Afrobeat star Femi Kuti continues father's legacy
What Bob Marley was to Jamaica and James Brown was to America, Fela Kuti was to Nigeria, and really all of Africa. Fela was fearless; he directlychallenged state corruption and sought to give voice to the voiceless.
The shadow cast by Femi Kuti's father was so vast that entire genres of music have grown up in its shade.
Carrying on that musical legacy has been the central project of Femi's life, even if he had to break away from his father — and stop listening to new music entirely — to do it.
“First, we were very poor, little food at home,” says Kuti, who's performing with his band at the Rex Theater on July 28. “Then, suddenly overnight, he became so huge. I think I was too young to understand. We started to have police problems. We (children) didn't understand that. I remember going to visit him in prison for the first time, crying. ... If I started to worry, my mother would educate us on what he's confronting.
“Everybody loved him on the streets, but the authorities hated him. There were teachers who were pro- or anti- my father, If they were anti-, they'd give me hell. Same with the children, if they were pro-establishment, we'd have fights.”
Things got worse.
Nigerian soldiers stormed Fela Kuti's self-declared sovereign “Kalakuta” compound in 1977, injuring him and throwing his mother, Femi's grandmother, out the window.
“I was coming home from school on that day,” Kuti recalls. “I saw soldiers walking toward there, and I knew it was my father's house they were going to. One of them identified me — ‘That's his son!' — so I ran through the back streets with my friends, and we escaped.”
Kuti's music, which he called Afrobeat, electrified the continent and had an impact that was felt far beyond its shores.
“It's music from an African perspective,” Kuti says. “My father would say it's a combination of African folk songs, traditional music, highlife and jazz.
“The foundation was very solid, built on truth, honesty, sincerity. No compromising. Fighting against corruption.”
Fela Kuti's endless rebellions against authority did not prepare him for his son to rebel against him.
“We had fights when I left his band to start my band,” Kuti says. “It was hard for him to understand. He never taught me how to read or write music. ... I couldn't understand this. How did he want me to become a great musician, without reading or writing music?”
Eventually, Femi found his own voice — long-form funk and improvisational Afrobeat, with a pointed message — which happens to be remarkably similar to his father's.
“If I didn't have some of his attributes, that would be strange,” Kuti says. “I was inspired by my father greatly, and jazz, and we grew up dancing to funk. After awhile, I wanted my voice. To attain this, I decided to stop listening and try to be as inspired from within myself as possible.”
Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.