With one listen through each of the two records, it’s clear that the late Fela Kuti’s musical family tree remains both strong and fruitful.
On February 5th, Fela’s son, Femi, and grandson, Made, will each release their own forthcoming studio albums on Partisan Records, Femi’s Stop The Hate and Made’s For(e)ward. The achievement carries with it much significance. It’s rare that any father and son are able to share in such a prominent co-release. It’s also a sign that the genre of music that Fela invented, Afrobeat, is alive and well in the voices and instruments of his lineage and beyond. But the albums, outside of any historical context, are also just quite good. The music empowers, emboldens and reaffirms a connection with what the Kuti family has always kept in mind: the hands, the head and the heart. The songs offer important messages, the kinds that have and will stand the test of myriad future societal evolutions. They are timeless.
“I hope it shows the world how close we are, how we bond,” says father Femi, Fela’s son and former band mate. “I hope it inspires other people. Made means the world to me. I don’t think ‘pleasure’ is the right word – rather, it’s an honor. My son got to play on my album, I’ve watched him grow and I see him stand as his own man.”
Fela Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938. His parents were passionate, educated leaders in their community. His mother was an anti-colonialist feminist and his father was a minister and school principal and the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers. He sent Fela to London to study medicine but instead Fela studied music. Over the years, Fela’s songs became more and more political. Eventually, he became so popular and so populist that tyrannical local governments beat him, destroyed his home and murdered his mother. But Fela kept singing until he died in 1997.
“My father stands out as an activist,” Femi says. “Unfortunately, speaking the truth, he paid a very high price. He lost everything.” He adds, “My father did have flaws. I didn’t agree with everything he did. But where I do agree, I let people know.”
Femi grew up in a revolutionary lifestyle. He still lives one. He’s also instilled these ethics in his son and, together, they bring a rebellious, truth-telling ethos to their music. Femi, who says he was a “lousy” player when he first joined his high school band in 1976, later began playing with his father’s group in 1978. The band grew in notoriety with each passing day. But Femi didn’t exactly join the ensemble with a warm, outstretched hand from his father. Fela did not treat his son preferentially. In fact, it was often the opposite.
“It was very intimidating, very frightening,” Femi says. “My father said, ‘Can you play the sax yet?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And he said, ‘Okay, get your sax and come play.’ When he gave me the part to play, I was shaking like a leaf.”
But like a person thrown into a deep pool, Femi found a way to swim. He didn’t sink. Soon, he became a regular player in his father’s world famous group. Made’s entrance into music, however, came much more smoothly. Knowing the fear he had as a boy, Femi brought his son up with a kinder sentiment.
“I don’t remember the exact age,” Made says. “But there was a point in my life when I saw my dad perform four times a week on stage. I’d already played trumpet since three, or so, I dabbled in it. But I wanted to play the sax, I wanted to play the drums. At seven-years-old, I started to play guitar.”
Unlike Femi, Made was allowed to study music formally in school. As a result, he’s devoted his education to understanding Afrobeat, as well as many other (often obscure) genres of music. Afrobeat, itself, is an amalgamation of genres like jazz and Nigerian rhythms. In school, Made has worked to bridge Afrobeat with these other styles. It’s a process that he’s only just tapped into, he says.
“As my dad has explained to me many times,” Made says, “if Fela created a universe with his music, then my father explored that universe and found another universe within it and I’m finding a universe within it, too. We’re traveling through space, seeing how many planets there are and if there’s any life on them! It’s a big journey.”
Afrobeat is a genre of music that has touched the world in a major way. It’s celebrated in clubs from Lagos, Nigeria to Seattle, Washington. It’s something Nigeria and Africa, at large, can be proud of, Made says, and that’s no small achievement.
“It makes me believe that we as a people have something to be proud of,” Made says. “Something we’ve contributed to the rest of the world. It’s music from African culture. It’s not foreign medicine.”
That such history and achievement can come from the manipulation of sound waves continues to inspire and propel both Femi and Made, as artists. Both men love music. They feel simultaneously indebted to it and empowered by it. With the release of their new records, they’re continuing an important sonic lineage and producing new, reimagined gifts in the process.
“I believe in the power of music,” Made says. “As someone who wields that power, there is a great responsibility.”
“I spend hours practicing and finding new techniques,” Femi says. “There are only twelve notes but there are unlimited expressions of them. This fascinates me. When you conquer something, there is always something else to learn. That shows me that there is always more than what you think there is.”