Arts & Culture

Revolution Afropop, Take 2

The progeny of late Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti carry on his legend, and his fury

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• 2,678 words

When twenty-five-year-old Seun Kuti of Nigeria took the stage for a showcase concert in Seville, Spain, last October, it was as if a ghost had entered the hall. Seun was fronting his late father’s band, Egypt 80, orchestra sized and iconic in the minds of some 2,000 world music professionals gathered for the annual womex trade fair. This was Fela Kuti’s legendary Afrobeat sound as few have heard it since the patriarch died of aids in 1997. The Egypt 80 brass section sounded dense and primal, blaring out passages from Fela’s epic composition “Colonial Mentality” over thick layers of interlocked guitars and keyboards, muscular bass, bubbling percussion, and — an Afrobeat signature — high hat sizzling like bacon in a pan. At centre stage, young fearlessly appropriated his father’s trademarks: the tight pants, the bare chest, the occasional dalliance with a saxophone, the rough, taunting, half-rapped vocals that morphed from playfulness to outrage, and the quirky stage moves — in Seun’s case, wildly elastic, almost contortionist. We could have been peering through a time tunnel at the young Fela himself.

Of course, when Fela Kuti was in his twenties he was an unknown. In 1963, he had been studying at the Trinity College of Music in London, and was returning to a hopeful, newly independent Nigeria with his head full of soul music, jazz, and “highlife” — West African boogie. Fela’s early attempts to fuse these genres were innovative but not especially well received in Lagos, where audiences preferred their highlife free of jazz complexity. It was only some seven years later, when, after processing black power, free jazz, and James Brown, Fela created Africa 70 and the funky, irreverent sound we now know as Afrobeat emerged. By the mid-’70s, he was pioneering a new art form with his bold, often profane assaults on Nigeria’s political class, which he portrayed as thieving and squandering billions in oil and other revenues while doing little to improve the lives of ordinary people. Fela’s songs lasted twenty minutes or more, with the maestro conducting his enormous brass section, pounding on a Fender Rhodes keyboard, blowing on his tenor sax, and, when he was good and ready, barking out pidgin English screeds the likes of which had never before crossed the lips of an educated Yoruba man. Songs like “Why Black Man Dey Suffer,” “Expensive Shit,” “No Bread,” “Up Side Down,” and especially “Zombie,” Fela’s lacerating parody of Nigerian soldiers, had no precedent in African music. Musicians were there to praise, to uplift, and entertain. This one seemed hell bent on destruction.

Fela’s courage was rewarded with brutality. In 1977, the Nigerian army raided his commune, the Kalakuta Republic, where he lived with his band, his retinue of twenty-seven “wives,” and various children. His mother was thrown from a window. When she later died from her injuries, Fela and fifty-seven supporters drove through a military roadblock amid a hail of machine gun fire and unloaded a symbolic coffin on the steps of the soldiers’ barracks. The stunt was later celebrated in his song “Coffin for Head of State.” By then, Africa 70 had become Egypt 80, and the music was pricking ears around the world. As he gained international stature, Fela was perpetually harassed in Nigeria, even imprisoned on a currency charge in the mid-’80s, but he could not be intimidated. It took death to conclude his supersized opus, and his grandiose poetry of shaming.

Fela’s story is well told and brilliantly contextualized in Michael E. Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon. Veal’s book might have been the last word on the Afrobeat story but for two things. First, Afrobeat has a tenacity unrivalled by any African musical genre. Fela’s legacy has grown rather than faded since his death, and today there are Afrobeat bands all over the world, at least three in New York alone. And then there are Fela’s sons. Before Seun, there was Femi Kuti, who emerged as an Afrobeat artist in his own right even before his father died.

Femi is the eldest son, born in London in 1962 to Fela’s first wife, Remi. “We had complete freedom as children,” Femi once recalled. “You could talk [to Fela] about absolutely any problem.” Remi removed herself and her two children from the permissive environment of the Kalakuta Republic well before the 1977 raid, but Femi then returned on his own to play saxophone in Fela’s band. He discovered freedom’s limit when he founded his own band, Positive Force, in 1986, and weathered years of Fela’s scorn before they eventually reconciled. “Fela was the only one playing Afrobeat as far as he was concerned,” said Femi.

