From Fela to Made, in the Kuti family, Afrobeat and militancy in heritage

Among the Kuti, music is a family affair: 25 years after the death of legendary musician Fela Kuti, his son Femi and grandson Made continue his legacy by bringing his committed Afrobeat from Nigeria to the United States.

With their joint double album “Legacy+” (in French “Heritage+”), father and son are nominated for the Grammy Awards this year, the American music prizes, the awards ceremony of which takes place on Monday in Los Angeles.

This is the fifth Grammy nomination for Femi Kuti, who began his career at the age of 17 alongside his father, the legendary Fela. This will be the first for Made Kuti. At 26, he plays all the instruments recorded on the songs he composed for this album, which is his first work: saxophone, trumpet, piano, guitar, drums and bass.

In the Kuti family, another son of Fela, Seun Kuti, was also nominated for the Grammies in 2018.

“My compositions are largely inspired by what I heard as a child, of course the music of my grandfather Fela, my father Femi and my uncle Seun Kuti,” Made Kuti told AFP during an interview conducted at the sanctuary. Fela’s legendary concert hall in Lagos.

On stage, shirtless, tight pants and a saxophone around her neck, the resemblance between Made Kuti and her grandfather is uncanny.

The musician runs his fingers over the family instrument as he leads his group as he rehearses “Free Your Mind,” Legacy+’s flagship track, which was released in February 2021.

We recognize rock influences, but above all Fela’s ingenious Afrobeat, repetitive and hypnotic music that mixes highlife style, Yoruba polyrhythms, jazz and funk.

-Zombie-

The calm and calm demeanor contrasts with that of his grandfather, nervous and exuberant. The words have stayed the same: committed.

Throughout his career, Fela Kuti has consistently denounced corruption, dictatorship and corporate power, using music as a weapon.

“Nigerians see Fela as a figure of freedom and justice, a revolutionary spirit that empowers you to fight for what you believe in,” says Made Kuti.

After the release of the anti-militarist album Zombie (1976), his residence, established as the Republic of Kalakuta, was completely destroyed in a military attack. Fela is imprisoned and tortured several times.

“Fela was certainly one of the most talented musicians, but also an incredible source of sincerity, integrity and passion,” adds his grandson.

A quarter century after his death, Femi and Made Kuti denounce the same evils. Nigeria is no longer a military dictatorship and returned to democracy in 1999, but endemic corruption, extreme poverty, blatant inequalities and abuses persist.

In “Different Streets”, one of his songs, Made sings like an African Lou Reed: “Grandfather didn’t predict the future, he spoke from what he saw (…) c It’s so scary to see that we are facing the same problems as in the 1970s”.

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Femi and Made certainly sing about Nigerians’ daily life, but their music is not as popular in Nigeria as Fela’s.

However, the father and son draw crowds on their tours of European cities, as does the Sanctuary, reopened by Femi in 2000, where music lovers, nostalgic Fela and European expats gather every weekend.

On the airwaves and in nightclubs, however, today’s youth prefer Afropop hits, a derivative of the commercial version of Afrobeat, worn by superstars like Davido or Wizkid, also nominated for this year’s Grammys.

An industry that Femi Kuti doesn’t really see with good eyes: “You have to differentiate between an entertainer and a musician,” he says.

“Many artists don’t compose their music and maybe don’t even write their lyrics,” says the 59-year-old musician.

Afropop lyrics praise capitalism more than militancy, but recently the repertoire has expanded, the lyrics have become more political… just like the image of Nigerian youth.

Nigerians, long described as resilient or even apolitical, did indeed take to the streets en masse in October 2020 to protest police brutality and bad governance, in a historic movement notably initiated by local music stars.

During these peaceful demonstrations, which were quickly suppressed bloodily by the army and police, the young people danced to the music of their parents: “Sorrow, Tears and Blood” (Sorrow, Tears and Blood) or “Zombie” by Fela.

Proof that this genius musician’s legacy isn’t just a family affair. It is also the story of a country.

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