If more than a million people go to your father’s funeral, and you’ve chosen the same line of work, you’ve got a lot to live up to.
No one alive can make politics and poverty groove like Femi Kuti with his band, Positive Force. The son of the late Afropop founder Fela Kuti brought his father’s legacy of hard driving, super high-energy, perpetual groove to the Beachland Ballroom Thursday night. With a tight five-piece horn section punching out rhythm like mountain peaks blasting through an earthquake . . . what can a white man say?
Femi Kuti will always walk in the shadow of his father. Indeed, that’s how he has cast himself. He plays sax and keys, just like the late Fela did. He’s built the same kind of band, heavy with percussion and horns, but electrified, too, with bass, guitar, and more keys. His vocals are backed by a chorus of women who sing and shake themselves prodigiously.
And again, just like his father, he sings about pan African politics: Africa for Africa is the title of his new album. “Borders arise to keep us forever separated,” he sings. If he weren’t so good, you’d say he’s riding his father’s coattails. And of course to some degree he is. That’s what you do when you carry on a family tradition.
But Femi Kuti has taken up the mantle and wears it well. He sings his own songs, none of his fathers. His lyrics lean a little more on platitudes and generalities compared to the journalistic quality in his father’s real life stories of physical violence, and charges of political and corporate corruption. And of course Femi Kuti is not running for President of Nigeria . . . at least, not yet.
But Femi’s sound is evolved into something distinctive from his father’s. He’s worked with some other performers, like Mos Def, adding a taste of hip hop, like in this tune (which of course—given that Mos Def was not in the house—was not on the playlist Thursday night).
Young Femi also gives his chorus more melodic material, and more meaning to carry. They lend their rhythmic punch just like they did behind Fela’s band, but the son gives the girls a little more of a voice.
Femi Kuti and Positive Force played hard for nearly two and a half hours Thursday night, the only break coming when they left the stage for a minute at what could have been the end of a night already crammed with great music. The crowd erupted, and the band rewarded their cheers with a series of encores. They mostly played music from the new album Africa for Africa (2010), but also played some of his older work, including his hit “Beng Beng Beng,” which you can listen to here:
Femi has one thing over Fela: He’s alive and singing up a revolution now. And just like dad, he is powerfully good at making dance music out of ineffectual government and the struggle of impoverished people.
With a new album to tour on, and with interest in his father as high in the West as ever (thanks to the Broadway musical Fela!, backed by Jay-Z and Will Smith, to Knitting Factory Records’ release of 45 Fela Kuti albums, and to a Focus Features film that went into production in 2010) Son Femi is at a point where he could easily have his art steered toward the commercial by a fashion conscious industry. It would be a shame to have this true expression of culture dumbed down that way, or blended into something easier to sell. (Which is the reason for the clip with Mos Def above, kicking as it may be.)
I don’t pray much, but as one Youtube commentator says in response to a Femi Kuti video,“I pray that [Fela’s] son will stay strong and survive in his musical gifts, and take his father’s hard work to another level without being careless. Watch out for people who try to take this beautiful masterpiece and put nonsense to it. Keep that love for Africa in it.”
There wasn’t any shortage of that Thursday night.