Femi Kuti's Audience Connection
By Grant Rosenberg
Photos and video by Laure Feton

Femi Kuti was the last one on the stage at his recent sold-out Paris concert, following almost a dozen musicians and three dancers. Amidst the horns and cheers, Femi strided out on stage, receiving a welcome worthy of Mick Jagger. Throughout the show, he sang and also played saxophone, speaking at times in basic French and in his native English, to the 1,300-plus crowd. It wasn’t so much about the setlist of specific songs, but rather like a Grateful Dead show, the Femi fans came for a feeling.

But unlike those joyful yet often homogenous crowds for the Dead in days gone by, or presently, those who fill the stadiums for the Dave Matthews Band, for example, there is really diversity here. Black, white, European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, it runs the gamut of different styles and ages in a way that goes well beyond the lip service of cultural exchange. At least in France, on this night.

Born in England, Femi Kuti was raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He is the son of the legendary Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti, whose legacy is never very far from his music, both in sense and lyric. Femi initially played with his father’s band, Egypt 80, then in a band of his own, Positive Force. In the mid-90s he released a solo album which was quite successful in Africa and in Europe, though he remained largely unknown in the U.S. Last year he released his second album, Fight to Win, from which much of his show’s set list derived. He toured the U.S. with the re-formed Jane’s Addiction this past autumn—a crowd no doubt different than what he is accustomed to playing. In the summer he will be touring as a headliner to medium sized clubs throughout the States.

His songs are less verse/chorus/verse than they are jams with a variety of sources; Femi takes the Afro-beat sound and further infuses it with jazz, hip-hop and even some folk. But primarily, it is Femi’s political activism that drives his music. Much of this is born out of the tragedy of his father’s death from AIDS complications in 1997 (and his sister’s death only a month later). Given that Femi’s father has died from so large an epidemic in Africa, he has become outspoken in his activism for AIDS awareness, prevention and eradication, and has written blunt songs like Stop AIDS.

His second album Fight to Win, was released in October of 2001, with songs like Stop AIDS, Traitors of Africa, Tension Grips Nigeria and the album is a bit like newspaper headlines and social action slogans set to a boisterous beat. In the liner notes, each song features an explanation of current events or history relevant to that song, some including facts and figures. And yet lyrically, Femi stays simple, sometimes with nothing more than a simple phrase chanted, endlessly. While at first this can seem less than thrilling for those who want lyrics with some meat on their bones, it soon becomes clear that Femi is deliberately using these lyrics because these songs are his rallying cry, and likewise they should be the most accessible to the most amount of people. It is how you get your message across, and how you have thousands of people who have many different native tongues, singing your words with you as they bounce in the crowd.

Despite these political discussions on the album, the concert played completely differently. Though the extended jams do veer into self-indulgence—as most jams do—the music is far more effective played live than recorded. And there is little reference to the issues that he writes about in the liner notes, knowing that the concert stage is for a musical performance. It is rather the opposite of U2 throughout its 20-year history; whereas Bono waxes politically throughout his shows, sometimes spot-on, other times with an egotistical sanctimony, the songs of his band are vague and generic in their references. Femi Kuti plays his songs, dances to them and encourages the audience to do the same. But he leaves the speeches and commentary for the album. Given the celebratory feel of a song like Stop AIDS, one would never know that was its chorus, because everyone is too busy dancing.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Kuti and other "world music" musicians haven’t achieved the level of success in the US that they have abroad is the constricting categorization of musical genres. More than in Europe, American radio plays by strict rules of category, giving music like Femi’s limited airplay, and probably only on college radio during a world music hour. Perhaps having guests on his albums like Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright and others will attract more fans. Because surely, with its piano, horns and dancers, all working together, moving around the stage, his music is meant to be seen, not just heard.