2004 - Photo by
Femi Kuti is the oldest son of the late Nigerian superstar
Fela Kuti. Fela pioneered the sprawling big band sound called afrobeat. His
45-minute musical tirades against Nigeria's power elite lead to violent confrontations,
and in 1984, the government jailed him on a trumped up currency charge. Femi, who had quit
school to play alto sax in his father's band back in 1978, stepped up to lead the band for
the next two years. In 1986, Fela returned and Femi split off to form his own group,
Positive Force. Continuing in the afrobeat tradition, Femi built around a solid,
six-piece horn section and two strong percussionists. With guitar, bass, drums, keyboards,
and four singer/dancers, his band numbered 17. Like Fela, Femi sang about power politics,
but with a lighter touch, and in briefer form.
While Fela was still active and on the scene, Femi was
constantly being compared to his father. Femi said in a 1995 interview, "It's like a
challenge for me. I know I have a lot to live up to. So if I find that my father works two
hours a day, I will work eight hours a day." The work paid off. After an initial
period of skepticism, Fela became a fan of his son's music, and Positive Force won a solid
following in Nigeria. The band completed six European tours and recorded two albums in
Nigeria between 1988 and 1994, and another in Paris in 1995. Then Femi and Positive Force
debuted in the U.S. as part of the 1995 Africa Fête tour.
Femi's biggest breaks came after
his father's death from AIDS in 1997. As the inheritor of the afrobeat mantle, Femi
found himself in demand everywhere. He had honed his composing and arranging skills and
was rewarded by a record deal with MCA for his excellent 1999 release, Shoki Shoki.
Like his father, Femi speaks his mind in plain terms. "Blackman Know Yourself"
probes the consciences of black people world wide. "Sorry Sorry" decries the
disaster of Nigeria's--and by extension, Africa's--sad and bloody political history. Oddly
enough, the only time a song has landed Femi in official trouble was when he sang a
playful number about sex, "Beng, Beng, Beng." Femi abhors the Nigerian
government's 1999 decision to ban the song. He sees in it evidence of a regime afraid to
address sexual issues. "It's just in the past three months that we have a serious
campaign against AIDS," says Femi. "And now they want to use me as an
ambassador. They want me to criticize my father. I tell them, 'Excuse me. It's not about
criticizing my father. You say you want people to come out and say when they have the
disease, and then you lambaste the people who come out.'" Following well received
U.S. tours in 2000 and 2001, there is no doubt that Femi Kuti will be shaping events in
Nigeria and in African pop music for years to come. Meanwhile, a release of remixes from Shoki
Shoki is bringing African into America's mainstream clubs, and new work from Positive
Force is expected very soon.
Contributed by: Banning Eyre