Taking the Afrobeat message forward – in conversation with Femi and Made Kuti

Generation Game: Made and Femi Kuti, in tune with each other, Nigeria, Africa and the world (Pic: Optimus Dammy)

At a time when hope and inspiration is needed perhaps more than ever, a brand new two-album package involving solo LPs from both Afrobeat legend Femi Kuti and his son Made fits the bill nicely.

The pair have joined forces to release Legacy +, featuring Femi’s Stop The Hate and Made’s For(e)ward (the cover art featuring portraits of the father and son musicians by Brooklyn-based artist Delphine Desane), both LPs attracting plenty of acclaim and proudly upholding the legacy of Nigerian innovator Fela Kuti – Femi’s father and Made’s grandfather – as torchbearers for change in their own right, the pair’s work steeped in the tradition of the Afrobeat genre he helped establish.

But this is no Afrobeat-by-numbers project. Each album showcases the respective Nigeria-based artists’ own unique vision and sound – Stop the Hate fusing life-affirming songs with political edge, and For(e)ward offering a more modern take, a progressive manifesto, testing boundaries, with Made performing every instrument.

The Kuti family name has been synonymous with Afrobeat since Fela’s breakout in the 1970s, its influence found in everything from hip-hop samples via Missy Elliot to a current London jazz resurgence, with both Femi and Made key to that continuing resonance.

Fela made his name singing out in protest at the Nigeria that stumbled out of British colonial rule, taking aim at the ruling military juntas of the ‘70s, while setting up his own commune, declaring it independent. More than a million mourners attended his funeral in 1997, and five decades after he recorded Fela’s London Scene at Abbey Road Studios, there’s finally a posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, the latest accolade in a headline-grabbing life for this influential multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, Pan-Africanist pioneer, and political activist.

Already the subject of a full-length documentary film, with a statue in Lagos in his honour, an annual music and arts festival held there on his birthday, celebrating his life and impact (Felabration), and plays and books written about him, many of Fela’s LPs have been remastered and reissued in recent years, alongside new compilations.

But while his legacy remains strong, almost a quarter-century after his passing, Femi and Made are exploring new approaches to Afrobeat, inspired by a man brave and bold enough to speak out on matters affecting his beloved country and continent. And it’s clear from these latest two additions to the Kuti canon that there’s still plenty to rail against. Until now, it’s been Femi leading the charge, keeping the legacy alive while taking his own path forward. But the new joint-release suggests the dynasty is in no way done for yet.

Over the years, Femi has amassed worldwide acclaim as an ambassador of Afrobeat and many humanitarian organisations, his Positive Force band remaining at the forefront of the movement, earning multiple Grammy nominations, performing on prestigious bills and at key festivals, and collaborating with iconic musicians across a wide array of genres, most recently Coldplay on the Everyday Life LP.

As for Made, he recently spoke out in support of anti-police brutality protests across Nigeria, that campaign leading to the government dissolving the notorious SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) police unit, taking to the streets himself, his father by his side.

And songs like ‘Free Your Mind’, the opening track on For(e)ward, are a great place to start in explaining Made’s world view, the 25-year-old, full name Omorinmade Anikulapo Kuti, revealing, “It is very much inspired by the teachings I received from my father and his efforts to make me understand exactly what the black man and woman’s situation is in Nigeria, Africa, and around the world.

“I think freeing your mind is, in a way, the opposite of what the phrase actually sounds like. ‘Free your mind’ almost sounds like decadence, like ‘don’t be constrained by anything, just take things as they are.’ I think the true meaning is to be critical. It means use your mind to its full potential—to think, to try to find answers and ask the right questions.”

Meanwhile, in ‘As We Struggle Everyday’, Femi – full name Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti , sings, ‘We try to find a better way … we people have the power to make our lives get better’. And he recently stressed, “’As We Struggle Everyday’ is to do with how hard people work every day to make ends meet and still go to vote corrupt politicians into power who are meant to be in jail.”

Then, on ‘Pa Pa Pa’, the joyful opening track on Stop the Hate, he insists, ‘We must face the government; the government must not waste our time’. And there’s a similar theme explored on Made’s ‘Different Streets’, telling us, ‘That’s why I know the difference between making an honest living and corrupt embezzlement.’

It seems, I put it to them during a Zoom call between Lancashire and Lagos, there’s still a determination and perceived need to carry on the struggle, taking on the family’s cultural and political legacy.

Femi: “Yes!”

Made: “And you could argue that there’s more work to do now than there was before. In many ways it’s got even worse here.”

