously made him think about the whole issue of slavery and colonization and how this had an impact on what was happening in Nigeria. There was a feeling at that time that change was required and he felt strongly that this was his role to do so."

Femi also feels the need to make a difference, but his methodology is somewhat different: "I respected [Fela] for what he did, but it is not always the only way to create change," he says. Another avenue, he adds, is tapping into "influences such as hip hop, salsa, and rap that weren't around in my father's time." In his own music, he says, "I write about what I feel passionate about," whether that's a blissful celebration of sexual intimacy like "Beng Beng Beng," a consciousness-affirming anthem like "Blackman Know Yourself," or a scathing look at politics like "Traitors of Africa." And even with electronica-saturated remixes, he says he feels that "the true essence of Afrobeat that my father created is still there."

Ultimately, Fela and Femi represent two generations of Afrobeat. Both make compelling, rhythmically urgent music that sounds great on records—and is even better live.

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