Different beat: how Fela Kuti’s son and grandson are modernising the dynasty

Figcaption Different Beat How Fela Kutis Son And Grandson Are Modernising The Dynasty
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

T he night 1,000 soldiers descended on Fela Kuti’s home, set it on fire and threw his elderly mother out of the window is etched into his family’s memory and music folklore for ever. On 18 February 1977, Fela’s eldest son, Femi, was at school when the compound – known as the Kalakuta Republic, a raucous commune that the musician had declared an independent state – was raided, a violent retaliation to the album Zombie, Fela’s biting attack on the mindless personnel of Nigeria’s military regime. Femi returned to find friends had been beaten, women raped.

“We all thought my father was dead on that day,” says Femi, who was in his teens at the time. Fela survived, but his mother’s fall proved fatal. “It was like a war zone. It took me several years to overcome that nightmare. Even seeing soldiers on the streets as a young boy, I was afraid they’d attack me because I was Fela’s son.”

Femi is 58 now and his own eldest son, Made (pronounced “Mah-day”), is 25. Made had heard the stories but seeing Fela!, the 2008 Broadway musical, along with the documentaries that have since immortalised Fela’s life, was something else. “I knew how brutal the raids were, but to visualise them is very different,” he explains, “it really impacted me.” He says that the injustice gave him purpose as a musician, to be “righteous” just like his forefathers. “It’s one of the things that drives me,” he adds. “I don’t think I can forgive those past events.”

Father and son are on Zoom from opposite sides of the family compound near Alagbole Akute, a town bordering Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. They don’t have the wild shindigs for which Fela was notorious – “not like that,” Made laughs – though political music is still at the core of everything they do. The Shrine, the club where Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder would show up to see Fela play all night long, and which Femi reopened in 2000, is closed due to the pandemic. But they are about to release Legacy+, a double record comprising Femi’s Stop the Hate (his 11th album) and Made’s debut, For(e)ward, linking three generations of the Kuti dynasty. Femi’s half spans short, sharp shocks of ebullient Afrobeat with familiar themes of struggle; Made’s fires Afrobeat into the future with youthful abandon, hectic brass and his warm croon, as if fronting an alt-rock band.

Fela Kuti performing at Brixton Academy, London, 1983. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

Fela’s legacy is renowned, and complicated. He was the pioneer of Afrobeat, a polyrhythmic fusion of jazz, funk, 70s black power politics and highlife, and a rabble-rousing figure of resistance against corruption whom Femi likens to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. His tell-it-like-it-is songs took aim at the African elites and he lived life large: his shows featured very little clothing, he famously married 27 women in one go, and he smoked spliffs the size of his saxophone. After years of denial about his health, he died of an Aids-related illness in 1997.

It sounds like he was far from a model father too. He refused to teach his son music, insisting that he would achieve success on his own (he was not wrong). When Femi made his first solo record, 1989’s No Cause for Alarm, Fela went around saying that he didn’t like it. His son was rarely the focus of his attention while he was waging his one-man war against the juntas, or ping-ponging between wives. Femi says he doesn’t know whether Fela even felt paternal affection – perhaps an after-effect, he wonders, of his fiercely strict upbringing. “He admired his mother, she was there for his fight, but [their relationship wasn’t] intimate hugging and all that,” says Femi. “My father said he got 3,000 strokes. The slogan was, ‘if you spare the rod, spoil the child’.”

Femi was rarely the focus of Fela's attention while he was waging his one-man war against the juntas

Femi struggled to find his own musical identity at first. He’d played in his father’s Egypt 80 band since his teens and ended up standing in for Fela in 1984 at a show in Los Angeles, when Fela was detained at Lagos airport and jailed for 20 months on bogus charges of currency smuggling. Much to his dad’s anger, Femi resigned once Fela returned from jail, to start his own band, Positive Force. They reconciled in 1990, and Femi says he isn’t resentful, he sees the bigger picture. “[Fela] had this battle with the government, they kept beating him. He came out stronger, he came out fighting. His courage, his bravery, the pain he went through – after all that, I could forgive my personal grievances with him.”

Made finds his grandfather’s mistreatment of his father harder to forgive, but adds: “He didn’t have love, I don’t think. My father would have tried to give him love. He wouldn’t have known how to receive it, because everyone around him was only ever used to collecting from him.”

What upsets the Kutis are the people who took Fela for granted – fair-weather friends, swindlers – who they say diverted his attention away from his family and did not help him when Kalakuta was burned to the ground, or those who want to cash in on Fela’s legacy. “Before there were wives, Fela had an open house policy. Anybody could just come in and stay,” says Femi, while Made chips in that “he was so anti-government, he didn’t see the enemies all around him.”

(L-r) Seun, Made and Femi Kuti performing in Lagos, 2020. Photograph: Bolaji Alonge/Eyes of a Lagos Boy

And don’t get Femi started on Fela’s former drummer, whom he accuses of lying about composing Fela’s drum parts. “Tony Allen never said he wrote Fela’s drum patterns when Fela was alive,” says Femi. “Never uttered those words. Why are you fabricating the truth when the man is not alive to defend himself?” Allen died last year and is not around to defend himself either, but Femi remains resolute. “Fela dies and they start that rumour,” he continues. “That’s… that’s…evil! Yes, Tony Allen did a great job, but he’s paid to do that, as I did when I joined him. If Fela gave me a part, it was my duty to play it as best as possible or get the hell out of the band.”

