By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
They say only when Dad kicks the bucket does Junior truly become a man; but the trappings of phallic overthrow are apparent throughout Femi's career. Femi led Fela's Egypt 80 band in the mid '80s, while his father was imprisoned on trumped-up currency-smuggling charges (today Femi's teenage half-brother Seun leads members of that band in a kind of Fela rap act). Femi, however, wanted to do his own thing upon Fela's release from jail after 18 months, causing a long rift the two eventually mended. Nevertheless, Femi's inevitable kill-daddy impulses have been neatly sublimated into his recent work.
Shoki Shoki's title translates as "stud stud," and the Eurohit "Beng Beng Beng" is dick-as-gun porn-funk belying Femi's image as monogamous good boy in contrast, of course, to Fela's polygamy and promiscuity. ("Twenty-seven wives?" sniffs Femi, who ought to know, in interviews. "Twenty-seven problems.") And most of Femi's compositions, though iced by trip-hop production sparkles, stick to an abbreviated version of the template used throughout his father's 80-plus albums: a rhythmic intro, a horn-driven statement of the composition's theme, a pidgin English vocal section including call-and-response interplay with the chorus, a sax solo, then an outro.
But where Fela named names, Femi sticks to relatively bland antiauthoritarian generalities in songs like "Sorry Sorry," wherein he quotes two of his father's more incendiary and bitterly satiric tunes: "Mr. Follow Follow" and its original A side, "Zombie," the mocking antimilitary number that some believe was responsible for the attack by 1000 soldiers on Fela's compound in 1977, a siege that resulted in rapes, beatings, murders, and the eventual death of Fela's mother. Femi, however, writes songs like "Eregele," which cautions against the "dangerous play" inherent in ice hockey and kick boxing, and "Scatta Head," a sort of observational, have-you-ever-noticed-how? pop song warning listeners that long division, mixing alcohols, and (presumably female) breasts can really mess up your head.
Femi, in all fairness, is no mere "chairboy of the board." His live shows with his band Positive Force are a rousing chip off the old block, and he's been lucky enough to throw his coming-out party in conjunction with renewed international interest in afrobeat and its cousins. Compilations like the U.K. Harmless label's AfricaFunk and the French Comet label's Racubah! and Ouelele reflect and enhance interest in the sort of African jazz-funk being played, for example, by orthodox afrobeat revivalists like New York's Antibalas. But why now?
In his forthcoming Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon (Temple University Press, June), a virtually indispensable study for anyone interested in either Fela or West African popular music in general, ethnomusicologist Michael Veal concludes that "Fela's odyssey will likely be fondly remembered as an episode that, while it accurately forecasted the future problems resulting from the corruption of Nigeria's leadership during the country's economic heyday, is inextricably linked to the halcyon days of that period"an era of "bliss, folly, and sorrow," according to Ghana's Accra Daily Graphic, with only the latter of those terms still relevant today.
One of the great countercultural figures of modern times, Fela visited America in 1969 and returned to Nigeria with both a trans-African point of view and The Funk. Raised by autocratic parents with liberal ideas, he had a career that flourished under duress. From "Lady," which castigates knee-jerk antitraditional feminism, to "ODOO (Overtake Don Overtake Overtake)," a raging critique of Africa's unmandated military governments, not a single note on the Femi-compiled two-CD hits collection The Best Best of Fela Kuti sounds as though it were played in anything other than playfully vehement opposition to the status quo. Most of Fela's work, in fact, lies firmly in the Yoruban tradition of "abuse songs" criticizing bad social or political behavior.
Fela was not working in a vacuum. You can hear his afrobeat almost verbatim in tracks by African musicians ranging from King Sunny Ade (whose guitarist Bob Ohiri played in Afrika 70) and Sonny Okosuns in Nigeria to Bembeya Jazz National in Guinea. Bootsy Collins picked up on Fela in Lagos during James Brown's African tour in 1970, while George Clinton quotes "Mr. Follow Follow" in "Nubian Nut." But nobodyeven James Brown, whose "Hot Pants Road" Veal cites as an example of Fela's influenceplayed Fela like Fela played Fela. Lifting the Brownian motion (as arranged by "Pee Wee" Ellis) during his visit to America, Fela returned it to Africa, where he replaced the music's often goofy sexual content with populist politics. He added Coltrane-ish modality to Brown's one-chord vamps, soul shouts, and chicken-scratch guitar, and gave himself more solo space than West African music traditionally condoned. His wavering sax and piano solos sounded almost sarcastic in tone, as though he were mocking The Man while challenging anyone to criticize his lack of technical expertise.