In the Shape of His Father
Anyone who's ever complained about the difficulties of escaping the shadow cast by a parent should be shamed into silence by the story of Femi Anikulapo-Kuti. After all, Femi's dad, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, wasn't just a star in his native Nigeria and many other African nations; he was a virtual demigod prized both for his creation of Afro-beat, an astoundingly hypnotic type of music that mates traditional Africanisms with contemporary Western forms, and his consistent rebellion against the oppression that has long been practiced by the rulers in his part of the world. When Fela died of AIDS complications in August 1997 (he was 58 years old), his home city of Lagos came to a virtual standstill to honor him. Approximately one million people flooded into the streets to watch as his body was transported from his home to an arena to lie in state.
"It was incredible," recalls Femi, speaking from Lagos in a heavily accented voice so melodious his sentences practically are songs unto themselves. "I do not think people in America really understand how famous he was." Femi does. He grew up witnessing adulation that, with the possible exception of Bob Marley, may have exceeded what was experienced by every other popular artist of Fela's time. And when Femi decided to step out on his own as a musician, he initially was pilloried by the very people who'd elevated his father to divine status. It took him years to establish himself in Africa and Europe as a worthy performer in his own right, but he remained little-known elsewhere. And now that he and his band, Positive Force, are finally getting a major push in the States thanks to MCA Records (which just released Shoki Shoki, Femi's debut disc for the company), he's been put in the position of competing directly with his father's legacy. How? MCA issued Shoki Shoki just a week before putting out The Best Best of Fela Kuti, a new two-disc overview of Fela's oeuvre; and over the next month, a period that roughly corresponds to Femi's current American tour, the imprint is set to deliver 20 more vintage Fela albums, out of more than 75 total, on 10 CDs.
This juxtaposition of his work with Fela's leaves Femi feeling torn. He's glad Fela platters that have been tough to find or expensive to purchase in the States will be back in the domestic marketplace. "It'll be very interesting for Afro-beat, because people will be able to hear all my father's classics," he say. But he understands that making his own mark here will be doubly challenging as a result. "It puts before me an obstacle I will have to overcome," he admits.
There are many misconceptions about Femi, not the least of which is that he's young and untested, as celebrity kin such as Julian Lennon and Ziggy Marley were when they first arrived on the scene. Wrong: Femi is 37 years old, with more than two decades of musical experience and three previous albums to his credit. In fact Shoki Shoki isn't even his first American release. Five years ago he issued Wonder Wonder on Taboo, a subsidiary of Motown that quickly folded, dragging Femi's disc into obscurity with it.
He describes his pre-Shoki Shoki catalogue dispassionately. "The first one was from 1989, and it was very lousy," he opines. "I was very inexperienced in the studio. The second one, made in 1991, was much, much better, because I was more relaxed, but technically it was not very good. And the one I made for Motown was not technically as good as I wanted. But the new one is the best of everything. I see it as a step into the future for Afro-beat."
Shoki Shoki bears out this boast, at least from an accessibility standpoint; the recording isn't as mind-blowing and hallucinatory as Fela at his finest. It does, however, manage to compact many of his music's chief attributes into tasty, bite-size nuggets that are served up in English for the benefit of the international audience. Whereas Fela's tunes often stretched out to ten minutes or more on vinyl, and regularly exceeded half an hour when presented live, Femi generally keeps things in the five- or six-minute range, with the album's most extended opus, "Scatta Head," clocking in at just over eight. Likewise he gives his compositions comparatively tight structures. The opener, "Truth Don Die," blasts off on the power of bracing horn riffing that quickly gives way to Femi's assertive singing/chanting (his voice is similar to his father's, but a tad lighter) and the call-and-response assistance of back-up vocalists such as his wife, Funke. "What Will Tomorrow Bring" is introduced by a Femi sax solo and a brass chart suggestive of Quincy Jones's '60s-era film scoring, while "Eregele" sports a pop-guitar figure and pulse-quickening funk jazz. Such stylistic fillips are sharpened in a remix of "Blackman Know Yourself" by the hip-hop act the Roots, just one of the notable stateside acts with which he's collaborated (Lauryn Hill, Common, and D'Angelo are three others). The tune makes clear the connections between Afro-beat and American sounds that were inspired to a considerable degree by the music of Femi's homeland.
Lyrically "Blackman" is emblematic of Femi's approach; couplets such as "Them foreigners begin make war with us/Them fight us and enslave us by force" are impassioned, if perhaps less militant than those of you-know-who. But he's not too proud to leaven combative material with ditties of a less weighty sort. Take "Beng Beng Beng," Shoki's first single, which is explicitly about apolitical boinking: "Beng, beng, beng/To the left, don't slow down now/Beng, beng, beng/To the right, don't come too fast...."
