The Kuti family will never be mistaken for dwelling on the bright side. Even the track listing for Femi Kuti’s 2013 album No Place for My Dream reads like a laundry list of grievances; “Nothing to Show for It”, “The World is Changing”, “No Work No Job No Money”, “Politics Na Big Business”, “Wey Our Money”, and, of course, the title track. “No Place for My Dream”? Just look at the cover of the album—there’s no place for that lady to walk, let alone dream. A slice of African land is decorated only in garbage, and Femi Kuti is pissed.
Refusing to be pinned down by messy African politics or the implications that come with his father’s name, Femi Kuti brings his brand of Afrobeat fury around once again for a feverish swipe against those who insist on protecting a system long since broken, one that makes sure that those who are already down stay down. “When you see what is going on in the world today / You will agree that poverty is winning the game,” goes the opening lines to “The World is Changing”, one of the album’s featured tracks on YouTube. “More people are suffering / More people are very poor / The suffering people can’t take anymore.” The music spins and spins, building upon that musical tradition that repetition combined with the act of filling every unoccupied space with sound will drive out a malevolent spirit. In this case, poverty. Politicians don’t get a free pass either. “As I wrack my brain / Trying to understand politics / Again and again / Politicians use the same tactics,” goes the frustrated rant that gets the ball rolling on “Politics Na Big Business”. He truly sounds beaten down by this point, as if he already used every last shred of energy to question a system that doesn’t answer back.
For all of the cynicism that modern Afrobeat preaches, Femi Kuti tries for the sunny side now and again: “Carry on pushing on / For better living”. And the last track, the instrumental “This Is Only the Beginning”, can only be saddled with a positive ring, even if it has no words. It’s a 1:44 reminder of what you are prone to overlook on an album so loaded with heavy-handed messages: the music. Kuti and his band are tight as a knot, and it’s kind of crazy to think how the music can potentially take a backseat to the lyrics. Triumphant bursts of saxophones are commonplace, and the rhythms are spell-bindingly full. And as usual, the background singers are no slouches either. “Action Time” goes through more metamorphoses than your average trad jazz number, treating the tempos, rhythms, and feels like the rubber units that they are and have the potential to be for so many other musicians. Time for action indeed.
Considering how Nigeria as well as the rest of the continent is cursed with more problems than anyone can count, using one’s music to lock horns with the machine may across as like spitting on a fire. But if we are all taught to believe that it’s the thought that counts, then Femi Kuti truly lays it on the line here, just as he professes all artists should do in times of strife. No Place for My Dream is an aggressively persuasive reminder that, until things start going their way, the people of Africa are going to make a hell of a lot of racket.
// Notes from the Road
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