.Femi Kuti: Dealing with his father’s legacy and creating his own

Femi Kuti is the son of Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti, the musician who created afrobeat, a style that blended traditional West African forms with the rhythms of funk, soul, R&B, salsa, calypso and jazz. With his band Africa 70, later Egypt 80, he became one of Nigeria’s most popular musicians and an outspoken critic of the political corruption that plagued Nigeria. As his oldest son, Femi was expected by many to take over his father’s band, but he had his own path to follow. 

“I used to do a lot of listening to funk and jazz,” Femi Kuti said. “I liked Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Coltrane. I realized I could never play like them, and I could never play like my father. I didn’t see any sense in becoming a caricature of him. I was groomed to take over his band, but I wanted to control my own journey. I will always have my father in me, but I’d be a failure if I didn’t take control of my life, so I started my own band—The Positive Force. I brought up my son, Mádé, the same way, to be himself and not take over from me. You have to evolve. That’s the beauty of life. My goal is to improve, to show inspiration in every performance, every song, every record.” 

Kuti’s latest album, Legacy +, is a two-record set. Stop the Hate features his band, The Positive Force, while the second album, For(e)ward, is a solo effort by Mádé, who shows off his chops on guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and horns. Both albums showcase the propulsive grooves of afrobeat, with lyrics that address the problems humanity is currently facing. On For(e)ward, Mádé adds elements of rap, dub reggae and spoken word to the mix, helping to expand afrobeat’s vocabulary. “The music is a tribute to my father’s legacy, but we don’t try to sound like him. We trace our family back through seven generations of musicians, even before my father. So, to have my son on the record playing with me, continues the tradition. That’s why it’s called Legacy plus. He’s a great musician, but he has his own band now, so this will probably be his final tour with me,” said Femi Kuti.

Stop the Hate opens with “Pa Pa Pa,” a mid-tempo afrobeat groove, driven along by a relaxed bass line and funky horn stabs. Femi Kuti’s vocal channels a bit of Marvin Gaye as he lists off the failings of governments, before urging folks to get down and dance. The title track features rippling Congolese guitar lines, a solid R&B horn section and a syncopated backbeat from the drum kit. Kuti’s call and response with the singers urges listeners to respond to the worldwide refugee crises with compassion. “Show of Shame” has hits of salsa and R&B in the mix. It takes the Nigerian government to task for getting rich while people starve.  

The music throughout is jubilant, even when talking about poverty, ecological disaster and starvation. Kuti’s last album, One People, One World, included several love songs to his partner. This time, they’re all calls to action, asking people to get involved and help stop the planet’s slide into oblivion. “I see poverty all around me, the moment I leave my doorstep, so I can’t write love songs. I sing about things that bother me. I don’t think a love song is more important than stopping the hate. If other people want to say, ‘I love you, baby,’ that’s OK. I don’t criticize them. Meanwhile, the globe is falling apart. There are killings and kidnappings all over Africa, things some people don’t want to hear about.” 

The songs on Stop the Hate evolved over the last three years, distilled down to their final versions with the help of the musicians in The Positive Force and Parisian producer Sodi Marciszewer. “I’m always incorporating new aspects from the music I love, so my compositions and albums don’t sound the same. I want to show the different dynamics afrobeat can go through,” said Kuti.

“I’ll never say I’m perfect, but I try to improve every day I wake up, both musically and in my life.”

Femi Kuti and The Positive Force, featuring Mádé Kuti, will be appearing at The Independent, 528 Divisadero St, San Francisco on Friday, July 1, at 9pm. More information at theindependentsf.com. 

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