The Sons of Fela: Tradition and Rebellion - Siblings Week


Seun Kuti photo by Benoit Derrier

Happy Felabration Week everyone! From the 10th to the 16th (the 15th being Fela Kuti’s birthday), celebrations worldwide will be held honoring the legacy of the Nigerian Afrobeat legend of political and spiritual self-sufficiency, Fela Kuti.

You Africans, please listen to me as Africans
And you non-Africans, listen to me with open mind

The Ransome Kuti family of Lagos, Nigeria is an overwhelming and powerful tale of extremes in love and rebellion, much of which has been told through two generations of the musically prolific family.

In 1974, after his trip to Los Angeles where he fused James Brown funk, Malcolm X pride, and Hollywood hedonism into a well-rooted, Afro-centric (and recently London-trained) musical sensibility to create the now ubiquitous “Afrobeat,” Fela Anikulapo Kuti seceded from Nigeria to form a self-sufficient compound called Kalakuta, which was “a kind of cross between a Black Panther safe house and the Playboy mansion.”[i] From there he incorporated family life, love life, and music into the same place called the “Shrine,” which was considered either hedonistic, heavenly, or both by Nigerians and any foreigner lucky enough to witness a Fela Kuti performance.

In the 80s, Kuti and his band Egypt 80 were embraced in the West, pushing the civil rights movement forward from out of the 70s with an inward focus on African strife, but letting go in the 90s when hip-hop started to dominate the cultural and political spheres in America and Europe. From one global recession to the next, Fela has been used as a source of comfort and empowerment to those who seek such things in music, and for the last 20 years his two sons Seun and Femi have attempted to give new meaning to the Kuti tradition of bringing truth to light.

If water kill your child, na water you go use

Though Fela trained many years to achieve the technical prowess he did in the 60s, music itself had always been a natural extension of his expression from childhood onwards as he grew up with Yoruba and juju, and as the child of a school principal and a feminist activist, politics and education informed his development. Thus in Fela’s most musically-inclined sons, Seun and Femi, that triple-threat of education, politics, and music became a type of religion; a compass by which to map the course of the world. By now the two have cemented themselves firmly in the socio-political realm of music, but it must be said that the times are more difficult on them now than on their father in the 70s to push any sort of political agenda through music.

To understand Femi and Seun’s frustrations with Africa’s condition, however, is difficult to articulate, but as the inheritor of Egypt 80 (at one time Africa 70), his father’s enormous music collective housed at the Shrine, and the guardian of the Kuti legacy, the task has been left to them to do exactly that in a country that has seen countless years of failed rebellion against the powerhouse of post-imperial state corruption.

I no be gentleman at all o!
I be Africa man original

As of late, both Seun and Femi have undergone serious changes in their sound, an appropriate advancement following in their father’s uneven but always determined footsteps and a reaction to the recent popularity of Fela! the musical, which is slowly bringing the Ransome Kuti family name to the forefront of mainstream Western culture.

The fact that only two of Fela’s children have “made it” so far speaks volumes to the inadequacy of the nepotism argument made frequently with the children of performers, at least in America; Fela publicly insulted his Femi, calling him a mediocre musician, but that only strengthened Femi’s desire to craft his own voice out from the shadow of his father. Seun had always been the favored youngest son, coming up on stage at his father’s shows as a young teenager and eventually taking the helm upon Fela’s passing.

Ah, na so
Time will dey go
Time no wait for nobody

Moving away from the Shrine, which he found objectionable in some ways (lots of sex for the sake of sex, mostly – which he was exposed to consistently as a child through his father’s open nature on the subject), Femi has collaborated with hip-hop musicians like Common, Mos Def, and others in the jazzy mold, and often adds electronic elements to his songs.

