Femi Kuti: Day by Day

By: Jim Welte

Femi Kuti by Nicolas Hidiroglou
The mythology of Fela Anikulapo Kuti is unrivaled in music. As the story goes, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer stood tall in the face of vicious, politically-charged harassment from the government for nearly three decades. His Kalakuta Republic compound was raided relentlessly, including a 1977 incident in which soldiers fatally tossed his elderly mother out a window and burned and destroyed nearly every piece of Fela's livelihood. Despite the raids and countless dubious arrests, Fela endured, smoking massive spliffs while sporting tighty whiteys, delivering a big F-U to his foes in the form of long, sinewy, nasty funk tracks over which he taunted the government and its military. He was the Black President long before Obama. It's the stuff of legend.

But, as with any legend, there's some wiggle room between mythology and reality. The fable makes little space for Fela's frustration and fatigue in his incessant but ultimately unsuccessful battle with a brutal regime. The myth largely overlooks the 1990s, when Fela grew increasingly frail and his defiant message more muddled. When he succumbed to an AIDS-induced illness in August 1997, he was immortalized.

Few have felt that gap between myth and truth more than Femi Kuti, Fela's son and the heir to the Afrobeat throne. Since long before his father's death, the 46-year-old multi-instrumentalist has been the dominant face of Afrobeat, taking his Positive Force band across the globe and releasing five studio albums, a live DVD, a best-of collection and a remix album. His seventh studio album, Day by Day (Downtown Records), hit stores on November 18.

He has had a remarkable career by any standard. Femi has also faced a bitter dose of reality. Shortly after Fela died in August 1997, Femi's younger sister, Sola, died of cancer. Five years later, on the heels of his two most successful records, Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win, Femi was sacked by his French record label, his band split up and his wife, Funke, a dancer and singer in his band and the mother of his 12-year-old son, Omrinmade ("Made"), left him. To cap it all off, Femi's mother, Remi, with whom he was very close, died at the age of 60. As Femi spent time in France recording parts of Fight to Win, rumors swirled back home that he was in an asylum.

"It was a very traumatic period for me," he says. "I was in a lot of emotional pain. I had to be a father and mother to my son. It was difficult leaving him at home to work. It was a very hard time."

Femi Kuti by Mary Grace Dunn
Meanwhile, a revolt of sorts was beginning in his extended family. Seun Kuti, a precocious and talented singer and saxophonist and Femi's half-brother, had aligned with Martin Meissonier, an acclaimed French producer and manager who had worked with Fela in the 1980s. Seun brought in many of his father's instrumentalists and kept the Egypt 80 moniker Fela had given them. Meanwhile, widespread reports in Nigeria told of tension between the half-brothers over the Kuti legacy. Seun's scorching 2008 debut album, Many Things is full of blistering Afrobeat and drew broad acclaim. Femi was widely credited with introducing his father's music to a new generation and ushering in an explosion in global interest in Afrobeat in the late 1990s, but now someone else was demanding a seat at the table.

"People just wanted to start a fight and cause friction," Femi says. "People tried to play with my emotions and tried to make me look bad. I never understood the competition. I never had a problem with him. People have said that I didn't want him to succeed and that I didn't want him to play music. How can I stop him from playing music? Who am I to do that?"

Personal strife was compounded by national chaos. Corruption reigned under Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's president from 1999-2007 and the man who helmed the military when it harassed Fela in the 1970s. Despite being home to one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, nearly 70-percent of Nigeria's 140 million people live below the poverty line, and one in 20 are infected with HIV/AIDS. The 2007 election of Obasanjo's handpicked successor, Umaru Yar'Adua, was widely regarded as fraudulent.

Yar'Adua's election had frightening consequences for Femi and his sister Yeni, who in 2000 had opened the New Africa Shrine, a performance and community space in the vein of their father's Shrine, which was destroyed along with his commune in 1977. In December 2007, after years of peaceful relations with police, law enforcement raided the Shrine and hundreds of patrons were beaten and arrested. As a result of the incident, the 2,000-strong attendance at Femi's thrice-weekly performances at the Shrine dwindled to just a few hundred until recently starting to rebound. "They succeeded in scaring people for a while," Femi says.

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