INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo MAY 2011 - by David Hutcheon
CAST A LONG SHADOW
The death of Fela Kuti plunged his band and his family into a lengthy feud that grew into a battle for the man's very soul. Now, his sons Femi and Seun Kuti have settled their differences and forged their own distinct careers. "We understand our father's legacy," says Seun.
In 2002, five years after Fela Kuti's death, his eighteen-year-old son Seun decided to pay an indelible tribute to his father. Inspired by innumerable hip hop videos he'd seen, he visited a Lagos tattoo artist. "This thing was going to be all over my back, you know. But as soon as they put the needle in, I knew there was no way, we had to redesign it. I was screaming, really, and then two girls walked into the parlour. And when there are ladies, you got to show some... you know." And so there are just two words across his back in big mock-Gothic capitals: "FELA LIVES".
Predictably, the senior Kuti's passing left his organisation in a mess, yet fourteen years on his albums keep selling, the New African Shrine nightclub has become a pilgrimage for fans, there's been an award-winning Broadway musical and a full biopic is slated for this autumn. Closer to home, not one but two great Afrobeat acts have emerged from the Kuti family: the first led by his eldest son, Femi, the other by his youngest, Seun. Fela not only lives, his presence endures.
Femi was born in London in 1962, the second of three children from Fela's marriage to Remi Taylor, a woman whose mixed ancestry - black African, Native American, white British - would play a part in her son's relationship with his father's musicians. Ask Femi about his family and his hackles rise, as if Fela's polygamy was a slight against his mother, as if four half-brothers and sisters, his uncles and stepmothers have caused him little but grief.
Twenty years younger, Seun professes to being cool with it all. his mother, Fehintola, a singer, had moved into Fela's home in 1976 and died there thirty years later. "She never left," her son says proudly. "All the beatings, the raids, the humiliation. Not for one day did he leave. I wondered why, because she was always complaining. I think it was because I looked like my dad that she used to kick my arse so much."
In 1984, Fela was imprisoned ahead of an American tour. So Femi made his debut as bandleader at the Hollywood Bowl, the show went on. By 1986, however, he had quit Egypt 80, primarily to prove he was his own man with his own band, Positive Force. Father and son did not speak for five years. "I'm not worried about that," he says today. "We fell out and we came back together in 1991. We were friends. Fela made it clear before he died that he was proud of what I was doing."
By 1991, eight-year-old Seun was part of his father's band. On the last tour, in 1992, he was opening shows. "One song, ten minutes. For me, Friday nights at the Shrine were an opportunity to stay up all night when my friends had to go to bed. I'd go on stage about two in the morning, Fela would come on at two-thirty and play until six. I loved it."
Fela's death, however, looked like the end of the road for Egypt 80. "We thought Femi could lead the band," says Lekan Animashaun, Fela's musical director since 1979, "but he said he was not ready to keep two bands. Now I can see it was because of the kind of character he was: no respect for his elders, hot-tempered, arrogant. Those are not the qualities of a bandleader. Femi comes from two different worlds: the black man, the white woman."
"He [Animashaun] said it was because my mother was white," responds Femi, his voice rising in anger. "That I wasn't a full-blooded Nigerian, so they could not accept me. They just came up with stupid reasons. I think it was because they knew they couldn't manipulate me but they could manipulate my younger brother." For eight years, the family would be at war.
"What were they fighting for?" wonders drummer Tony Allen, who quit the band in 1979. "The legacy had been left for them. Some of them guys, there's no point in talking about them, they don't know anything. I don't see Femi as white, white white. So what if he has some small behaviours like a Western man, some white in the blood? There's nothing wrong with that."
Fela's brother Beko was managing Egypt 80 at the time, but Seun feared for the group. "My uncles weren't musicians, they hadn't supported my siblings. It's hard in African tradition, but I had to say something. I asked if I could keep playing with the band, and they said it was up to me. They said some crazy-assed shit, though. Told us it would get too hard and we would end up eating sand."
Femi was unhappy. "It's not their name, it's not their music, it's not their band. It's all my father's. If they want to use my father's name, I have to be consulted, I can't forget those stupid old men. My younger brother took me to court with my uncle because Beko wanted to be an administrator. We said, 'No, Fela has enough children.' They knew if I challenged them it would look like I was against the interests of my brother." Angry about how things unfolded, he notes that African tradition means the oldest children - he and his sister Yeni - had seniority.
