Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti ushers his father's legacy into the new millennium.
Chicagoans curious about the legacy of Afrobeat giant Fela Kuti lucked out this summer. By this weekend’s close, two bands led by Fela’s children will have played outdoors here within a few weeks of each other. Youngest son Seun Kuti reinterpreted Fela’s classics with his father’s band Egypt 80 at the Pritzker Pavilion in June; now Femi, already more than a decade into his own career, offers his take on Afrobeat this weekend at Lollapalooza.
“I perform Afrobeat for the love of the music but also as a sign of respect to my father,” Femi recently shared with us while on tour in Europe. “But my outlook is different than my father’s because he had different pressures on him,” he explains, referencing the period in the ’60s that Fela spent in America and the U.K. At that time he immersed himself in the words of Malcolm X and black power, which led him to speak up on sociopolitical issues in his homeland, Nigeria. “So my influences may be different, but we share the same desire to fight for people’s basic rights.”
A similar parallel could be applied to Femi’s particular spin on Afrobeat. Purists can argue whether Seun is the truer musical heir, but Femi—at one point Fela’s emergency replacement as band leader and, at another, his father’s most trusted saxophonist—has been carefully honing a contemporary, cosmopolitan blend of soul and funk since the late ’80s. The Definitive Collection (Wrasse), released earlier this summer, draws from all three of Femi’s albums and shows off his chugging, James Brown–fueled protohouse, neosoul showdowns and rabid political commentary.
Born in London in 1962, Femi quit school at 16 to play saxophone in Egypt 80, the second of his father’s bands (succeeding Africa 70), and never looked back. Similarly, Femi’s own son plays sax in his band. “My son, Made, is turning into a great musician. I would love his children to carry on the legacy, but just because you are a doctor doesn’t automatically mean the son will also become one,” Femi says. Does this create special chemistry? “It can be good and bad,” he says. “I did not always see eye to eye with my father.” Which makes him value even more his musical relationship with Made. “My son just loves music, and I am lucky we are also good friends.”
Although some of the more incendiary issues from his father’s era should have seen improvements by now, government corruption and human-rights violations persist in Nigeria. Only the perpetrators have changed. “Most politicians are still corrupt,” Femi says. “Everyone is out to get what they want at any cost, and this can been seen in every country, including America. We need to all stop and start thinking a little bit more about what we really need as a nation and not what we are being dictated to! Then, maybe, we might see some changes.”
Unlike his younger brother—and unlike Fela, for that matter—Femi has used his fame to address inequalities from within the system. He founded MASS (Movement Against Second Slavery), an organization that has drawn awareness to corruption and exploitative Western business interests in Africa, and holds down a role as a goodwill ambassador to UNICEF.
In contrast to his father’s political radicalism, Femi feels these are also the best ways to address the rapidly growing problems within his home city of Lagos. “In about 15 years, we will have almost doubled in population to 11 million,” he says. “We already had problems 20 years ago with electricity, water and roads, but now it is worse.
“It is so frustrating when we are such a wealthy country with so much oil,” he adds, echoing a refrain familiar to Americans. “None of the money comes back to the people. It all gets exported abroad for a small few to buy houses and expensive luxury goods.” In the end, this is why Femi plays. “Music is a way of getting this message and frustration across. There are many problems in Nigeria with poverty, religion and greed. It’s a bit of a boiling pot waiting to explode.”
Femi Kuti & The Positive Force play Lollapalooza Friday 3.
For more on Lollapalooza, visit timeoutchicago.com/lollapalooza.