We have an opportunity to take Africa and the African culture to the rest of the world, and show another side of Africa,” says Afrobeat apostle Femi Kuti, who wants to prove that protest music in the 21st century can indeed have mass appeal. With a new album and an opening slot on Jane’s Addiction fall tour, the 39-year-old descendant of music’s great tighty-whitey-clad agitator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti says now is the time to catapult his message beyond the nebulous “world music” niche. But will musical trends favor his quest?
While the political soapbox was at music’s epicenter in the ’60s and early ’70s, few political artists since then have been able to reach the mainstream. Besides Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” treatise and Rage Against the Machine’s thorn in the side of corporate America, having an exclusive bent on antiestablishment songs has landed most protest acts firmly in their respective genres, with little mass appeal or crossover. Although Kuti freely admits wanting to spread his message to a wider audience through music, the message is what matters to him most. “Music is about having a good time,” says Kuti. “But as long as people listen, my music will always be political.”
As the son of the widely revered Fela Kuti, Femi has had to succeed in the proverbial “hard act to follow.” Born into an elite family in Nigeria, the elder Kuti remained a hugely popular entertainer and agitator for most of his career. Redefining and inventing his own brand of African music, and fusing elements of traditional jazz, highlife, and the soul of James Brown, the elder Kuti dubbed his creation “Afro-Beat.”
His son Femi’s new album, Fight to Win, preserves the tenets of his genre: throbbing basslines, vicious horn breaks, and, of course, African percussion. Collaborations with Mos Def, Common, R&B diva Jaguar, and Beastie Boys sidekick Money Mark add flavor without altering the result — this is still unmistakably Afrobeat. A cursory listen will have you reciting the chipper choruses of “Do Your Best,” “Fight to Win,” and “Walk on the Right Side.” With all the power that political music can have, only charisma separates rebel music from self-righteous whining on wax, and Kuti possesses a lot of charisma. In fact, audiences at his live shows are usually split between those dancing their asses off and those with jaws agape at his stirring stage presence. And the deep sarcasm and pointed barbs that his father created as the hallmarks of Afrobeat are still here. Femi’s teach-but-don’t-preach attitude includes plenty of room for subtle verbal darts at his opponents, namely the Nigerian government led by President Olusegun Obasanjo. “Every song I write and every show I do,” says Kuti, “is about the corruption of African leaders, the AIDS epidemic, poverty, hunger, and the suffering people of the world.”
Bob Marley, as perhaps the most successful “rebel” musician, struck a perfect balance between protest and easily digested sonic fare. With “One Love” and “Jammin,'” he opened up the public’s ears to allow “Burnin’ and Lootin'” and “No More Trouble” to seep in. With Marley as a guide, Kuti plans to do it using the ol’ bait and switch himself: He’ll lure you in with thick, funky dance rhythms and collaborations with hip-hop stars, and then once he has your attention, he’ll teach you about the plight of his people.
The album’s rousing opening track, “Do Your Best,” with Mos Def on a guest vocal spot, incites people to take up the struggle, but also takes a cynical swipe at African leaders’ reputation for idleness, corruption, and greed. “The rich people of Nigeria and many Western leaders pretend that he is doing a good job,” says Kuti, “but the poor man thinks he is doing a lousy job. The masses in Nigeria are having a hard time surviving, and Obasanjo has left the country nearly sixty times since he took power. If he wants to directly deal with the matters of the country, he should stay there to understand those problems better and understand how to deal with them.”
Obasanjo, earlier vilified in Fela’s late-’70s “Army Arrangement,” has been a longtime nemesis of the Kuti family. He led the government from 1976 to 1979, and his re-election in 1999 ended 15 years of military dictatorship in oil-rich Nigeria. In early September of this year, he appeared before a reconciliation commission that examined the allegation that he ordered one thousand of the country’s soldiers to attack Fela Kuti’s compound in 1977. Fela was injured in that attack, and his 78-year-old mother was thrown from a second-story window and suffered injuries that resulted in her death.
Since his father’s passing from AIDS-related symptoms in 1997, the epidemic and its handling by African heads of state has dominated much of Kuti’s work. His new song, simply titled “Stop AIDS,” encourages safe and informed sex, a concept that he says is muddled with mis-education in Africa. “It was not until my father died that people really became very aware of the disease,” says Kuti. “We had heard about it — [first] in the context that it comes from homosexuals, [then] that it is a black man’s disease, [then] that it came from a black man sleeping with a monkey, and so on and so forth. This was the [kind of] information that was coming to the Nigerian people.”
Although AIDS took his father from him and has ravaged his country, Kuti thinks many African leaders have used the disease as a propagandist ploy to distract Western interests from the real ills of Africa. “The real problems in Africa start with the corruption of African leaders,” he says, questioning the value of subsidies Western nations have given African countries. African leaders’ personal coffers grow, he says, at the expense of their country and continent. “Yes, AIDS is a major, major problem,” he argues, “but if we tackle the problems of corruption first, the AIDS epidemic will be eradicated much more easily. There is an AIDS drug now, and we have to get it to the poor people of Africa.”
In his 1966 essay, “The Changing Same,” poet Amiri Baraka called for the next phase of black music to be “a bigger music … of action and reaction … along the entire muscle of a people.” Fela Kuti and his inspired American peers in the ’70s certainly granted Baraka’s initial wish. His eldest son, along with some like-minded American hip-hoppers, now have their chance to further that link between America’s urban-music elite and the jazz and funk from which they draw so heavily. In the final line of the album’s last track, “Missing Link,” Kuti states his plan clearly: “With the music, we’re going to bring Africa back on the world map.”