For almost three decades, Fela Kuti was one of the most potent links between young people around the world and the disease, injustice, and corruption that plagues Africa. Starting in the late ’60s, Kuti used music not only to entertain but also to describe the problems facing his homeland.
Kuti’s message, while compelling in its own right, certainly wasn’t new and, by itself, wouldn’t have been enough to sway minds and hearts. His music, however, was another story. Kuti infused traditional African rhythms and folk melodies with the soul of bebop and the fiery immediacy of rock ‘n’ roll to create something wholly new and thoroughly intoxicating. The music by itself, dubbed Afro-beat, was enough to bridge continental divides and stimulate young people the world over. But combine it with an activist message and you truly have the potential for something powerful.
Kuti, however, his life shortened by AIDS, never became a global pop star and never saw his message reach as many listeners as it should have. Kuti saw himself as a musician first and a prophet second. He wasn’t chiefly concerned with musical accessibility and mass consumption. His music was contagious for sure, but, like his message, it could also be discomfiting, with extended jams, atonal harmony, and a free jazz spirit. In the end, Kuti was a pioneer, not a pop star.
Femi Kuti, Fela’s eldest son, is another story. With his first handful of albums, Femi proved he could be a true pop star given time. He showed not only charisma and the knack for a great hook but also the same activist spirit, street cred, and musical chutzpah that defined his father’s career.
Now, on Day by Day, his first album in seven years, Femi has taken one giant step closer to musical prophet status. The songwriting is tighter, the hooks are more infectious, and his lyrics ring truer than ever before, leaving no doubt that he is fully capable of not just carrying his father’s torch, but making it burn brighter and longer.
The musical highlights on Day by Day are largely courtesy of Femi’s 17-piece backing band, Positive Force. The band’s tight horn arrangements and sing-along background harmonies set this music apart from other pop music entries. On “Tell Me” and “Let’s Make History”, saxophones, trumpets, and trombones march together in military lock step, propelling the songs with a swinging soulfulness that would make Berry Gordy holler. Femi’s own saxophone (and trumpet) playing, too, sounds more poignant than ever. On the chorus to album opener, “Oyimbo”, most of the band cuts out and Femi’s horn is like a knife cutting through water, achingly gasping over a burbling bass line and sparse percussion.
The lyrics on Day by Day, while not as big a triumph as the album’s music, are among the most compelling of Femi’s career. “Eh Oh”, the album’s first single, shows why this music is so universal and has the power to catalyze people around the world. Two simple syllables, “Eh Oh”, understood regardless of what language you speak, is all that’s needed to convey the frustration Femi feels about Africa.
On the album’s title track, a sparse musical arrangement reinforces Femi’s stark message: “Day by day / By night by night / We work and pray / For peace to reign.” These words are cliché coming from any other pop singer. But from Femi, they are gospel.
On “You Better Ask Yourself”, Femi pointedly describes the irony that Africa is home to some of the poorest people in the world even though it is one of the wealthiest continents on Earth in terms of natural resources: “To keep the people always wondering / While dey take all our resources / Leaving us in total poverty.”
Seven years was certainly worth the wait for Day by Day, one of the 2008’s best releases. The album features all the hallmarks of a pop sensation — tight arrangements with intoxicating hooks, rousing choruses, and sing-along vocals. Beyond that, it does something else, something right out of Fela Kuti’s bag of tricks: It makes you think, ask questions, and care.