There’s certainly an equal determination from you both – reflected in your music – to fight for a brighter future. Was that part of the thinking behind the joint-LP idea? Two generations for the price of one and strength in partnership, proudly carrying on that legacy as torchbearers for change?

Femi: “Not really. I think we just did our own thing, and it just happened. Everything just came together.”

Made: “I think my Dad’s ‘Set Your Minds and Souls Free’, coming just before ‘Free Your Mind’ was also a coincidence. A lot of it was just us being in synch.”

Femi: “Nothing was planned! The joint album wasn’t really planned. We were supposed to release the albums at different times last year, and I just thought, ‘Wow, it would be great to have a joint album, because no parent and child had ever done that before’.

“That was special, and we should inspire people, show all these good things. I passed it to him, and he said, ‘Wow, we love it, Daddy!’, then we passed it to the label and management. So that’s where we are. But nothing was planned, and nobody knew what was going to happen.”

There’s much talk of legacy and family tradition, but isn’t it also just a story of two guys from different generations who love music and happen to make great records?

Femi: “Ah, the legacy’s there. But of course, we’re passing it about, playing music. Made plays all the musical instruments (on his LP) and recorded it all, and I still do six hours of practise (a day).

“That’s our life! Unfortunately, we have to sing about those things, because we live this situation. This poverty’s right outside our doorstep, we drive bad roads, we have bad healthcare. I don’t see a love story as important as the crimes I see outside – the kidnappings and the hatred. But I hope the music will inspire change, and I think Made can speak for himself …” 

Made: “Because of our upbringing, the books we read, the conversations we have, the life we experience, the music is really just a reflection of our state of mind.”

Where Fela first trod the boards, his son and grandson follow, each having learned their trade from an early age – Femi starting out in 1979, playing saxophone in his father’s band, Egypt ’80, and Made touring with his father, playing bass or saxophone in Positive Force.

Made: “That’s where it started for me. I showed little interest in many instruments at a young age! I’d say, ‘I want to play the trumpet’, then would do one year with the trumpet, drop it for the sax, then do the same with the piano. And during my A-levels I was teaching myself the bass.

“But somewhere after I came back from Trinity (College of Music, London) in 2018, I started to practise a lot, about 12/14 hours every day, and wanted to reflect in my music the possibility that I could communicate every single detail on my own, wanting listeners to have that kind of intimate experience with the sound.”

It’s not just about carrying on a Kuti tradition. There’s also a responsibility to Afrobeat, honouring its past and many components, while taking it on to the next generations, pushing boundaries even further. That’s clearly something you both feel passionately about.

Made: “I feel very passionate about Afrobeat. It’s the fundamental element in everything I publish that I compose. My Dad has said many times it’s like Fela discovered the universe, we understood that universe, then ventured out to find many other universes – my Dad’s family’s universe. I’m still exploring my universe, and he’s still exploring his, with Afrobeat the fundamental element to reach the universe.”

It also seems you’re both still having to hammer the message home about the evils of racism, corruption and division the world over, not least in America and the UK.

Father Figure: Femi Kuti, still with plenty to share, judging by new LP, Stop the Hate (Photo: Sean Thomas)

Femi: “We’ll probably do this for the rest of our lives. I think those problems will always be. That’s why we’ll always have to talk about it. We have to keep on educating the minds of the people, including our minds.  

“Human life is about development, knowledge, wisdom, and its teachings. All we’re doing is … while we’re playing, we’re teaching ourselves, and what we learn, spiritually, we pass to the next person. We train ourselves not to hate, not to be envious, we train ourselves to be tolerant, to be humble.

“This reflects in our albums, and I think we understand we are just mediums. That’s why the artist has always remained humble. Evil will always exist, whether we like it or not, I think, and that’s why we always have to show the positive side of living and encourage people.  

“This has gone on for generations, and thousands and thousands of years, to lead to the path of righteousness and virtues. And that is all we’re doing.  

“I think it’s worse right now. Maybe it’s the age we live in – there’s so much hatred; capitalism has taken a very different form; there’s the right wing; wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and its kidnappings; then the pandemic comes … things seem to have gone for the worse.

“But whilst we talk about it, we still have to remain optimistic. We can’t give up hope. That’s where people like us come in – in order to give people hope. The suicide rate is high, but maybe music like this just says, ‘Oh, there are people feeling what I feel.”  

Trumpet Messenger: Lagos-based Made Kuti is on fine form with his new LP, For(e)ward (Photo: Optimus Dammy)

Fela wasn’t the first to speak out in the family. His mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, campaigned for women’s rights and against colonialism, and her husband was a proud union man, Anglican minister and school principal. In short, Femi and Made come from a proud tradition of orators, campaigners and activists.  

