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Femi Kuti's Family Tradition

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000; Page N17

A FEW YEARS ago, Femi Kuti's "Beng Beng Beng" was banned from Nigeria's airwaves by that nation's military regime. When a civilian government took over last year, the ban remained in place.

For Kuti, such continuity wasn't surprising. After all, a Kuti song being banned by Nigerian authorities is family tradition: Femi's father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, originator of Afrobeat, was probably the best-known, and certainly the most notorious musician, to come out of Africa in the '70s. His politically charged music was frequently banned from state-owned radio even as his recordings proved tremendously popular with the people.

Like Bob Marley in Jamaica, Fela Kuti became the voice of his country's poor and disenfranchised, attacking an endless succession of military dictatorships and repressive civilian regimes in songs that provoked legal harassment, imprisonments and police beatings, all of which fueled further incendiary recordings and even more punitive actions by the powers-that-were. When Fela Kuti died in 1997 (of AIDS), millions of Nigerians lined the streets of Lagos to pay their final respects to a genuine music rebel.

Femi Kuti is following in his father's footsteps, though he's chosen a somewhat different, less contentious path. For instance, "Beng Beng Beng" was banned not for its political message, but for its sexual explicitness. And while Femi's new album, "Shoki Shoki," features such politically informed tracks as "Truth Don Die," "Blackman Know Yourself" and "What Will Tomorrow Bring?," it offers a smartly tempered version of Fela's diehard anti-establishment stance.

Fela seemed to always rage against the machine--in 1977, he even set up Kalakuta, an independent state-within-the-state (actually, his communal home compound and nightclub, eventually crushed in a brutal military raid). Femi Kuti, on the other hand, seems more willing to work within the system: Two years ago, he formed M.A.S.S. (Movement Against Second Slavery), a student-focused activist organization promoting Pan-Africanism and the preservation of African culture and values.

"I'm trying to find a way for people to really understand what is going on in Africa, for our corrupt leaders to look back and see that they are not helping Africa by what they're doing," Kuti explains from Lagos a week before the tour started. "There's no way the masses are going to get them out of power except by violence and yet there is no way to be successful because they have the arms. We know that a revolution will not help Africa, that another war will not help Africa, so how do we get out of this mess we're in?"

For now, there are more questions than answers. "We have to find another way of making [the leaders] understand that everything is wrong. So I'm just brainstorming with M.A.S.S."

Meanwhile, Kuti's focusing on his career and his 16-member band, Positive Force, now in the midst of an extensive American tour in support of "Shoki Shoki." Just released here, the album's been overseas since 1997 and has made Femi Kuti a huge star in Europe, thanks to its kinetic update on Afrobeat, Fela's '70s fusion of African rhythms, radical black politics and American soul, jazz and funk.

Femi knows the old Afrobeat inside out--he played in his father's band, Egypt 80, for 16 years. In the mid-'80s, he fronted it during Fela's frequent incarcerations. Femi also ran Fela's fabled Shrine nightclub, but when he decided to leave in order to form his own band in 1986, the father refused to talk to the son for five years.

According to Femi, leaving was necessary to discovering his own identity. "I was frustrated in my father's band and I could not grow in my father's band. I needed to experience my own failure or my own success.

"And I did not like the way he ran the band, the internal politics, the wives [Fela had married 27 women, many of them his dancers, in a single ceremony]--it was too messy for me. I wanted something far more organized."

In fact, there is great discipline in Femi Kuti's music and life. Though he looks very much like his father--particularly when he's shirtless on stage blowing his saxophone--Femi's image is very much his own. Where Fela was a happy hedonist with a craving for marijuana, Femi gave up smoking and alcohol in 1984. Where Fela had 27 wives. Femi has one, Funke, who dances with Positive Force.

Even the band's appearance represents a departure from the past, as the members of Positive Force dress well and behave politely, a contrast to the wild ambience of Egypt 80.

Though it shares common roots with Fela's classic bands, the bouncy brass-driven sound of Positive Force is slicker, more contemporary, with elements of hip-hop, house, jungle and other electronic dance rhythms. Though songs tend to stretch a bit in performance, album tracks are more concise and radio-friendly (Fela's albums often consisted of one sprawling 30-minute jam per side).

To make "Shoki Shoki" more accessible to American radio, Femi worked on a remix of "Blackman Know Yourself" with MCA labelmates the Roots, a quick session in Philadelphia that drew a studio full of neo-soul stars like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill.

"Meeting them was for me a very exciting beginning," Kuti says. "I hope we get to talk more, and not just about music but about life generally and what goes on in Africa, as well."

Femi Kuti hopes to facilitate an artist-rooted cultural exchange later this year when he reopens the fabled Shrine nightclub in a new location. He envisions it as a spiritual center for Fela's Pan-African message; appropriately, the club will be funded in great part by a massive CD reissue program of Fela's back catalog, including many albums that were never released in America and others that have been out of print for 20 years. MCA will release 10 double-CDs between now and April.

Given the power of bloodlines, no one's predicting perpetual compliance from Femi Kuti on the musical front. Last year, for instance, he refused to perform at the inauguration of Nigeria's new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, which is understandable since, as a general in the military junta in the '70s, Obasanjo was one of Fela Kuti's principal tormentors.

"I think the situation is worse now since the civilian government has taken over," Kuti says. "Thousands of lives have been lost just to maintain his power."

Which brings up the notion of risk: Given the decades of harassment visited upon his father, and the general history of dissent being violently repressed in Nigeria, isn't Femi Kuti worried about expressing himself so bluntly?

"If I cannot say what I want to say because I am afraid, what is my purpose in life? All my father did was speak his mind, and all I do is speak my mind," he says. "If I get killed because of that, then too bad, but I don't think that's the end of it. I am not afraid of dying. I think there is more to life than being afraid. I never let that discourage me."

FEMI KUTI AND POSITIVE FORCE -- Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club; to hear a SoundBite from "Shoki Shoki," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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