Lawsuit followed lawsuit. It would take the death of Beko in 2006 before an exasperated legal system banged the brothers' heads together and told them to stop squabbling.
"These battles had to be done," says Seun, "because we needed the law to tell us what we could do." At one point, Egypt 80 had even been banned from playing Fela's music.
"Come to think about it, that is one of the greatest things anybody could do for me," says Seun. "It meant the first thing I did in my life had to be my own thing, not my father's." As a result, when Egypt 80 returned to Europe in 2008, Fela songs like Shuffering And Shmiling only got an airing as support to Seun's own songs, thrilling eight-minute blitzkriegs of intense Afrobeat powered by two rhythm guitarists and five percussionists. The lyrics to Think Afrika and African Problems proved he had learnt well at his father's side, and that summer's Many Things album could stand comparison with any of Fela's mid-1970s classics.
Femi had been even busier. Three albums had come out before Fela's death, but the 1998 release of Shoki Shoki got him noticed. "Nobody expected Fela's son to behave like I did," he says, meaning he was a monogamist who shunned drugs and advocated scientific research to stop AIDS. "Some of my songs were political, and Beng Beng Beng was the only one that could be played on the radio. The government decided I was dangerous and banned it, said it was too sexual." But Shoki Shoki was successful enough to warrant a remix LP and collaborations with Mos Def and Common on sequel Fight To Win.
Seun, too, fell foul of the law in a faint echo of his father's plight in 1974. "I was arrested for having just one joint of weed in my house. Twenty operatives came to my house without any warrant, burnt the house down, arrested me, arrested everybody in the house. I'm not a drug dealer, I'm a musician." He looks sheepish.
In the summer of 2009, Seun found himself without a producer, manager or label, but picking up dates at festivals curated by Brian Eno, long an Afrobeat enthusiast. "I told him I didn't have any money but that I'd really like him to produce me, and he just told me to record it and bring it to him. He did it for nothing, which is all I could afford." In August, Egypt 80 played the Back2Black festival in Rio de Janeiro, then booked into a studio for four days, recording seven new tracks live in fifty hours. He then handed the results over to Eno in London.
"There was nothing unusual going on at all. My friends wondered if he'd hypnotised me, done card tricks... I promise you, it was all recorded before he got to hear it and all he did was open the sound up in different ways."
Like his father, Seun will take flight on sudden stream-of-consciousness rants that are as hilarious as they are provocative, winding through several stages before suddenly making a valid point about the state of Africa. He is watching Blackburn v West Bromwich Albion; he is happy with the way his team, Arsenal, is performing this season; but Arsenal fans are always moaning; they can't compete with the money foreign owners are pumping into other clubs. "Foreign investment is not the way to build any economy, especially one like Africa's. We are not a buying continent, we are a continent that has. It's just because of the greed of the few who benefit because of the flagrant disregard for human rights and equality."
Seun's head is full of ideas for the future: a British tour in April, getting his new album From Africa With Fury: Rise heard in Nigeria, even recording the songs his father had written but never committed to tape: "My band is the only band in the world that can play those songs. Some of them are in their seventies. It is important that we do it quickly before they die."
But the most important is making sure the family that plays together stays together. "There was unnatural space between us. Since then we've gone past that. Now we understand our father's legacy, so we have to guard and protect it. Not just for us but for our children as well."
Fela's musical legacy takes root in America.
Antibalas: Who Is This America? - Having played with Fela alumni Femi, Seun, Tony Allen, Tunde Williams and Dele Sosimi and been the house band for the Broadway musical Fela!, Martin Perna's Brooklyn-based conjunto can fairly claim to have the Africa 70 seal of approval. Here they lay back and let the songs really stretch out.
Kokolo: Love International - Mentored by Antibalas and The Dap-Kings over their ten-year career, Ray Lugo's outfit found themselves covering The Clash's The Magnificent Seven on their third album - the perfect song for New Yorkers who had grown up listening to Fela, punk, reggae, hip-hop and salsa.
Aphrodesia: Lagos By Bus - The first American band to play the new Shrine, Femi's Lagos club, Lara Maykovich's San Franciscan big band (anything up to fifteen musicians, with an awesome horn section) are determined not to sound just like Fela. Betraying their roots in rock, they have even been known to enjoy the odd guitar solo.