Femi Kuti - Biography
By Nick Castro
Femi Kuti, son of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, was born in 1962, in London, but was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, by his mother Remi Kuti. When he was a teenager he moved in with his father and was soon playing saxophone in his band as well.
In the mid-80s, Kuti was playing in his father's band and was joining him on a tour of the United States. At the airport in Lagos, while awaiting their departure, Fela was detained by authorities on one of the many charges they would constantly throw at him, many say in defiance of his outspoken political stances. Femi was now forced to rise to the challenge and perform his father's parts in their concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The audience reaction was tremendous, as Femit displayed the same confident swagger and brash tone of his father. This appearance catapulted Femi into the eye of the world music scene. It was not long until Femi was being encouraged to form his own band, which he did. His band, The Positive Force, would began to garner attention, but would have to often contend with unending comparisons to his father at every turn. Femi found ways to distinguish himself though, however minute to the casual listener, from the pioneering afrobeat sound that his father championed. One of the main differences was the length of the tracks. Femi would compact his compositions to average six to eight minutes, as opposed to his father's, which would often take up an entire side of a record and even hours in length at live concerts.
Though The Positive Force would record their album years before its release, when it finally saw the light of day, in 1995, it made a big wave in the European and African music markets. Not unlike his father, Femi utilized the funk rhythms of the United States, enhanced by the complex percussion patterns of Nigeria, with the flair and musicianship of jazz. The album Femi Kuti (1995 - Tabu), was released by Tabu Records, a subsidiary of Motown Records. The album's two openers "Wonder Wonder" and "Survival", proved to be the album's strongest tracks. Manu of the same themes that his father touched upon, Femi too talked about, such as freedom, equality and civil rights. The Nigerian government had always done their best to make Fela Kuti's life difficult but were never able to silence him. Femi Kuti followed up his self titled debut album with Femi Kuti & the Positive Force (1996 - Melodie), but it was not until the next year's events, that Femi would achieve his biggest commercial successes, unfortunately it came through tragedy. Femi Kuti was joined on the records by his two sisters, Sola and Yeni. Femi began to undertake several successful tours of the United States.
In 1997 Fela Kuti died, from complications with aids, as did Femi's sister, Sola, shortly after from cancer. These events affected him deeply and he later wrote a song, called "'97", about these proceedings. Femi soon hired his wife, Funke, to replace Sola. His next album, Shoki Shoki (1999 - Barclay), would be his first major breakthrough, with record labels now willing to put real money behind him for promotions. It is also on this album that Kuti can be heard fully coming into his own sound. Kuti also used more pop elements in his music than his father ever did, causing many to call his music afropop as opposed to straight afrobeat. The standout tracks on the album are "Beng Beng Beng" and "Blackman Know Yourself". This was also the album that marked the beginning of Kuti's relationship with dance remix pioneers like Black Science Orchestra and Masters at Work. Kuti was proving himself as a successful band leader as well, taking charge of a group that is over twenty people.
In 2001 Kuti released the album Fight to Win (2001 - MCA), which utilized Kuti's new American collaborators like rappers Mos Def and Common. This marked Kuti's new embracing of rap music and other genres outside the sphere of lagos. Though many have scrutinized this maneuver it proved to be a successful one for him as it opened him up to many new fans and opportunities. The most striking songs on the album are the opener "Do Your Best" and "Eko Lagos". Kuti penned every song on the album and the production is much slicker than any of his previous efforts. This album was also his biggest seller.
Kuti's most recent album, Day by Day (2008 - Mercer Street), Kuti is accompanied by his 13 piece band, which sound like they had spent the last seven years perfecting his sound. Kuti, once again, wrote all of the tunes on this album. He gives some nods to 70's American funk with the combination of b3 hammond organ and wah wah electric guitars. Some staples of his sound though, such as the large brass section, are still prevalent as are his political concerns, as on the song "Tension Grip Africa" and "You Better Ask Yourself". Kuti even utilizes studio technology, like the vocoder, on this album as he adapts more musicality and drops the attempts to connect with rap musicians as he had on previous works. The album also features a guest spot by one of Nigeria's most famous guitar payers, Keziah Jones, who is sometimes called the Nigerian Jimi Hendrix due to his heavy rock style.
There is also a DVD about Kuti called Femi Kuti - Live at the Shrine, which is both a documentary and live concert film. Though Kuti has had to struggle to deal with both personal tragedy and incessant comparisons to his father, he has managed to define himself as a unique voice in African pop music and as a progenitor of afrobeat.