Femi’s music has always reflected the psychic bugaboos of a rebellious first son. His two internationally promoted studio albums, Shoki Shoki (2000) and Fight to Win (2001), simultaneously revere and reinvent the conventions of Fela’s art. Brassy big band power surges on every song, and there’s plenty of political tough talk. “Sorry Sorry” is an apology to the African continent, because “with these kind of leaders, Africa no get hope.” “Blackman Know Yourself ” and “Traitors of Africa” also carry the Fela banner in their willingness to blame African politicians, not just white colonial whipping boys, for Africa’s problems. On the other hand, Femi boils down the Afrobeat formula to commercial pop dimensions — songs of six to eight minutes, not twenty to thirty — and he collaborates with hip hop and R&B figures like the Roots, Mos Def, and Jaguar Wright, and even allows DJ remixes of his songs.

Even Femi’s performance style conveys a tension between continuity and defiance. Fela onstage was all about don’t-give-a-damn confidence; sublime serenity coloured even his angriest moments. No son can inherit such a progenitor’s aura of originality. In its place, Femi offers dynamism, drive, and openness, but always with the edge of a son who still has something to prove.

On October 15, 2000, Fela’s birthday, Femi and his sister Yeni opened the New Africa Shrine, a nightclub in the industrial Ikeja district of Lagos, where Fela’s old haunt, the Shrine, once operated. The new club can pack in 2,000 people, and, located at the heart of Afrobeat’s fan base, it has done so on a regular basis. A 2005 film by Raphaël Frydman and the accompanying CD, Live at the Shrine, documents Femi as he nurtures Afrobeat’s cultlike following amid a milieu of street vendors, ganja sellers, and free-thinking revellers. Without this hub, Nigeria’s mainstream music industry might well have succeeded in burying Afrobeat along with Fela.

Leapfrogging the complexities of Fela’s family tree, we come to Seun, his youngest son. Seun’s mother, Fehintola, could be Femi’s sister. Seun himself could be Femi’s son, or Fela’s grandson. While Femi was building his band and at loggerheads with his father, Seun was in grade school, coming home to the circuslike household where Fela moved his entourage after the raid on Kalakuta. Seun comes off as the sunny, lovable brat by comparison with his world-weary older brother, but he recalls the same permissive father. “My dad didn’t believe in being like a father to his kids,” said Seun, curled up comfortably on a hotel couch before his concert in Seville. “He wanted to be our peer.” Seun was just eight years old when he accompanied his father and Egypt 80 on their 1991 US tour, which included a stop at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. At that show, Seun set his sights on a life in music. He recalled: “I went to him, and I said, ‘Fela, I want to start singing.’”

He looks at me. ‘You? What you want sing? Can you sing?’”

‘Ah, what you mean, can I sing? Of course I can sing.’

“‘Okay. Sing for me. Let me hear.’ So I sang ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood.’ Well, he corrected some few words. Not key. Not notes. Just words. So he said, ‘Ah, okay, you can sing.’ When we got back to Lagos, we started rehearsing with the band. Boom. That was my audition.”

Seun began singing the opening number at Fela’s Friday-night gigs at the Shrine, a ritual he continued until Fela died six years later. Fela’s death devastated both his family and the band. “Big hole. Big void. Catastrophe. Chaos,” recalled Seun. The Afrobeat king had shunned all medicines in favour of “self-healing,” so his chances of surviving aids — which he had dismissed as a “white man’s disease” and refused even to be tested for — were non-existent. Just the same, recalled Seun, “Nobody thought that man could die.” Fela’s brother and closest confidant, Beko, would have been the logical person to assuage the family’s turmoil. Unfortunately, Beko was in prison at the time for his activism under President Sani Abacha. Seun and Femi have strikingly different recollections of what happened next.

In Seville, Seun recounted a poignant tale of how the family met, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and collectively decided to disband Egypt 80. “Here I am,” he recalled, “sitting in the living room with the family of my dad, and they are basically telling the greatest band in Africa, ‘You are no more important. Just go away.’ And it hit me. Because growing up, my dad used to always say, ‘My band is the most important thing in this world to me.’ Even before his family, even before himself.” On the strength of that, fourteen-year-old Seun summoned the courage to break cultural etiquette and speak up to his elders. “What if I keep playing with the band,” he asked, “and we keep what we make?” Thus began his struggle to lead Egypt 80, despite receiving “absolutely no support” from the family, save his uncle Beko, who backed him upon being released from prison.

Speaking by telephone from Lagos, Femi recalled the family deciding they must do whatever they could to “keep this band alive.” He said he offered to help in this, but the musicians had other ideas. “When my father died,” he said, “the band had a meeting and said that he, Seun, was the guy they were going to support, and they did not want to have anything to do with me. As far as they were concerned, Fela did not give me any blessing.” Femi painted himself and his side of the family as outcasts. This all goes back to his mother, Remi, mistrusted by some in the family, in part because her West Indian ancestry included white people. “They gave all these weird excuses,” said Femi. “My mother has white blood, and Seun was a true-blooded African. Everybody was against me. Even all the press was against me. It was a ten-year battle.”

