What’s in a Name?
By John Murph | TheRoot.com
For Afrobeat musician Femi Kuti, finding his place in the music industry means getting past the family name.
Dec. 16, 2008–When it comes to grappling with towering legacies, some scions embrace them; others seek a means of escape. Femi Kuti—the eldest son of the late Afrobeat progenitor Fela Anikulapo Kuti—has balanced the delicate line between hereditary destiny and individual determination for more than a decade. Soon after his father’s death in 1997, Femi helped usher in a renaissance for Afrobeat with his sophomore disc, Shoki Shoki, which contained his breakthrough singles, "Beng, Beng, Beng" and "Truth Don Die." His ascension to heir apparent coincided with the confluence of DJ culture’s fascination with Afrobeat and the emergence of other various Afrobeat outfits around the world.
Although he’s embellished his music with touches of electronica and hip-hop on discs such as Shoki Shoki (Barclay, 1999)and Fight to Win (MCA, 2001), Femi was constantly compared to his father. While oftentimes futile, the comparisons came not entirely unwarranted. He exhibited the same sexual magnetism of his father’s on stage as he fronted Positive Force, his formidable band, and channeled his father’s wild dancing and shronky saxophone sound. Femi was also prone to incendiary political lyrics. While they never got him in the devastating trouble with the Nigerian government as his father’s polemics did, Femi’s lyrics spoke of the struggles and injustices of Africans, unapologetically.
Fela’s shadow has loomed large on Femi’s career, but the artist has taken it in stride. "I’ve never been scared of it; I will always appreciate my father’s legacy," he says. "People always compare me to him. I think it’s important for me to overcome all of that. I know that I have to work very hard to make a name for myself."
In Day to Day (Mercer Street), Femi’s newest disc, his first recording in seven years, the 46-year-old artist succeeds in doing just that. During his recent hiatus from recording, he concentrated on learning the trumpet, his childhood instrument that he long abandoned. "It’s been one of my most desired things to do," he says, explaining that he once took lessons from one of his cousins, but the tutelage abruptly ceased after his cousin disappeared. "I took the time to practice the trumpet because I knew that time was running out, so I was practicing 12 hours, everyday."
The new disc doesn’t reveal any amazing trumpet playing from Femi. It does, however, show a newfound level of confidence. Day to Day paces itself considerably more than its two predecessors, opting for more medium tempos that accentuate Femi’s more contemplative verses. "I think it’s maturity," he explains. "On ‘Shoki Shoki,‘I was 10 years younger; I was more aggressive and doing a lot of experimenting. Now I know where I want to go; I know what I’m doing."
The roguish flirtations with hip-hop and electronica that distinguished Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win have been replaced by subtle shades of reggae and dub. Femi’s tenor voice takes on a weightier, less-frenzied quality, sometimes suggesting a sobriety that comes with age. Take for instance, the title track, on which his measured singing conveys a worldly weariness as he touches upon the daily grinds of the working class. "I think I painted a more realistic picture of daily struggles; I’m talking more directly to the people," he says. "I’m more direct in addressing people’s issues, but this time not giving them hope. They have to find their own answers."
He then points on the melancholy "You Better Ask Yourself," the disc’s emotional centerpiece. Filled with Biblical imagery, he sings of a savior coming to rescue Africa from political corruption but encourages its people "to do something for yourself" instead of waiting for divine intervention. "Why are we the richest continent on the planet and have the poorest people? We have to ask these questions," he says.
Speaking of the historic election of Barack Obama, Femi was hopeful. "We never had dreamed of this in the early ’90s. It would have been forbidden to dream of this in the ’80s. It comes at a very good time, at the turn of the century. It shows a new light; it shows that change can happen."
When asked how he hopes Obama’s presidency will shape the United States’ foreign policy toward Africa, Femi responds: "I hope that the U.S. will stop dealing with corrupt African governments. Any African government that is not doing the right thing for its people, America should cut off support with them immediately."
Interestingly enough, Femi’s father, Fela, was routinely nicknamed "the first black president." This summer, Tony Award-winning dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones brought that mythology to the stage with the off-Broadway production of Fela. Femi says that he hasn’t seen the production but has read about it in the New York Times. He says that both he and his family are elated about Jones’ production.
Also earlier this year, Femi’s youngest, half-brother Seun Kuti, released a blistering, eponymous debut with his father’s last band, Egypt 80. Considering Femi’s absence from recording, Seun’s emergence threatened to steal Femi’s shine, offering yet another person to be compared with. Not surprisingly, there were reports of sibling rivalry—something that Femi argues was more of the machinations of management and members of Egypt 80 than between the two brothers. "They wanted to use [Seun] to make money and use my father’s name," he says. "They were doing things that I could never imagine if my father was alive."
Things escalated to the point where Femi says that he was brought to court with charges that he was trying to sabotage Seun’s career out of jealousy. "The judge couldn’t understand it; they couldn’t prove that I was jealous and that I wanted to stop his career. What had I done?" says Femi.
It’s noteworthy, though, that Seun performs regularly at Lagos’ famous Shrine, which Femi took over after his father’s death. Seun’s band has been playing there since 2006, suggesting that the family drama has quelled somewhat. Can we expect any collaboration between Femi and Seun? ""I don’t know," Femi responds, cautiously. "I don’t know what the future holds."
John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.
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