While he started playing the saxophone in his father’s legendary Africa ’70 band from around the age of 15, there’s a latter story that signifies Femi Anikulapo-Kuti’s baptism of fire as an heir-apparent of Afrobeat. According to lore, Fela thrust a 19-year old Femi unto the stage at a concert in Paris in 1981, forcing him to play a saxophone solo he’d only recently begun rehearsing and had barely mastered. The nervous young musician didn’t bomb, neither was he spectacular, but the major lesson was that he didn’t crack under (unnecessary fatherly) pressure.
This steeliness would come in handy a few years later, as Femi was thrust into leadership of the band – now known as Egypt ’80 – following the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Fela by the Buhari military regime in the mid ‘80s. Having kept the momentum of Afrobeat alive in the two-plus year-long absence of its key magnetic figure, Femi opted to strike out on his own as a recording artist and performer in the late ‘80s, with the formation his own band Positive Force. Fela, clearly incensed by this move, infamously heckled his son’s first album, ‘No Cause for Alarm?’, publicly declaring his chagrin for it. The two would later reconcile, and Femi released his second album, ‘M.Y.O.B’, on Kalakuta Records.
Over three decades since making that pivotal decision, Femi Kuti has grown in stature as one of the most enduring social truth-tellers of our time, and one of the greatest saxophonists out of Africa. While it’s impossible to escape the shadow of his father, Femi’s achievements have hinged on extending the creative and socio-political legacy of Afrobeat, purposefully advancing the genre’s ethos while also standing out as a distinct, thoughtful person of his own. His 10-album strong discography is proof of his artistic genius and a showcase of his personal ideologies – which are slightly more genial and far more consistent than his father’s.
This Friday, the African music legend will share his eleventh LP, ‘Stop the Hate’, which will also serve as one side in a double album, ‘Legacy+’, with his son Made Kuti. So far, “Pa Pa Pa” and “As We Struggle Everyday” have been released as singles off the album, and they show that the musician is still very much in the business of dissecting social ills and finding new ways to refresh the distinct sound of Afrobeat. In anticipation of the album, we’ve compiled ten essential tracks that chart Femi Kuti’s musical path over the years, all of which are must-know songs for the partly unfamiliar and previously uninitiated. Dig in to Femi Kuti’s legacy below:
‘No Cause for Alarm?‘ (1989)
With his first album, one of the things Femi did was put some distance between himself and his father’s excesses. “Search Yourself”, off side A of the album, is a public service announcement against the harmful effects of vices, specifically drug and alcohol abuse. Its overly preachy, straight-faced proselytising doesn’t land too well, but in the context of Femi’s budding career at the time, this song set the precedent for an artist willing to serve as a moral conscience to millions of Nigerians and Africans, without the complicatedness of habits many might consider as toxic. In a way, it made him less complex, but it also indicated an intent to solely focus on issues. “Search Yourself” also teased Femi’s musical direction, more influenced by the sublime grooviness of the Africa ’70 era than the strident verve of Egypt ’80.
“Theory of Togetherness”
By his second album, Femi Kuti’s vision as a socially inclined artist was becoming a lot clearer. He would carry out the dual duties of ridiculing societal ills caused by inept governmental institution, and preaching cordiality amongst citizens, regardless of creed and colour. Standout track, “Theory of Togetherness”, caters to the latter part of this mission, with Femi positing that the world will only come close to paradise when we all get along much better. On paper, it sounds quite corny, but considering how deeply divided the world is due to various forms of bigotry, religious prejudices and racism, cordiality and mutual respect despite differences doesn’t sound like a terrible solution. Also clearly improved as a composer since his first LP, “Theory of Togetherness” exhibits Kuti’s understanding of Jazz as a foundational element of Afrobeat, with the arrangement hinging on a loose, remarkable synchronicity between all the parts involved.
‘Femi Kuti‘ (1995)
Just like his father, Femi Kuti is a staunch pan-Africanist. The cover for his eponymous, 1995 major label debut album superimposes a map of the African continent on a picture of Femi Kuti holding his saxophone while staring at the camera. Opener, “Wonder Wonder” wastes no time in advocating for African unity, starting off with an intro bridge that remains true till date: “many things dey happen for this world wey go surprise you, confuse you, depress you, turn you wonderer.” On the first verse, he quickly invokes the memory of former Ghanaian president and model pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, invoking history while espousing the potential benefits of unity. The second verse is far more caustic, as Kuti takes aim at the exploitive overtones of religion on the continent. Rumbling right beside him is one of the funkiest arrangements in his entire catalogue, punctuated by delightfully squealing horn motifs, a sprightly rhythmic section and indelible call-and-response chants.
“Truth Don Die”
‘Shoki Shoki’ (1998)
Without being the least bit hyperbolic, “Truth Don Die” is one of the very best feats of songwriting in Femi Kuti’s catalogue, both as a composition and a piece of social commentary. As the opener to his fourth album, “Truth Don Die” set a ferocious, poignant tone for a body of work that’s widely regarded as a tour de force in Afrobeat and African music at large. In an unflinching indictment of society, Kuti rants about the collective penchant for lies to trump the truth, using personification and a fair bit of storytelling to get his point across. His singing is incensed, opening up a delivery dimension he had yet to fully explore till then, and it feels fitting striding atop a viciously catchy groove that will vibrate your bones, even till this day. Whether it’s corrupt government officials lying to its citizens, or the daily dishonesty rampant in interpersonal dealings, “Truth Don Die” works on multiple thematic levels, while hitting a phenomenal musical zenith.