The brothers’ stories may not be as contradictory as they seem. If Seun and the musicians of Egypt 80 mistrusted Femi and his band that much, plans to make Femi their saviour would have felt like abandonment. However it went down, lines were drawn, and the brother found themselves in opposing family factions.

Seun’s own battle culminated in 2007, with his first recording, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, due out in June. The album was produced by veteran French maestro Martin Meissonnier, a force behind Nigerian juju star King Sunny Ade’s breakout release Juju Music in 1982. The seven grooving tracks on Seun’s CD hew more closely to the relaxed, ultra-funky Fela sound than to most of Femi’s more experimental work. There is nothing as bold as “Zombie” or “Coffin for Head of State” here, but while Seun may not name names he does point fingers. “Afrobeat was created for the emancipation of the black mind,” said Seun in Seville. “Basically, we have rulers in Africa right now. We used to have leaders in the ’50s and ’60s, but you Brits, Europeans, and Americans conspired and sent your cia to kill all of them.”

Seun displays no hard feelings, just states the facts — albeit with impish irreverence, the same light touch he brings to bear on the CD’s catchy “Many Things,” a darkly humorous survey of daily life in Nigeria. “Laughter is the best medicine for me,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean I don’t think about what to do. But you don’t expect me to suicide-bomb myself.” He trash-talks exploitative foreign interests out to plunder African riches in “Don’t Give That Shit to Me,” an uptempo chicken-scratch vamp that culminates in the august, tuneful blare of the world’s most satisfying brass section.

Seun deals with the problem of malaria in Africa (“Mosquito Song”) and the vexing issues surrounding oil in the Niger Delta (“Na Oil”). He finds no good guys in that situation. Oil companies pay off government officials, who turn a blind eye as they pocket money. Meanwhile, so-called freedom fighters kidnap people for cash, then spend it on suvs and fancy clothes. “If I was in the Niger Delta,” Seun mused, “I wouldn’t kidnap white people. I would be kidnapping government officials, man.” Sensing he might have crossed a line, He hastened to add, “I’m not advising anybody to do that.”

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 is a superb debut that promises to make Fela’s youngest son an instant heavyweight in international world music circles. Back home in Lagos, success won’t come so easily. Afrobeat greybeards still view Seun as the kid contender, notching his way up a long ladder. For their parts, both Femi and Seun say their feud is now over. points to the fact that many of the conflict’s supporting players, including both men’s mothers, have died in recent years. “He’s older now,” said Femi of Seun. “I think he realized there was no basis for the fight in the first place. So he came and apologized. What can we do? I cannot just accept his apology.” As of last fall, Seun and Egypt 80 have begun performing at Femi’s New Africa Shrine. While the trust between the brothers remains fragile, they are poised to write a new chapter in the Afrobeat epic, ever tottering between comedy and tragedy.

These days, Lagos pop music is dominated by R&B and hip hop artists who ape the styles and sounds of their American counterparts, eschew political consciousness in favour of raunchy sex play, and earn millions in the process. Earlier in his career, Femi praised hip hop, but he has no patience for the genre’s current superstars in Nigeria, the likes of P-Square, 2Face Idibia, and D’Banj. “I can see the game plan,” said Femi. “The plan is to keep on deceiving the people, promoting songs that are not relevant to my life. Why should I be bothered with that?”

“In Nigeria, the only two Afrobeat bands are me and my brother,” said Seun. “You can’t understand how hard it is to run an Afrobeat band in Lagos.” For starters, few young musicians bother any more to learn guitar, bass, and kit drums, let alone brass instruments. “Even when the government sponsors things,” Seun lamented, “they won’t put on any Afrobeat. They’re trying to make Afrobeat seem like old music, crazy people’s music. My brother’s place is the only place you can go and listen to Afrobeat live, in the whole of Nigeria — incredible. There are at least twenty places in New York where you can do that.”

On December 15, 2007, as both brothers prepared to release new music internationally, and Seun and Egypt 80 planned a summer tour of Europe and North America, Nigerian police raided the New Africa Shrine. “They arrested all the customers and flogged them,” said Femi, “took them to the station, beat everybody.” Two months later, an atmosphere of fear lingered, and attendance at the club was way down. Chagrined but seasoned by adversity, Femi portrayed the raid as a kind of affirmation amid depressing popular apathy in Nigeria. “It shows that Afrobeat can’t die,” he said. “It won’t die with Fela.”