Life was difficult after Fela died. Femi’s cousin died, then his younger sister, Sola, whose cancer had been misdiagnosed as an ulcer. “And then the African culture says, ‘You are the man, you are not allowed to cry, you are going to be the head of the family.’” The welfare of his musicians and the responsibility of Kalakuta also fell to him. “Then I had to go on tour to make money. And I wasn’t making the kind of money to survive.” He rebuilt the Shrine and that was raided by police, too. “I tell my son: how I got through it, I don’t know. I strongly believe I have angels guiding me.”

There are unanswered questions, but they have helped Femi to do things differently when it comes to his children. “I understood my father, I understood his fight, but I never understood why he put everybody before his family,” he says. “I know what it means to share your father. I know what is to be rejected. So the minute I started my family, I gave them the best.”

M ade was two when Fela died. His grandfather came to his naming ceremony and called him “Afolabi”, meaning “born into greatness”, though his “first real connection” with Fela was when his dad handed him his entire discography and said: “Learn the horn lines.” Now Made has played every instrument on his album. In 2014 he followed in Fela’s footsteps to Trinity Laban conservatoire in London. There, he befriended young jazz artists such as fellow saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso, who shared an affinity for Afrobeat. “In Lagos, the first question among people my age would be, ‘Do you like women like your grandfather?’” says Made. But in London, “I met so many peers who were influenced by his music and the legacy of his struggle.”

One of the biggest sounds to emerge from west Africa and dominate the global pop charts in recent years is Afrobeats (with an “s”), a slick fusion of west African pop, US R&B and dancehall, though the Kutis have said it bears little resemblance to its namesake. But they agree that the original Afrobeat is a lot more influential than it’s given credit for, whether it’s in the music of Beyoncé or the UK jazz scene. “Definitely! Most of the hip-hop [artists] are inspired by Fela,” says Femi. “[Also] Miles Davis and James Brown.” And now, even Chris Martin – Femi co-wrote and Made played on the Coldplay song Arabesque from their 2019 album, Everyday Life.

That’s about as mainstream as the Kutis get. Femi once made an R&B-laced album with rappers like Mos Def and Common (Fight to Win in 2001) but for Legacy+ he and Made enlisted long-time Fela producer Sodi Marciszewer for a more authentic sound. Like Fela’s, their music bears a strong social conscience, which they know is “not going to make the kind of money a pop singer will,” says Femi. But integrity is everything. “These are the sacrifices you have to live with.” Made chimes in agreement. “I was ready to stick to what I believed in.”

In many ways, Nigeria today is worse than in the 70s and 80s. We are more misinformed, and more confident in being wrong

And that doesn’t just go for music. Last October, they stepped in when an #EndSars protest – the social justice movement calling for an end to the violent rogue police division that targets Nigerian youths – got out of hand. Thousands were marching to the police barracks near the Kutis’ home when the police started firing into the crowd. “On hearing this, my dad walked over to the station,” said Made, and the protesters followed. “Because of his status, he was able to negotiate with the police to release some of the people that they arrested. Luckily, where we were, there were no casualties. But that can’t be said for anywhere else.”

Made says not much has changed since Fela’s era. He has a song to this effect, Different Streets, which uses excerpts of speeches from his father about corruption. It is “entrenched in every single social class, from the plumber to the president”, says Made, who has the softly spoken air of a guru. “In many ways, Nigeria today is worse than it was in the 70s and 80s. We are more misinformed. And we are even more confident in being wrong. That is worse… Everyone, in some way, is lying and extorting out from somebody else. There are very few people living totally honestly in Nigeria right now.”

“If we want a better society, we do need to talk about it,” continues Femi. “Why is everybody wanting to leave Nigeria to go to Europe for a better life with their families? I stayed here because I see the potential. And I sing about these things, because I want change. I want genuine change.”

Watch the video for Femi Kuti’s Pà Pá Pà, from Legacy+.

Although some things have moved on. One of Made’s songs is called Young Lady, about the plight of women who are sexually harassed by lecturers in Nigerian universities. It ends in a message of self-love, which isn’t the sort of thing you’d imagine Fela, a vocal anti-feminist, writing. “Maybe not,” he laughs. Fela’s regressive attitude towards women is part of his complex legacy, though the Kutis say that such troubling aspects of his life don’t overshadow his place in the pantheon of musical renegades. “He did significantly more good than he did anything controversial,” says Made. “His music alone was superb, he was a genius,” adds Femi.

Legacy+ feels, in some way, about not making the mistakes of our parents and about putting family first; the relationship between Femi and Made, as well as their music, is full of tenderness. “I hope people will hear the love and intimacy that we share,” says Femi. “My son had to be brought up during this very chaotic time and everybody still asks me, ‘How did he turn out like this?’ I look at him and say, ‘You make me so proud.’ All I did was give him love.”

Legacy+ is released by Partisan Records on 5 February

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