“Beng Beng Beng”
‘Shoki Shoki’ (1998)
After Fela’s passing in 1997, Afrobeat began to witness a renewed level of interest, both locally and internationally. Femi seized the moment with the magnificent ‘Shoki Shoki’, which had “Beng Beng Beng” as its commercial focus track, and arguably the musician’s biggest song till date. Having cut a serious figure over the entirety of his preceding catalogue, this was Femi’s assertion that he was no prude, laying down a straightforward sex scenario over a slightly kitsch blend of Afrobeat and dance music. Considering its continental success, “Beng Beng Beng” is proof of Africa’s sex-crazed society, despite our deeply conservative public outlook – Femi Kuti briefly tapped into that to deliver one of the biggest songs about sex in the last few decades.
‘Shoki Shoki’ (1998)
Months before the release of ‘Shoki Shoki’, Sani Abacha had passed away after nearly five years of being a brutal dictator. That monumental death gave way to proceedings for Nigeria’s third democratic republic, which, unsurprisingly, was partly spearheaded by top military officials. This political make-up stirred up scepticism amongst many Nigerians, including Femi Kuti, who issued out “Sorry Sorry” as his letter of cynicism towards the potential, next ruling class. “Politicians and soldiers make meeting, our country dem wan repair/dem dey make like say dem know say na dem spoil our country,” he sang in irritation. Although he never gets into specific name-calling, he references Fela’s incendiary “Zombie” while claiming there to be no difference between soldiers of the military regime and those seeking office through democratic means at the time. Considering the presidential predicament we’re currently in, “Sorry Sorry” was quite prescient. (For follow-up, see 2018’s “Dem Militarize Democracy”.)
“Water No Get Enemy”
‘Red Hot + Riot: The Musical Spirit of Fela Kuti‘ (2002)
In his vast discography, “Water No Get Enemy” is one of the best known Fela songs, a unanimous classic that easily resonates with listeners of multiple generations due to its accessible, poignant message. On stage and on wax, Femi Kuti has covered “Water No Get Enemy”, but this collaborative effort is a wonderful reinterpretation of the seminal song. In the early ‘00s, Femi was orbiting around the Soulquarian movement, which was an integral part of the invention of neo-Soul and the reinvigoration of Jazz/Soul-inspired Hip-Hop at the time. This relationship influenced his fifth studio album, ‘Fight to Win’, but it’s this cover, off Red Hot’s Fela cover album, that best provides proof of a creative synergy. After an intro cut that reprises the original arrangement, this song slips into an Afrobeat meets neo-Soul hybrid, with Kuti taking the lead in front of the ever-delightful D’Angelo and vocal goddess, Macy Gray. Backed by an all-star band that includes Nile Rodgers and Roy Hargrove, the trio pay respect to Fela’s classic, while having fun with it at the same time, flowing into one another with the same forceful grace water’s unstoppable flow is praised on the song.
‘Africa Shrine (Live)’ (2005)
Even though their relationship had several stresses and strains, it’s undeniable that Femi Kuti idolised his father, so, of course he felt immeasurable pain when he passed away in August 1997. On ‘Fight to Win’, he immortalised the events of Fela’s momentous funeral proceedings on a track named after the fateful year, “‘97”. To fully grasp the emotional weight of the song, you should listen to its live rendition on the 2005 live album, ‘Africa Shrine’. While the in-studio version is aptly glum, there’s a looseness on the live version that allows for an affecting ray of sunshine. After appreciating the fans for making Fela’s burial ceremony an unprecedented success, Femi sings of the uncertainty behind the proceedings, and the passing of his sister, Sola Anikulapo-Kuti, shortly after. “’97 (Live)” is sung from a retrospective perspective, remembering the pain without letting it consume his gratitude. For better appreciation, you should watch video footage of the performance.
“Wey Our Money”
‘No Place for My Dream‘ (2013)
As he’s gotten older, Femi Kuti has only gotten bolder. Though he isn’t extremely combative, a handful of songs show that he’s capable of calling out specific names even while addressing the general ruling class for its ineptness. “Wey Our Money”, the rollicking penultimate cut off his ninth album, addresses political corruption with burning fury. Kuti’s rage is poured out generally, but he also does some name-calling that includes some of the most recognisable political figures in the last three decades, all of which are widely alleged to have diverted public funds whilst in office. This boldface approach is driven by a ska-inflected take on Afrobeat, as Femi Kuti has only continued to tinker with the genre’s confines while pulling in outside influences.
“One People One World”
‘One People One World‘ (2018)
Nearly thirty years after promoting the idea of global cordiality on “T.O.T”, Femi Kuti has clung tighter to his hope of a utopian world with zero conflicts stemming from prejudice. Although he effectively entered into elder statesman territory on his last album, ‘One People One World’, his message largely remained the same, albeit with a wisened edge to his trademark lively delivery. “Racism has no place, give hatred no space”, he admonishes on the title track, a sentiment he’s been peddling throughout his career. This time, his message is given a riveting, fresh new coat with the stunning instrumental arrangement, featuring one of the best and instantly memorable horn themes in his entire discog. “One People One World” is a testament to Femi Kuti’s resilience because, even though the world isn’t changing fast enough (if at all), he’s determined to keep fighting the good fight, as he continues to constantly refresh his chops and strive for musical excellence.
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter