Femi Kuti Biography
Nigerian singer, songwriter, bandleader
Nigeria's Femi Kuti calls his band Positive Force, and that name illustrates some of the differences between Kuti and his famous father. Kuti is the son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an icon of Nigerian music whose protest lyrics were a constant thorn in the side of the country's military government, and who often ended up in prison as a result of songs that seemed to portend rebellion among Nigeria's masses of impoverished young people. Femi Kuti carries forward his father's legacy in many respects, but his is a Nigerian music for a different country, one that is making steps toward democracy and trying to get a grip on endemic corruption. Protest is certainly present in his music, but it is measured rather than incendiary.
One of numerous children of Fela, who had at least 27 wives, Femi Kuti was born on June 16, 1962. Some sources place his birth in Britain; others in Lagos, Nigeria. His mother Remi was born in Britain and was of mixed African-American, Native American, English, and Nigerian background. Kuti soaked up his father's pathbreaking "Afrobeat" fusion of American funk with Yoruba rhythms, shaped during visits to the United States in the late 1960s. He took up the saxophone at age 16 and within a couple of years was playing in Fela's band, which featured an entourage of well over 20 musicians and dancers. During a Nigerian army raid on Fela's home, Kuti's mother died after falling from a window—a tragedy he has laid at the feet of Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
The first sign that Kuti might inherit his father's mantle came in 1984, when he stepped in to lead Fela's Egypt 80 band and run his Shrine club in Lagos after Fela ran afoul of the government. At a Hollywood Bowl concert the following year, after Fela was taken into custody at the Lagos airport on the way to the concert, Kuti presented a reasonable facsimile of his father's performing style. But two years later he formed his own band, Positive Force, and the son's music turned out to be different from the father's. (He also gave up cigarettes and marijuana, both of which Fela indulged in heavily.) His first album, No Cause for Alarm, featured his jazz-style saxophone playing and brought him a cadre of fans in France, where he remains popular.
Fela wanted to install his son as a club manager and heir apparent, but Kuti refused, precipitating a five-year period of silence between the two. They finally buried the hatchet after running into each other at a Lagos club in the mid-1990s, but some of Fela's band members never became reconciled to the son's independent career. In the meantime, Kuti recorded several albums for labels in Europe and looked for chances to emerge from his father's shadow. In 1994 he recorded an album, Femi Kuti, for the Motown label's short-lived Tabu world music imprint.
Without support from its moribund label, that album made little impact in the United States. With an eye toward expanding his influence in Nigeria, however, Kuti kept looking for opportunities to record. "An international career is my number one priority," he told London's Independent newspaper. "If I can make money in Europe I'll subsidize my African activities." Kuti toured Europe in 1996 and 1997, and in 1998 he formed a student-oriented political group called M.A.S.S.—Movement Against Second Slavery—that aimed to promote pan-African culture and fired a few shots across the bow of Nigeria's government. "I don't want power," Kuti told the Independent. "I don't care who's in power as long as he provides electricity, petrol, water. The President should be like a houseboy."
Kuti seemed to become more politically oriented after his father's death in 1997, from AIDS-related complications. "When you are born, you are in politics," he observed sardonically to the Financial Times. "Don't fool yourself—that's why the baby cries." Kuti's sister, Sola, with whom he shared both parents and who was one of the original members of Positive Force, also died that year, and it was in the late 1990s that he really became a familiar name on the international scene. His album Shoki Shoki, released in the United States on the MCA label, was his big international breakthrough.
On that album, Kuti avoided the half-hour-long (or longer) jams that his father often indulged in, focusing on catchy rhythms that might generate a piece seven or eight minutes long. He addressed social themes in the widely heard "Blackman Know Yourself," but also had fun with the raunchy "Beng Beng Beng." Kuti's songs attracted the attention of hip-hop and dance remix artists, including Lauryn Hill, as well as Ahmir Thompson of the Roots, who sampled them repeatedly. A host of dance-club remixes (collected on a CD called Shoki Remixed) turned Kuti's songs into true party anthems for a time. Despite these modernizing trends, Kuti rooted his music strongly in Fela's, which at the time was being widely marketed in posthumous reissues. "He is still growing into Fela's shoes, but he hasn't fudged an iota on his father's ferocious funk," noted the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Kuti's attempt to modernize Afrobeat continued on his second MCA album, Fight to Win, released in late 2001; the album featured rappers Mos Def and Common, and showed the results of Kuti's effort to incorporate hip-hop into African music. The album also contained a composition, "97," in which Kuti reflected on the family tragedies of that year. Generally praised by critics, Fight to Win moved the All Music Guide to state that "Kuti has made his first great album." Kuti's ongoing success inspired the recording of a tribute album, Red Hot + RIOT.
In contrast to Fela and his phalanx of wives, Femi Kuti has been monogamously married to his wife, Funke, for many years. She is a member of Positive Force, and the couple has one son, Omrinmade, whose lack of places to go in Lagos worries his father. Kuti has begun to think big about Africa, and its situation. "I know Africa is full of abundant talent which has not developed to its fullest," he told Interview. "I would love to see great Africa rise again. But honestly speaking, what I see in Africa is that young people want to get out because they don't want to get involved in all the gangsterism or the corruption."
"I think that Europeans mistake Africa's anger for desperation," he continued. Sounding very much like his father, whatever changes he had made to his music, Kuti took to the road in Europe and the United States in 2004, appearing at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles and at Guilford, England's Guilfest. "I look like him, dance like him, and even talk like him sometimes," Kuti said of Fela in a Maclean's interview. "I will never run away from the fact that I am his son."
No Cause for Alarm, 1987.
Femi Kuti, Tabu, 1994.
Shoki Shoki, MCA, 1999.
Fight to Win, MCA, 2001.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 29, Gale, 2000.
Daily News (Los Angeles), January 21, 2000, p. L21; August 8, 2000, p. L5; June 22, 2004, p. U3.
Financial Times (London), October 5, 2002, p. 9.
Independent (London), May 7, 1999, p. 13; December 1, 2001, p. 74.
Interview, May 2001, p. 76; November 2001, p. 48.
Maclean's, May 1, 2000, p. 68.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 19, 2002, p. E5.
"Femi Kuti," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (August 9, 2004).
Femi Kuti, www.mcarecords.com/ArtistMain.asp?ArtistId=174 (August 17, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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