At this point, it wouldn’t be a long shot to regard Afrobeat as a family heirloom. Not to say the Kuti dynasty holds an exclusivity on the genre’s musical and socially-inclined doctrines, but it’s undeniable that the scions of the late, great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti are the staunchest and most popular apostles of Afrobeat. Femi Kuti, Fela’s eldest son, got his start playing in the Africa ’70 and Egypt ’80 bands in his teen years, before striking out on his own in his mid-20s, and he’s currently building an awe-inspiring catalogue of his own, well over three decades later.
Passing down the tradition, Made Kuti, Femi’s eldest son, got his start playing in his father’s band, Positive Force, in his early teens too. Initially starting with the alto saxophone – just like his dad – and the bass guitar shortly after, Made has developed into a multi-instrumental savant, under the tutelage of his father, as well an educational stint at the Trinity College of Music in London – the same institution his grandfather attended in the early ‘60s. With so much history attached to him, Made is clearly carving out his own ideals as a musician, even though a lot of it is influenced by his trailblazing forebears.
Today, Made officially shares his anticipated debut album, ‘For(e)ward’, and it also serves as one side of the new double-sided compilation project with his father, ‘Legacy +’. Femi Kuti’s eleventh album, ‘Stop the Hate’, is on the other, opening side of the compilation. As its title indicates, ‘Legacy +’ builds off the reputation Afrobeat has garnered in the last five decades. For Femi Kuti, this project is a continuation of his unyielding ethos, as a socio-political activist and a brilliant composer, while this is Made’s novel opportunity to fully acquaint us with his personality and abilities with Afrobeat.
On first two listens, here are four key takeaways from Femi Kuti and Made Kuti’s ‘Legacy +’.
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The Afrobeat soil is fertile
Like many legacy genres built on the back of an “original” sound – e.g. Jazz, Reggae, Highlife, Juju, Mbaqanga – the sonic make-up of Afrobeat is distinct and instantly familiar. Rather than being the basis for monotony, this distinctness creates a challenge for present day Afrobeat musicians to refresh the musical tropes at the centre of the genre, and constantly innovate along its confines, both of which Femi Kuti and Made Kuti achieve excellently on ‘Legacy +’. Both ‘Stop the Hate’ and ‘For(e)ward’ was produced by Sodi Marciszewer, who worked on Fela’s last six albums, during the period when the Afrobeat progenitor was more inclined to label the style of his compositions as African classical music.
While both albums are unmistakably rooted in Afrobeat, there’s a clear variation in how both Kutis approach the genre, each composing and addressing social concerns in his own unique way. The elder Kuti’s half continues his flair for honing in on the thumping verve of Afrobeat, with rollicking guitar rhythms, hard swinging drums, and blaring horn motifs setting the scene for a largely propulsive project. On his part, the younger Kuti comes across as an obsessive, fully consumed musician, decoupling the very foundation of Afrobeat and stitching it back together in whatever way he deems fit. Remarkably, Made played alto sax, bass guitar and percussions on ‘Stop the Hate’, and he played every instrument on ‘For(e)ward’. This range serves him well on his half, as he pulls in jazzy turns (“Young Lady”), folksy arrangement (“Higher You’ll Find”), and he even plays around with Reggae on “Your Enemy”.
As a whole, ‘Legacy +’ is a testament to the infinite sonic possibilities that lies within the musical matrix of Afrobeat; even though the roots for the genre were laid decades ago, it’s become a self-sustaining ecosystem catering to the different sensibilities of its faithful purveyors, both young and old.
Femi Kuti’s unbending fieriness
In recent years, Femi Kuti’s songs have gotten shorter. While he’s never really attempted to reach the unyielding duration of his father’s compositions, the bulk of the Afrobeat maestro’s catalogue is packed with songs that considerably defy the time conventions of contemporary music. On ‘Stop the Hate’, he turns in his shortest spanning album till date, however, it’s not for lack of motivation. In fact, the elder Kuti’s unbending fieriness in the face of constant societal ills is the album’s driving force, but there’s an intuitive focus on ensuring there are no excesses diverting attention from his message.
The overwhelming majority of songs are punchy and pointed, with Femi Kuti’s trademark impassioned croon crashing in after short, attention-grabbing intros. Only the final two songs, aimed at charging young people to take control of their collective social destiny, last beyond the 6-minute mark. With the burning urgency in the shorter songs and the gentle sprawl of its longer ones, ‘Stop the Hate’ comes across as a whole message aimed at the youth of today, from an elder who’s invested in ensuring our generation ushers in a brighter era in the nearest future.
Made’s attempt at being a voice of reason for the millennial generation
Like those before him, Made Kuti has taken a shine to speaking on the socio-political, but if there’s anything ‘For(e)ward’ proves, it’s that he’s fine-tuning his approach to stand out positively. In eight songs, Made Kuti’s writing goes through different variations, from thought-inducing chants to pictorial storytelling. Lead single, “Free Your Mind”, leans into open-ended philosophy, with the only chanted words being, “free your mind and set your soul free.” The line sounds very hippy-ish, but there’s mystical edge to his somewhat round voice that lends it a compelling zaniness.
‘For(e)ward’ establishes Made within the Kuti lineage, but it also sets him apart as a potential voice of reason in an increasingly globalised world. He invokes the memory of his grandfather on “Different Streets” and his father contributes impassioned rants on “Blood”, directly leaning into history. At the same time, he shows a personal understanding of social issues in songs like “Your Enemy”, which addresses police brutality from an attentive point of view, and “Young Lady”, a slow-burner addressing the sexual harassment and abuse that has plagued Nigeria’s public tertiary education system for decades. Made Kuti is clearly looking to drive Afrobeat into the now, and beyond just the political, to ensure that the genre represents as many specific facets of existence that make up Nigeria at any given moment.
Everything was the same
While we’re prone to invoke popular protest songs in dire socio-political times, there are many who still doubt the power of music as a weapon for change. These sceptics often point at the fact that very little has changed in Nigeria, and indeed across Africa, despite the handful of loud politically charged artists the continent has produced. Afrobeat has that same fraught relationship with the constantly gloomy situation in which Nigeria has remained.
Made is officially the fourth Kuti generation speaking to the same issues his great-grandmother and iconic feminist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, spent her life fighting against. Somehow, in the face of the perpetual lack of change, Afrobeat signifies hope for the next generation, and it’s represented in the sequencing that links both albums. Femi Kuti’s “Set Your Minds and Souls Free” segues into Made Kuti’s “Free Your Mind”, espousing similar schools of thought that for change to come, it needs to collectively start from within.
Listen to ‘Legacy +’ here.
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter