[5 July 2007]
The political urgency that informs Afrobeat is nowhere better showcased than in the cross-over music of Femi Kuti. In putting together their The Definitive Collection, Wrasse Records selected from all three of Femi’s albums, including No Cause For Alarm (1995), the international hit Shoki Shoki (1999), and the phenomenally successful Fight to Win (2001). Whereas Wrasse’s The Best of Femi Kuti (2005) had only two albums on which to draw, this one has the advantage of highlighting a musical career at least three decades long. The Definitive Collection also brings Femi’s work to international attention at a time when interest in Africa and its cultures appears to be growing. Beyond that, there is the fact that one can never tire of hearing Femi’s unique fusion of traditional African rhythms, jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop and modern dance.
Femi broke onto the music scene in 1978 when he dropped out of school to play alto saxophone in his father’s band. For those unfamiliar with Femi and the musical legacy he inherited, he is the son of the legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Having been born in Abeokuta, Nigeria to parents who were politically active in the nationalist freedom struggle, Fela himself was well positioned to protest neocolonialism on behalf of the Nigerian people. He did so with great gusto and energy, provoking successive governments to label him a threat to the establishment. It was his music that provided the medium for Fela’s protest. Between the 1950s and the 1970s he developed a unique sound he christened “Afrobeat”—an innovative blend of American funk and traditional African rhythms that emphasized the necessity for prompt action in the face of Nigeria’s political corruption. Since his death from AIDS in 1997, his musical efforts have achieved mythical proportions. For Femi, Fela’s legend is one that threatens to overshadow even as it helps to promote the political significance of his own music.
Not to be eclipsed by his father, Femi does as he recommends in the disc’s first track, “Do Your Best”. And his best is incredibly good. Without sacrificing the improvisation techniques that made Fela famous, Femi updates Afrobeat in an attempt to make it, in his words, “accessible” to modern listeners. His songs are shorter and punchier than Fela’s, and just as threatening to Nigeria’s repressive regime. Indeed, “Beng Beng Beng” was banned by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government in 1999 due to its graphic expression of sexual desire. Unlike Fela, Femi advocates safe sex and is active in Nigeria’s AIDS Awareness Campaign. He even founded his own political party designed to circumvent the negative effects of neocolonialism and globalization, calling it the Movement Against Second Slavery (MASS). Although Femi has since distanced himself from the party, his protest nonetheless continues to stimulate social change in Nigeria and elsewhere. If the songs compiled on The Definitive Collection are any indication, it is easy to see why and how Femi’s “best” captures the imaginations of so many listeners at home and abroad.
In its refusal to compile the tracks in chronological order, Wrasse’s compilation discourages us from looking for any kind of linear development. Appropriately, this double-disc compilation opens with—quite literally—Femi’s best, namely: the first track on his last full-length LP: Fight to Win. Not only do the lyrics on this track aptly convey one of Femi’s most important messages, but it also showcases his willingness to integrate American musical styles and collaborate with American artists. The song features rapper Mos Def, who is reputed to have contributed significantly to the underground hip hop movement in the United States. The jazz and R&B influences are palpable here, but so is the traditional African rhythm. Femi asks us to look to the past for the cultural resources that might help to end poverty and suffering in Africa.
From there the compilation highlights some of Femi’s finest musical expressions. “Fight to Win” borrows liberally from R&B to articulate a soulful cry to arms, while “‘97” serves as a eulogy to Femi’s father and sister Sola, both of whom died in 1997. “Traitors of Africa” gets us moving to a jazzy description of the Nigerian people, many of whom struggle to survive in the city of Lagos. As with Femi’s vocals, the saxophone becomes its own instrument—a voice telling a story against the background of a peculiarly African beat.
The second disc focuses on re-mixes, highlighting the ways in which other artists have re-interpreted Femi’s work and shifted it even further into modern house and dub. In addition to providing the Paris City Mix of the black pride anthem “Blackman Know Yourself”, Disc Two offers the Zenzile Dub Mix of “Scatta Head”. With its echoes and reverberations, the track showcases the best in minimalist dub while demonstrating Femi’s knack for conveying political messages without reverting to tired clichés. As with Femi’s night club, dubbed “The Shrine” in memory of his father’s club of the same name, Disc 1 and Disc 2 serve as a tribute to the innovative birth of Afrobeat. Although there can be no such thing as a definitive collection, Wrasse’s compilation deftly moves us through Femi’s efforts in the late 1990s to the popular, internationalist sounds he cultivated most recently. It should come as no surprise that, in addition to having been nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music category, Femi garnered numerous awards in his home country for Best Cross-over Music. Femi takes world music to new heights, marrying potent political expression with addictive rhythms, which, while accessible in his view, refuse to succumb to the culture of consumerism on which the hit single is based in the United States. The Definitive Collection proves both a suitable introduction to Femi and a testament to the significance of music in a world that frequently co-opts dissidence.