Femi Kuti is his own man.
By now, that shouldn’t be a controversial statement – One People One World is Kuti’s seventh studio album since his eponymous debut in 1995 – but when you’re born into a musical lineage as distinguished as the Kuti family, it’s easy for audiences to try and compare family members.
Certainly, there are similarities between Kuti’s newest work and those of his father, Fela. Overt social themes take precedence as Kuti takes on corruption, militarization, and all things unsavory, but he sounds less like the voice of the next revolution and more in tune with his peaceful side on largely mellow, polished tracks that are full of compassion rather than fighting spirit. Warm and rhythmic tracks like”Africa Will Be Great Again”, “Best to Live on the Good Side”, and “One People One World” are full of positivity and put forward a hopeful vision of worldwide unity.
Each track has brassy and bright traces of classic Afrobeat, but Kuti’s softer messages are met with soul and reggae influences that better suit the peace, love, and understanding that UNICEF spokesperson, children’s rights activist, and HIV/AIDS education advocate Kuti means to convey.
That isn’t to say that Kuti doesn’t have his more trenchant moments of social critique. In “How Many”, he demands answers to relentlessly driving beats: “How many songs must we sing / Before them hear the suffering of the people? / How many innocent lives must be lost / Before them know say war na evil?” His questions are pertinent ones, blasting climate change deniers and politicians who ignore poverty even when those afflicted rise up and try to fight it. On “Evil People”, Kuti is utterly impassioned, singing straight from the heart about atrocities like ritual killings, kidnapping, and the destructive consequences of greed for both power and money.
Some songs are more specific; “Dem Don Come Again” directly attacks the hypocrisy of those who kill in the name of religion. Kuti follows it directly with “Dem Militarize Democracy”, which specifically namechecks past and present presidents and other high-ranking members of the Nigerian government who have come from military backgrounds and brought shows of force to their roles as heads of state.
At the very end of the album, Kuti pours his whole heart into “The Way Our Lives Go”, a pensive reflection on the nature of human life in relation to cycles of society and the world as a whole. His outlook, in spite of all the suffering he laments, is an optimistic one. “It’s just a matter of time,” he sings, “the people will rise and shine / One day the people will rise / And say to the suffering goodbye.”
To come into One People One World with preconceptions of hot, pounding Afrobeat is to set oneself up for disappointment. To listen with an open mind is the key to appreciating Femi Kuti’s unique music, not confined to a genre or locked in rigid ideas of stylistic tradition. One People One World is an album made to urge forward a nationwide – perhaps ultimately worldwide – healing process, and while it shines a light outward, it also reveals more about Kuti than perhaps any of his previous albums. His heart is on his sleeve and in his music, and the attention his voice commands is well-deserved.