In Praise of Femi Kuti Or It’s Afrobeat vs Afrobeats at the Grammys

Made and Femi Kuti: You would be smiling too…

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A few weeks ago I was talking to a filmmaker friend in Burkina Faso about the danger of being too early to some fields. You come too early but the market isn’t ready for you. Or what you need to succeed is still in its rudimentary stages and so doesn’t get sufficient attention for you to either be known widely or to make money or both.

It is what has happened to all those guys we listened to 15, 20, 25 years ago. You know their names. The guys who were in the top 5 spots in Nigerian music at the time never made even half of what the guy at number 12 today has made. With or without inflation, CKay has probably made more money in the past 10 months than Olu Maintain or Styl Plus or Azadus made in the years marking their heyday. And nobody thinks of CKay as a major popstar.

The guys who are able to survive this treachery of time, business, and pop music are those who somehow hang on. 2Baba is perhaps the symbol of this category of people. But over the past few years and especially after the Grammy announcement, I think Femi Kuti has to be the other guy in that category.

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In a country that venerates his father and has never really had time for his recorded music, he has sha kept on working, even as regular pop music, young people music, ascended and obliterated everything else. (At an event in Lagos, some years back, an oyinbo friend pointed out how much better he’s received in Europe.)

The gift he received from his father has always been his curse. But he has tried to hold the forte, keeping it long enough for his son to partake in that family legacy, which incidentally is the title of their joint album. A few years ago, I wrote an unflattering review of his new music and when we met it seemed clear that the inevitable comparison to his father wasn’t something he liked.

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That will continue but he can at least say he has one thing Fela didn’t quite have: a Grammy nomination with his own son, Made, who will of course inherit the unfavourable comparison. But Made is lucky: his peers have a short memory and some of them already like to dance on his grandfather’s grave as we see on Twitter, so he will have it easier. As Fela becomes more of a myth on social media, Made will have a chance to be just Made.

For Femi, though, it is worth considering just how remarkable his career has been. Back when Wizkid wanted to be taken seriously after the bubblegum pop of his first album, it was Femi he went to see.

Like everyone else, he knew that for a musician to get a certain kind of attention, he had to get that Fela endorsement. Burna Boy, Falz, Tiwa Savage, Seyi Shay all know this. Femi gave it to him on ‘Jaiye Jaiye’. Now, almost 10 years later, they are both in the running for a Grammy. It’s Afrobeat vs Afrobeats. The winner is Nigerian music but, specifically, the winner is Femi Kuti. And, somewhere in the atmosphere, Fela is dancing.

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