With the release of his new album, No Place For My Dream, imminent, Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti performed a lengthy set under the drawing down sun at Central Park’s Summerstage. The event was presented by Okayafrica and included openers Sinkane and DJ King Britt before Kuti and the band appeared. Arriving late, I found Kuti already drenched in sweat — the same condition the packed standing room audience must have been in under the beating heat. Over the course of the nearly two hour performance, Kuti and his backing band The Positive Force engaged the capacity crowd with his political and jazzy music. The band included a brass ensemble and a trio of dancers, while Kuti himself swapped between keyboards and saxophone at times. The songs included tracks off the new album and some classics, with lyrics generally addressing corruption and oppression in Nigeria. These are hardly messages that comfortable New Yorkers can relate to, when their days are marred by the placement of Citibike racks or the once possible ban on soda sizes, but the diverse crowd moved along to the music.
Kuti performed a lyrically hilarious but morally upright sexual education song that aimed to have men pleasure their women more (“don’t come too fast!”) AND treat them with respect — the song may be called “Reverse Back” but I couldn’t ascertain that for sure. Not long after came the grand finale — A rendition of Kuti’s father Fela Kuti’s song “Water No Got Enemy”. However there was a surprise as the rapper Common dropped in for some verses. Though he had been observed at the side of the stage earlier, it wasn’t clear Common would be performing. So when he did come up, the audience cheered loudly. His freestyle was a treat but it was a small part of the event. Witnessing Kuti put so much energy and passion into his performance, and to make his message heard, was inspiring. His father’s legacy does cast a long shadow over the younger Kuti’s work, but there is no denying that he embodies the same spirit.
City Parks Foundation provides free and accessible arts, sports, education and community-building programs within NYC parks. Please visit their site to get more information on upcoming events and to donate.