Kuti family keeps up Fela’s Afrobeat legacy

Fela Kuti used music as a weapon and constantly denounced the corruption of elites, dictatorship and the power of multinationals.

In the Kuti family, music is clearly in the genes. Nearly 25 years after the death of Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti, his son Femi and grandson Made are taking his Afrobeat sound to the United States.

With their double album “Legacy +”, the father and son duo have been nominated for this year’s Grammys, hoping to win the Global Music category in the US music awards in Los Angeles on Monday.

It is the first Grammy nomination for Made Kuti, 26, but the fifth for Femi, who started his career at the age of 17 alongside his famous father. Femi Kuti’s younger brother Seun Kuti was also nominated in 2018.

The new album is divided into two parts — one for the father, the other for the son, who plays all the instruments on his section, from the saxophone and drums to the trumpet and piano.

“My music is very influenced by what I listened to as a child, that’s obviously my grandfather, my father and my uncle,” Made told AFP in an interview at the Shrine, Fela’s famous Lagos concert venue.

On the stage, shirtless and with a saxophone strapped across his chest, Made bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, who commanded a strong stage presence often with his face painted.

He runs his fingers over the saxophone before leading his group in a rehearsal of “Free Your Mind,” the title track of his first album, released in February 2021.

The influence of rock mixes with the genius of Fela — a potent cocktail of repetitive and hypnotic High Life style, Yoruba polyrhythms, jazz and funk.

Made’s calm and composed attitude contrasts with that of his grandfather, who was all high-energy exuberance. But the lyrics are just as committed.

Throughout his career, Fela Kuti constantly denounced the corruption of elites, dictatorship and the power of multinationals, using music as a weapon.

“People see Fela as a figure of liberty, freedom and justice, the revolutionary mindset of being able to fight for what they believe in,” Made said.

After the release of his anti-military album “Zombie” (1976) during Nigeria’s military dictatorship, Fela’s residence, known as the Kalakuta Republic, was completely razed in an army assault.

Fela himself was imprisoned and tortured several times during his country’s military rule.

“He was by far one of the most talented musicians (…) but also a great source of sincerity, integrity and passion,” said Made.

Street protests

A quarter of a century after his death, Femi and Made Kuti are attacking the same evils, using songs about the daily life of Nigerians as their ammunition.

Nigeria is no longer a military dictatorship since it returned to democracy in 1999.

But corruption, extreme poverty, glaring inequalities and abuses remain entrenched in Africa’s most populous nation.

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In “Different Streets”, Made sings acerbically like Lou Reed: “Grandpa was not predicting the future with his songs, he was speaking about everything he saw, everything that was wrong… How scary it is that we are facing the same problems from the 70’s”.

The father and son attract crowds for their tours in Europe and at the Shrine, which has become a haunt of Fela fans, music lovers and expatriates.

Almost every week they open its doors to the public to provide free concerts.
But their music is not as popular in Nigeria as Fela’s was during his heyday.

Afrobeat and Afropop

These days, Nigeria’s youth prefer to dance to Afropop — a derivative of Afrobeat played by superstars like Davido or Wizkid, who is also nominated for the Grammys this year.

The music biz today is not an industry that Femi Kuti, 59, views very favourably.

“We have to distinguish an entertainer and a musician,” he said.

“Many of these artists don’t write their music, probably don’t write they lyrics… It takes years to become a great musician.”

Afropop lyrics praise capitalism more than militancy, but lately the genre’s repertoire has expanded and lyrics have become more political.

Nigeria’s youth are often described as resilient or even apolitical, but they took to the streets en masse in October 2020 to protest against police violence and poor governance.

During the peaceful demonstrations, which were quickly and bloodily repressed, young people danced to the music of their parents. Fela Kuti’s classic songs of rebellion — “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” or “Zombie” — resounded everywhere.

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