"Afrobeat, simply translated, is a fusion of West African and black American music," Femi Kuti says, via e-mail from Lagos, Nigeria. "But there are so many styles within that. It's got Yoruba, high life, African drums and rhythms. It is also essential to have a big band with polyrhythmic percussion and an ability to perform for a long time, a level of jamming and going with the flow."
The hybrid style Kuti describes was founded by his father, Fela Kuti, in the '70s and helped to announce Nigeria's international musical presence. Later, when Fela brought 15-year-old Femi into his Egypt 80 band to play saxophone, he was knowingly appointing a successor to carry on what has become an immense musical legacy.
Since Fela's death in '97, Femi Kuti has dragged Afrobeat out of the "Funky Lagos" 30-year time loop and into the 21st century, adding influences from hiphop to techno. Where his father indulged in 15-minute jazzy improvisations, Kuti serves up short, punchy dance nuggets, some as heavily produced as any Neptunes track. The late-'90s international radio hit "Beng Beng Beng" was the first, showing distinct influences from house music, and growing to an overwhelming popularity when it was banned in Nigeria for its booty-bass-like lyrics: "Don't come too fast."
Kuti's last album, Fight to Win, included collaborations with Common and Mos Def, and his new retrospective album, The Definitive Collection, lays out a handful of DJ remixes, ready for dance clubs across Europe. It's all part of his path toward his "number-one priority"—an international career, which he believes is the ultimate way to communicate Nigeria's message to the world.
"As my father said, 'Music is the Weapon,' and I agree with him," Kuti says. "Music in Nigeria could be quite a big export if it was marketed correctly. I feel that we need to get together as Africans to create one unified state, to fight against colonization and slavery. If we could unite together like Europe, then we would become a stronger force in world politics."
This concept of Pan-Africanism is one of the many political causes Kuti inherited from his father and weaves into his music. Like George Clinton, Kuti uses dance-mad rhythms as a way of physically engaging people with his aggressive politics. On the track "Sorry Sorry" he sings, "With these kind of leaders/Africa no get hope/Africans will suffer/Till the suffer reach our bone/I sorry for Nigeria." Other tracks point fingers at Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, and on "Stop AIDS" he attacks the country's lack of awareness about the disease that led to his father's death.
"Nigeria could be one of the wealthiest countries in Africa but isn't because none of the money is spent to rebuild its infrastructure," he says. "We have terrible, unreliable electricity, our roads are poor, and to get anything you have to bribe people."
In early 2004, Kuti built the New African Shrine, a modern version of the Shrine nightclub initially founded by his father in the '70s. To this day, Kuti plays there three times a week, five hours a night, offering a musical and communal space for the city of Lagos. The 2005 documentary Live at the Shrine reveals Kuti as the sweating, dancing, shirtless leader—spiritual, political, cultural—of the Nigerian people, campaigning for his Movement Against Second Slavery while in the next breath shushing the audience to announce, "The African man and African woman find it difficult to succeed because they like to suck breasts too much." This dual persona—half lascivious song-and-dance man, half brooding activist—was passed down from father to son. It's inseparable from the music.
With Kuti now in the role of musical patriarch, he's readying his own successor. Just as he played in his father's band as a teenager, he's recently brought his son to play alto sax in his Positive Force. Like the massive lineage sprung from the loins of Bob Marley, the Kuti family—Fela, Femi, and Femi's siblings Seun, Yeni, and Sola—has defined the sound of a people, of a culture, by turning a musical style into a family heirloom.
"I have been listening to my father's music and I want to do a pure Afrobeat album," Kuti says. "I have decided to go back to my roots."firstname.lastname@example.org