Femi Kuti: The Nigerian Son

Music Features Femi Kuti
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Hometown: Lagos, Nigeria; London
Album: Africa For Africa
For Fans Of: Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Antibalas

Over the course of the past 30-plus years, Afrobeat musician Femi Kuti has fully emerged from a rather large shadow. After starting off in Lagos, Nigeria, as a member of his father Fela Kuti’s legendary ensemble Africa 70, the bandleader has now established himself as one of the genre’s distinguished figures in his own right.

After spending much of the last decade expanding his musical horizons, collaborating with the likes of Mos Def, Common, Macy Gray and D’Angelo, the Grammy-nominated songwriter returned to his roots this year on his latest album Africa For Africa.

By recording at Afrodisia/Decca, the studio where his father created many of his essential works, Kuti reconnected with the messages and causes he’s long channeled through his work. “With this album, I did not want people to think I’m going more hip hop or more house or more disco,” he says. “I wanted people to understand that I had not forgotten where I had come from. “

After making his last full length Day By Day three years ago in Paris, his reunion with Lagos was more than welcome setting. While the conditions were less than ideal for the album’s recording sessions, it brought Kuti to the “battlefield,” allowing him to get closer to the poverty and politics he has sung about throughout his time as a songwriter—this time with a renewed sense of purpose.

“When I’m recording in Paris it’s very difficult to psych myself,” he says. “I have electricity, good hotel, good studio—then I’m singing about poverty in Africa. That’s difficult. When I’m in Lagos doing this, I’m right there. As we’re recording, the electricity cuts off. We have to think of security; there’s no running water. It’s being there—fighting with the music.”

Fighting and music have been two major themes throughout his life. After growing up in the Kuti household as the son of the ‘Black President,’ there was no way he could’ve not been affected by his surrounding environment. He witnessed the power of music first hand from the person closest to him—a man both exalted as the nation’s unofficial cultural leader and the government’s number one enemy.

As both Fela Kuti’s child and band member, the Nigerian musician watched his father fight for his nation and its people day-in and day-out as a musician and activist. Femi Kuti also saw the negative repercussions of that outspoken dissent, as the country’s ruling government targeted his dad regularly throughout his musical heyday in the ’70s. “I saw his pain,” Femi remembers. “He lost everything. He was one of the richest people and became one of the poorest people. He had a big family, and couldn’t feed his family. When he was that confrontational, I could understand.”

But that aggression never became of part of his own perspective on the social issues that Nigeria still faces. Where his dad approached music and politics as a militant aggressor demanding change, Femi Kuti adopted a more diplomatic approach, becoming his own positive force as an international ambassador, using his own success and family legacy to promote awareness about Africa’s plight.

“I have no reason to be as aggressive as he was, with due respect,” he says. “I feel his pain emotionally, but not physically.”

Femi Kuti’s different approach to accomplishing the same goals started in the late ’80s when he stepped out from under his father’s shadows to start his own band Positive Force. He established himself as a solo artist throughout much of the following decade before becoming Afrobeat’s torchbearer upon Fela Kuti’s death in 1997.

Despite their different philosophies toward confronting Africa’s social issues, Femi carried on the Kuti family’s call for change. For the activist within him, however, it was less about ideological differences than it was the end results. He’s made peace with capitalizing on his father’s influence to a certain extent—not for his own gain, but on behalf of Nigeria and Africa as a whole. “I can use his life and my time to find better ways of finding a solution,” he elaborates with the utmost conviction.

If one thing’s for certain, it’s that finding answers to the oppressive conditions of Africa undoubtedly has been and still remains Kuti’s highest concern. At age 49, he’s less worried about what people think about his music than he is about its impact on the world and the perception it creates in helping his continent’s plight. Making good music that expresses his beliefs is his first priority—both of which have continued to come with relative ease for this Nigerian son.