The Irresistible Femi Kuti
Nigerian Afro-pop artist, Femi Kuti, plays June 18 during a concert in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Tony Karumba / AFP-Getty Images)
The stage reverberates with funky, groovy and danceable music. A trio of supple ladies enters the stage, gyrating their bodies in the most sensual way, to the applause of an exuberant audience. The venue is the Harare Gardens, Caltex Stage, in Zimbabwe. It is a rare music concert brought up by Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa). The musician is a rare face to this part of the world. But as he wound up his enthralling show, his name — Femi Kuti — is indelibly printed on their minds.
Born June 1962, in Lagos, the son of legendary Nigerian Afro-Beat pioneer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Femi is a musical icon and a worthy successor to his father. Nimble footed, humorous on stage but hard-hitting in both his lyrics and talk, Femi has added a new dimension to the polyrhythmic sound in which his father specialized. Through flawless performances he has added the exuberance of young Lagos as well as the sound of American dance music such as house.
He first rose to fame in 1985 when he appeared in place of his father at the Hollywood Bowl after Fela was arrested at Lagos Airport on a dubious fraud charge. Femi delighted the audience with the same strident saxophone style and self-assured stage presence of his father. By 1987, he had formed his own band, the Positive Force, and their debut album “No Cause for Alarm” was released on Polygram Nigeria. It was an effective blend of soul and jazz with driving percussion and sociopolitical lyrics. He says of his music: “It reflects in my everyday living. I am a stronger believer in love.”
“My music gives hope to many lives,” he continued. “We perform five days in a row and two days are not for shows. We perform to twenty-three thousands of fans every night in Lagos. After every each show people are renewed and have great strength again.”
Femi’s music is intense and it embodies delightful and shindig melodies. The music is an amalgam of the West African fusion of “agit-pop” lyrics and dance rhythms, which has a major medium of social protest for the urban populace.
Like his father, some of his protest songs have provoked the ire of the authorities in Nigeria.
“Music is supposed to give hope and liberate. You see, I will sing music despite what the authorities decides is best for the people. I am not afraid of any force or those who try to prevent me in any way. I am not afraid to die. Even those who kill will die one day.” Femi says, resonating his father’s name Anikulapo (having control over death) Kuti (death cannot be caused by human entity).
The powerful singer says when he performs in Europe and America he is trying to tell them of the crisis in Africa, the corruption and the evil that is going on in Africa.
“I perform in Europe and America to tell them to put pressure to governments in Africa,” he says.
“There is a good 30 years that a number of African musicians have raised critical questions of the way African countries are being governed. There has been a lot of talking of issues of injustices but little justice is being done. The problem of Africa is how many things a person owns, how much money, cars, houses but when we die we will all be put in one coffin,” he says philosophically.
As it is recounted, Femi’s father needed all his ceremonial power on February 18, 1977, when the army mounted an attack on his home — a walled compound of houses called Kalakuta republic. Some 1000 soldiers cordoned off the area, set fire to the premises and viciously attacked the occupants. [Fela Anikulapo Kuti died from AIDS in 1997.]
While his recordings have drawn acclaim, it is during his live concerts that Femi really shines. He is equal parts comedian and teacher. He also showcases his voice as an instrument. Most of his songs touch social issues of human rights, provision of shelter, good education and good governance.
To many Femi holds an indelible mark, the hope Africa needs.
[Femi Kuti’s most recent album, “The Best of Femi Kuti,” was released earlier this year. Other notable albums include “Fight to Win” (2001) and “Shoki Shoki” (2000).]
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