Femi Kuti is an artist and activist to be admired. The premier vocalist, songsmith, sax player and keyboardist renders rich melodies to engage the ear and lyrics that — pulling no punches — prod the mind, heart and soul toward social change.
His music, an enchanting mix of African polyrhythm and jazz-tinged pop, brandishes singular style to deliver a serious message. This akin to such forebears as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and, of course, his legendary father, Fela Kuti.
Indeed, he’s not only the son of the Afrobeat pioneer and political activist Fela, but grandson of women’s rights activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Reflecting on the legacy, Kuti said he considers it a matter of passing the mantle down from generation to generation. “I look at it [as], if my father didn’t speak on it, if [not for] Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, somebody like me would be naive and not even care.” He also cites historic figure Kwame Nkrumah as an influence.
“I would like to see more of Africa building itself, dealing with education, healthcare, roads, [and] provide electricity. Hopefully this will happen in my lifetime.” Importantly, he said he feels he is laying the ground for the coming generation to continue towards improving and empowering Africa. “Youth are the future,” he said.
Kuti’s commitment to social change can be found on his latest album No Place for My Dream, on songs like “Nothing to Show For It” and “Politics Na Big Business.” On the title track he sings: “When you see what is going on in the world today/You will agree that poverty is winning the game/More people are suffering/More people are very poor/The suffering people can’t take anymore…”
At one point, his entrenched stand against Nigerians being sorely disenfranchised resulted in his being banned from the country’s radio stations. His music reached the public just the same.
Government officials couldn’t do anything about the Internet or people being able to listen to him over satellite broadcasts. “You can’t stop music. They came to see me in the club,” he said. Where there was a will to hear him, there was a way, and Kuti was able to find his audience. Eventually, the government gave up the ban.
His activism is borne of a passionate love of and concern for the Mother Continent, but the music, of course, isn’t for Africans alone. Considering his audience, he says that the songs “cut across cultural bounds,” as is made clear by his international success.
Photo by Remi Adetiba
Among myriad appearances around the world, he has performed at the Moers Festival (Germany), the Festival d’Angoulême (France) and the Royal Festival Hall (London). Has also been honored with the World Music Award for World’s Best Selling African Artist. “So many people are aware globally of what’s going on and it makes [my] music more relevant” he noted.
Kuti is currently conducting a tour that takes him to 15 stops in July alone. This includes participating in the Cedar Cultural Center’s “African Summer” concert series, a month-long event that includes an evening with famed singer, composer King Sunny Adé.
Curator of the series Grace Evenson states, “African Summer strongly represents The Cedar’s core mission, to promote intercultural appreciation through the presentation of global music. These internationally acclaimed artists bring together a diverse audience, representing the rich diversity in the Twin Cities. We hope the music of African Summer will bring joy and healing, celebration, and connection into individual lives and the lives of our community.”