For those who might question him about such material, Femi has a disarmingly straightforward answer. "I did it for commercial reasons," he says. "It is very catchy -- 'beng, beng, beng' -- and it is very simple. And it's quite funny, too. To Nigerians it sounds very funny; we laugh about it. And since in America, they always sing the love songs, it was done to be commercial there."
At the same time, Femi has ambitions beyond providing couples in heat with groovy background sounds. His musical settings are so enticing, he notes, "because the topics of the songs are sometimes very depressing, and if I made the music depressing, it would be too sad, and people might say, 'I do not want to listen to it.' So I make the music so it is like taking a sweet drink with a bitter pill." But he doesn't want people to get one without the other. As he puts it: "I do not want them to think the music is only about dancing. It is not. I want them to take the message also."
Like son, like father. Fela, who went to school for a time in London and embraced revolutionary ideals following an affair with a female member of the Black Panthers, was arrested at least four times in Nigeria for speaking against Nigerian regimes and received numerous beatings that might have killed a lesser man. Yet he was adamant about doing things his own way, whether it be socially or personally. Case in point: After fathering three children (Femi and his sisters Yeni, a member of Positive Force, and Sola, who died of cancer shortly after Fela's passing) with his wife Remi, he left the family to set up a new home he idiosyncratically declared to be an independent republic called Kalakuta. Shortly thereafter he made an even bolder move, simultaneously marrying 27 women who'd been living with him in Kalakuta. This harem can be eyeballed on the astounding cover of the excellent LP Shakara. His brides, seen from overhead, form the shape of the African continent as they hold out their bare breasts to the camera. Fela, meanwhile, sits amid them, clad only in a pair of blue underwear that he thrusts upward in a display of potency as amusing as it is audacious.
When Fela staged his gang marriage, Femi was only eight years old. Although such behavior alienated him from his father, he couldn't deny the power of the ubiquitous music Fela made. He enjoyed American grooves by the likes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, but he loved Fela's sound even more. By the time he was sixteen years old, he'd left his mother's nest and joined his dad's group, Afrika 70 (subsequently rechristened Egypt 80). When Fela was jailed in 1984 on a typically groundless charge, Femi, then in his early twenties, fronted his band for him, and even oversaw the operation of his Lagos nightclub, the Shrine. But after Fela's release, Femi chose to set out on his own, a decision that led to a five-year estrangement between the two. Just as troubling, Femi's attempts to establish himself musically were met with widespread derision.
"At the beginning no one wanted to listen to me," he remembers. "It was a very hard battle, fighting that in a country where my father was totally loved, and nobody wanted to hear his son doing anything except exactly what he was doing. They were very hard, hard years." Still, he insists he never considered going into another line of work. "I know I had to play music, because if I did not do music, it would be a falling off -- and I am happy I have not disappointed myself. Because there is nothing like being a failure. It is a very horrible position to be in -- to not be able to succeed and have people just criticize you all the time."
Things improved after Fela and Femi patched things up during the early '90s, and by 1994, Femi says, "I began to be recognized for my own music. And now my image is very big and is known all over Africa. They talk about my father and they talk about me; they talk about me and they talk about my father. Ironically a lot of young people are learning about my father through me. And that is good, because it is not just about me. It is a heritage."
With Fela's passing Femi has felt increased pressure from those looking for another icon to follow, and on occasion he's been the target of threats not unlike those that were an everyday part of his father's existence. "But I don't think about that," he says. "It discourages you from what you should be doing." To that end he formed a youth organization called MASS (Movement Against Second Slavery) in 1998, and he continues to speak out against what he sees as Nigeria's multitude of faults. Instead of accusing the Western world of ignoring nations like his or Mozambique, which continues to suffer from the aftereffects of devastating flooding, he points the finger directly at African heads of state.
"Africa has done absolutely nothing to get itself heard," he asserts. "Let's talk about AIDS. We have known about it for at least fifteen years, but African leaders have done nothing to let its people know about the disease until recently, and at this point in time it is too late. And it is the same about other African information, which is why I blame the African governments for everything that is wrong with Africa today. How can I blame the foreigners for buying my people cheap when it is the African governments that are selling them cheap?"
In contrast to the despots he so despises, Femi wants to spread what he calls "authentic news" about Africa to the rest of the world. And he's so dedicated to doing so, he's agreed to headline a sizable number of U.S. dates despite a fear of flying ("My life is not guaranteed when I am in a plane, and as an African, I do not like it when my life is not guaranteed"). But he doesn't want anyone to come to see him assuming that he's the reincarnation of Fela. "I am just going to do my best," he says. "There is a limit to what a man can do, and I do not think that I am a god or a superhuman. I just feel things are wrong, and if I have the opportunity to rectify some of these wrongs, I am going to try. Whether I will achieve that, I do not know, but as long as I am alive and strong, I will do that."
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