Having a musical legend for a father isn’t easy for any artist. But Femi Kuti has come to terms with the influence and legacy of his famed father, Fela Kuti — originator of Afrobeat, Nigerian agitator for social justice and international symbol of defiance — while defining himself as a man and musician.
“I was very proud of him and proud to be his son,” said Kuti, who at 50 is the eldest of Fela’s many children. On Sunday, the Rhythm Foundation presents Kuti and his band, Positive Force — in the kickoff concert of their U.S. tour — at Grand Central in downtown Miami.
“I love his music. I knew I could not run away from the fact that sometimes I would talk like him, look like him. If I did not have his character in so many ways, I would have to ask my mother, ‘Who is my father?’ But I knew I had to find my own voice because I did not want to be his replica. I did not want to be Fela Jr.”
And so at 24, Kuti quit as saxophonist in his father’s band. He said that pretty much everyone — his father, the rest of his family, the Nigerian press and public — thought it was a bad idea.
“Everybody was against me,” Kuti said. “They all said, ‘What will you do?’ But I knew the only respect I would get from [my father] was to find my own being. He was angry, but at the end he understood that I made a good decision and was proud of what I did.”
Since then, Kuti has established his own musical identity. He added elements of jazz and hip-hop to his father’s electrifying blend of African rhythms, funk, soul and psychedelic rock, winning a Grammy for his 2010 album Africa to Africa.
Although he has not been as confrontational as his father, who was infamously harassed by Nigeria’s military regime, Kuti has continued Fela’s legacy of political criticism and agitation for social justice.
He has reopened his father’s musical, community and political center — The Shrine — and helped to inaugurate the Kalakuta Museum, which honors Fela and Nigerian music, in the family’s home city of Lagos. (Fela Kuti, who died of AIDS complications in 1997, is the subject of a Tony-winning Broadway musical, Fela!, that plays at the Adrienne Arsht Center in March.)
Kuti’s latest album, No Place for My Dream, is his most politically outspoken, railing against inequality and corrupt leaders. In No One Man Show, which he wrote 20 years ago, he sings about his father being attacked by military authorities.
“Many times, I saw him be arrested, and he was always alone,” Kuti said. “When it comes to the nitty gritty of fighting, you are on your own. I am talking about my father’s experience, but also talking about my life.”
Or anyone’s life. “You need to choose your path,” he said. “What side do you want to be on, evil or good? What do you want to do with your life? Do you want to be strong, or give up? You have to choose.”
Femi Kuti. Photo: Simon Phipps