Global pop music’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams is littered with the bodies of the wannabe progeny of famously great musicians. Femi Anikulapo Kuti will never go out like that. Although Femi paid his dues in Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Egypt ’80 band as a saxophonist, trumpeter and pianist, he was already writing-recording-performing Afrobeat originals with a band of his own several years before Big Poppa’s death in 1997. “It is the only thing I ever wanted to be,” says Femi proudly. “I grew up with it and Afrobeat is the music I love most next to jazz.”
In ’95, Motown released his eponymous debut in the U.S. Femi Kuti swung his band Positive Force the headline spot on the late, lamented, Africa Fete tour. Though their position on the bill changed gig to gig, the band’s balls-out live performances never failed to stop the Africa Fete show every night.
Kuti’s Africa Fete triumph may have gained major props with the American world music posse, but it didn’t sell any records. Still, when Kuti returned to Lagos later that year, he was feeling on top of the world. He had proven beyond a doubt that he had his own thing and that that thing could rock America’s world. It was a renewal of faith and sense of purpose. “The joy I get is I love everything about music,” says the artist. “The sorrow is that we still have to sing about sorrow whereby many people are still dying in poverty inflicted on them by the government.”
For the next four years, Kuti worked 24/7 at rebuilding a better mousetrap. In 2000, the Big Payback: Shoki Shoki. Call it Femi Kuti’s Right Place at the Right Time Moment: Universal Music imprint MCA simultaneously releases 10 Fela reissues and Shoki Shoki. BAM! Rock media works the “Second Coming” angle to a five-star fare thee well. Public radio gasses its huge multi-culti adult-alterna-pop audience.
Hip-hop band the Roots’ remix of album track “Blackman Know Yourself” leads to collaborations with neo-soul god D’Angelo and rapper Common and instant ghetto pass credibility with hip-hop heads, the underground spiritual house crews and the boho party massive. For Femi the experience was equally cathartic. “I learnt that it is good to work with Afro-Americans,” he smiles. “I think the Afro-Americans I worked with liked Africa politically. I know a lot of Afro-Americans will like to come to Africa and contribute to Africa.” Shoki Shoki’s buzz culminated in a two-month-long, North American SRO tour of clubs, concert halls and festivals.
For the relatively few souls who had been lucky enough to catch Fela Kuti in concert stateside, the Shoki Shoki tour promised to be a revelatory trip down the generational divide.
Live, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (“he who keeps death in his pouch”) was, in a word, relentless. Think: two to four non-stop hours of barking-blapping-blaring horns, skronking keyboards/guitars, narcotic tribal drumbeats, thumping basslines, keening diva ululations amped then drugged then crunked by Fela’s cacophonously off-key sax solos, charismatic lead vocals and interminably self-indulgent harangues. On record, Fela and his bands were tight. Live, they came off like an after-hours jazz jam session: unstable, open-ended, primal, shambling, serendipitous—an ugly mess. But beautiful.
Femi’s onstage steez was coming from a whole ’nother place and time. “I would never play a 45-minute track. I’d get completely bored,” Femi told me back in March of that year. “I think my father preferred people to sit down listening to him because he had a message. He grew up in a very traditional, religious, highlife setting ’til he came to London and had jazz. I grew up with mainly Motown releases—all the ’70s, that’s what we were dancing to. The kind of reaction I wanted to see was people jumping and screaming like in a rock festival.”
The two shows I saw were off the chain like that. Two extremely humid hours of