Femi Kuti: Music with a message
When Nigerian singer, songwriter and saxophonist Femi Kuti inherited the status of Afrobeat master from his late father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the responsibilities handed down were more than musical. Afro-beat, a movement invented by the legendary Fela in the late ’60s, just after Nigeria’s brutal civil war, combined American jazz and funk, Yoruban rhythms and, equally vital, social commentary and vision.”It is the essence of what Afrobeat is about,” wrote the younger Kuti in an exchange of e-mails. “My father had been influenced by all the political and social movements in England and America. He was introduced to the teaching of Malcolm X. There was lots of discussion and debating all over the world, and it made him think about his own country and our leaders at the time in Nigeria. He started thinking he could make a difference through his music, and started being open about these injustices.”
The 44-year-old Femi advances both aspects of Afrobeat, the music and the message. “The Definitive Collection,” released this year, includes such social rallying calls as “Stop AIDS,” and “Traitors of Africa,” a rebuke of corrupt leaders. Kuti wraps his cries in bubbling, mesmerizing rhythms, and mixes uplifting words with his social criticism. “The Definitive Collection” includes a cover of his father’s “Water Get No Enemy,” a celebration of the common people.Kuti is even expanding the scope and reach of Afrobeat. His version of “Water Get No Enemy” features American soul singers D’Angelo and Macy Gray; his 2001 album “Fight to Win” had hip-hop elements, courtesy of rappers Mos Def and Common. And while he embraces the cultural border-hopping ushered in by modern technology, he also points out that African music – and his father’s contributions to it – has a place of primacy in the world’s sounds.”They say the blues came from Africa during the time of slavery. There is a story that James Brown loved Fela’s beat and that this influenced him,” he wrote. And beyond the rhythms, Africa has added social substance to music. “I suppose we have more of a message than Western music.”
Femi Kuti performs July 30 at Belly Up Aspen.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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