Made: “Yes, and we’ve traced the music in the family as well, and it’s going back seven generations.”

A devastating raid in 1977 on Fela’s commune, after Nigerian government forces took exception to his critical message on that year’s Zombie (a raid involving 1,000 soldiers, with Fela severely beaten and his elderly mother thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries, with the commune burned, and his studio, instruments and master tapes destroyed), would surely have proved enough for many. But here you are – his son and grandson – almost 45 years later, still speaking out, taking on the struggle. That says something about a spirit of determination and maybe an inner strength.

Femil: “Mmm … maybe it’s gospel, maybe it’s from outer space somewhere, giving us that courage or wisdom, not to give up. Maybe … who knows! I really don’t think about it. Probably, if we thought deeply, we would probably think of a different path. I don’t know. It’s strange, you know.”  

Made: “I do wonder how my Dad, despite so many things he experienced – like the jailings, the beatings, all those past experiences, the fear of losing a father, of losing your mother and your sisters … I haven’t had that struggle, those risky encounters.”

Femi: “And then the rebuilding of the (New Afrika) Shrine … I really don’t know, when I look back, sometimes … yesterday, I woke up very scared, because Nigeria is going through a very dark period, people drumming the drumbeat of war. There’s the kidnappings …

Trail Blazer: The 1961 LP Fela’s London Scene, by Fela Kuti, introduced many to the emerging genre of Afrobeat

“I fear for my family. I fear for everything. I woke up so depressed yesterday. But this has always been my state … of life. I think that’s where the music comes in. Because the music is what gives me the wisdom or the courage to continue.  

“I wake up, then I practise, and find some faith in music and practising. I just want to practise for hours, and I notice whilst I practise it eases this pain in me. I just think of my family, see the beautiful children I have, and I worry, then I practise – this has always been the vicious circle in my life!”

Fela Kuti was a complex man, a man of his time in certain respects. History records him as a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, political activist, Pan-Africanist, pioneer of Afrobeat. But how about his role as a father – how did he measure up there?

Femi laughs a little, possibly considering how best to answer that. Instead, I ask Made – who grew up in the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos – about the impact on his life of his grandfather, who died when he was barely two.

Made: “I was too young to remember him. The only encounters I had with him come from stories my Dad has told me, like giving me my name. It’s second-hand memories, not first.”

Femi: “To put it politely, he wasn’t a special father. Just to remain polite! But I will state that I think he will have made a great grandfather. Because at that time he recognised his mistakes with me.

Roots Radical: Zombie, the 1977 LP by Fela Kuti, caused shockwaves in his native Nigeria, and far beyond

“And every time my eldest sister sees Made writing a song or playing with his band, she cries, because she just can’t stop imagining how my father will have reacted. I think Made will have been his favourite person. He will have loved Made. It was already showing.

“Made will have been able to read music, and will have been able to have all these discussions … all that he couldn’t do with me, he was already showing that with Made as a baby and as a toddler.

“Made was born in 1995 and he died in 1997, but as soon as Made was born, he was already very sick. They had to carry him to my house. He said he had to be there to give him his name. And he would ask, ‘Bring him to see me, I want to see him!’ So this bond was already developing very strongly at that time.”

Fela was born when Nigeria was still a British colony, and there are key UK links down the years, not least with Femi born in London in 1962. Furthermore, Made – unlike his father, who didn’t formally study music – studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, as did Fela when it was Trinity College of Music (having initially planned to study medicine on arrival in 1958, like his brothers). That must have been a special connection for you, I suggested.

Made: “It really was, and it was even better, because the head of composition was a fan of Fela, and was very interested when I said I wanted to take Afrobeat into a contemporary classical setting and to experiment, which was what the composition course was about – that experimentation.  

“It was a really nice experience, all the way through. I learned a lot of things I never knew before. I only wish that my Dad had that experience as well. But I know he’s given me that experience and my joy … he sees that and can experience it. Trinity was a special experience.”

Finally, Fela was known for his showmanship, his concerts proving memorable events, and that’s something you’ve both taken forward.

Femi: Yeah … in our own way!”

Made: “Yeah, in our own way. Ha!”

Sounding Out: Made and Femi Kuti, spreading the gospel of Afrobeat to new generations (Photo: Sean Thomas)

The two-album Legacy + package is out now via Partisan Records, featuring both Femi Kuti’s Stop the Hate and Made Kuti’s For(e)ward LPs. For more details head to the official Femi Kuti and Made Kuti websites.

You can also keep in touch with Femi Kuti via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and with Made Kuti via Instagram, Twitter and YouTube 

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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