Zombie no go unless you tell ‘am to go

But the rift between Seun and Femi, as easy as it is to look elsewhere, has more to do with Seun’s appearance: he looks much more like his father than does Femi, and thus the instinctive favoritism was exercised. Femi’s divergence from the Shrine countered Seun’s embrace of it, and from that point forward (around the death of Fela in 1997), their musical careers would split in two. Afrobeat proper is Seun’s craft and inheritance (although is last album, From Africa With Fury: Rise, was produced by Brian Eno and you must listen to it), while Femi took on Western influences to expand Afrobeat’s appeal worldwide to a market pre-built for hip-hop.

Apart from the impact it had on his sons, Fela’s death contributed to the sudden explosion of Afrobeat artists in Africa who had respectfully awaited the passing of the pedagogue Fela before embarking on divergent musical styles. That his significance is both divine and painfully human (his divisive character traits, the polygamy, furious stubbornness, unflappable control over his musicians’ and dancers’ creativity) brought to new light the power of music and its surrounding culture to captivate an entire nation and expose it to the corruption and oppression. However that political designation to the music of Africa, and Afrobeat especially, worried many upcoming musicians that their expression would be forever trapped in the vein of “national allegory,” a theory that has touched much of Africa’s successful cultural exports; because of the endless persecution and legacy of European colonialism, the country’s most poignant artistic productions that the world defines as African literature, music, and art is by definition allegorical of the African condition; the tragedian loop of a struggling people stuck in the echoes of a collective expression has tested each generation in its commitment to freedom.

Who denounces the U.S. and European multinationals, who pump out our Nigerian oil? They make a handful of rich individuals, who in turn enslave their own people. This is the second slavery

-Femi Kuti

In a Billboard article published this past May, Femi announced that he will be taking a new direction in his music, saying that change is “like the cure so that life doesn’t remain stagnant,” and that he was “bored” of Afrobeat. Such a statement, though seemingly sacrilege to his father’s legacy, is merely an adaptation of the needs of times. Fela knew that traditional African music like Yoruba and juju were not going to appeal to the West, so he studied in England and America to conceive of a true world sound. Femi’s incorporation of electronic and hip-hop music is the reincarnation of that journey his father took, and it remains to be seen what impact the results will have on listeners.

Always looking beyond the scope of the present, Femi told PopMatters that “everything I do is for the future of my kids. As a father, I want to be there to give them all of the advice they’ll need. I don’t care much about myself these days.” Visions of the future may poison some people’s ability to function effectively in the present, but for the children of Fela Kuti those visions are what make the present worth living.

During last year’s Nigerian presidential election, a multitude of Nigerian musicians came out in support of Goodluck Jonathon’s candidacy in a music industry-wide slap in the face to the Kuti legacy. Seun Kuti’s visceral response to his fellow musicians (calling them “Traitors”) may have on the surface targeted the undoubtedly lucrative offerings to those who sang in support of a political candidate – one who had not yet proven himself legitimate – but deeper down it echoed the heartbreak at the center of struggle and music as a single Kuti entity.

It is a known fact that for many thousand years
We Africans, we had our own traditions
These money making organizations
Them come put we Africans in total confusion

Today, President Goodluck Jonathon is planning on raising petroleum prices (Nigeria’s #1 export) in 2012 to provide “safety nets for poor segments of the society to ameliorate the effects of the subsidy removal” and curtail corruptive practices in the Western oil company-sponsored Nigerian political scene. As usual the world is watching to see whether or not the established political nepotism and scandal will topple a burgeoning democratic force in an African country, while Femi and Seun continue to speak out prolifically (they interview very, very well)

And now, with the West looking more and more inclined to act against the powers that be (a recovering democracy needs a 12-step program too), one can only hope that with the help of the Broadway musical Fela!, the probable upcoming Fela biopic by Steve McQueen, and the living continuity of Fela’s legend through his children and grandchildren, his message can only expand upon the breadth and commonalities of political awareness.

[i] Sanneh, Kelefa and Kuti, Femi Transition, No. 85 pp. 114-139 Indiana University Press

written by: Jakob Schnaidt