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The Boston Phoenix Rising Son

Femi Kuti comes of age

By Kelefa Sanneh

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Femi Kuti might never have become a pop star if it hadn't been for Michael Jackson. It was the '70s, and Femi's father, the late Afropop star Fela Kuti, had conquered Nigeria with his heavy grooves and insurrectionist rhetoric. But when Femi wasn't listening to his father railing against the "international thief thiefs" that were plundering the country's resources, he was tuning in to "everything that came out of America: McCoy Tyner, Stevie Wonder, Bob James." And nothing fired his passions like Jacko. "He was so young," Femi remembers. "I couldn't understand why Michael Jackson could play and nobody had given me the chance to go into music."

The story of Femi's father's musical education is the stuff of legend: a young saxophonist travels to America and encounters both James Brown and black radicalism, forsakes highlife (a jazz offshoot that had ruled Nigerian pop for years), and creates the confrontational new genre "Afrobeat."

Femi's route was more circuitous, and he had scant help from his mercurial dad. Over the phone from his home in Lagos, Femi tells me about life with Fela: "He never taught me nothing, nothing! Everybody believes he did, but he never said anything. I just watched him. And any time he composed a new number, I asked myself, 'Why did he use this kind of bass line?' And sometimes, I would build up enough confidence to ask, and he would give me an answer, and I would go back and think about it seriously -- and that's how I found my way to where I am today."

It hasn't been easy, but Femi, who plays the Middle East next Sunday, has found success and respect as an artist in his own right. His new album, Shoki Shoki (MCA), is the most talked-about Afropop debut in years, and it's a minor masterpiece, driven by the lusty single "Beng Beng Beng." Femi's songs are more polished than his father's. And he's agreed to electronica and hip-hop remixes of his songs, something his father never would have approved. But there are also parallels between Femi's style and Fela's, from blustery broken-English lyrics about political corruption to meandering sax solos to a tireless rhythm section.

When I ask Femi whether he thinks he sounds like his father, he is both ambivalent and diffident. "I really would not know. All I'm doing is being myself. I know I do not sound -- no, I sound like my father sometimes, I cannot help it: I talk like him, I dance like him. That is unavoidable. But I know, deep down, that there is a very big difference."

The most striking contrast between father and son may be in their markedly different lifestyles. Fela was known for his love of excess: he took a few dozen wives, smoked plenty of ganja, and ultimately renounced politics in favor of pleasure. Femi, on the other hand, says he's given up ganja and is an enthusiastic monogamist. For him, Fela's demise is more than just a cautionary tale; it's an opportunity for propaganda. "When my father died of AIDS, in 1997, the UN should have capitalized on that to tell people about AIDS, full force! But nothing was done."

In fact, get Femi started on just about anything and his attention eventually turns to politics. When I ask what happened to the thuggish "area boys" who were part of his father's entourage, he explains that his own friends are strictly clean-cut -- but not before launching into a brief history of juvenile delinquency in Africa: "If the society breeds armed robbers and thugs, it is the system that is wrong. You can't plant a bad seed and expect a good fruit, and Africa has been planting bad seeds ever since independence. The teachers are underpaid, they have children; the police is underpaid, they have children; and you want these children to become doctors and lawyers? You're not going to have any doctors and lawyers, you're going to have armed robbers, thugs, killers!"

It's hard to argue with Femi's common-sense broadsides. But if you think this sounds like Fela talking, you're only half right. Despite all his fire and indignation (or maybe because of it), Fela's ideology was always a tangle of contradictions: he railed against authoritarianism while running his own Kalakuta Republic like a feudal estate, he defended Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and he had little patience for the minutiae that define African politics.

Femi comes across as a more pragmatic, open-minded, cool-headed fellow -- perfect for a politician, but slightly less than ideal for a funk superstar. He sometimes seems more like a man at work than a man possessed. But when you're faced with the choppy grooves of Shoki Shoki -- or the high-energy spectacle of Femi's live shows -- it's hard to resist his statesmanlike charms. His sincerity is infectious. "I'm singing about the truth because that's what touches me the most. And when it's about the truth, it cannot fail."

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