June 1, 2011

Femi Kuti can’t be happy. The moment that Fela finally transcends from pan-African icon to pan-global fixture feted by Will Smith and Beyonce and Clyde, his little brother Seun snakes their father’s Egypt ’80 band and asserts himself as one of the most prominent Afro-Beat musicians to emerge from the last decade. I believe this is what doctors refer to as Ziggy Marley syndrome.

Nothing against Fela’s eldest seed. Femi was great at the Hollywood Bowl when I saw him two years ago and his records admirably replicate the spirit of The Black President, but they rarely receive a second term. Following in the lineage of a legend is both gift and curse — you immediately sidestep a dozen barriers that would inevitably thwart your path, only to rush headlong into the obstacle of your father’s legacy. Unless you’re Damian Marley carving out a niche in an entirely distinct sub-genre, you’re forever forced to deal with the question of why someone would want to hear your record when they can put on Expensive Shit/He Miss Road a few hundred times.

The 80s baby, Seun, solves the problem of artistic stagnation with the same formula employed by Gangstarr circa Moment of Truth: the style is elevated, the beats are elevated, but it’s still Guru & Premier (or Egypt ’80). The grooves are as sinuous and labyrinthine as Fela’s squad because this is Fela’s squad. His youngest child has a huskier rougher voice, but he’s inherited the swagger and roughneck edge. Whereas Fela’s invective was aimed mainly at the Nigerian government, Seun takes broader aim, rifling off attacks at Monsato, Halliburton, multi-national corporarations that exploit the African people and all the stuff that Kanye wanted to write about after “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” but never found the time.

While his latest excellent album, From Africa with Fury: Rise could seem strident and self-righteous in lesser hands, it boasts a clenched fist legitimacy. So it goes when your grandmother was instrumental in getting universal suffrage and was later defenestrated from a window thanks to your father’s vocal opposition to fascism. Seun Kuti understands that problems are intractable, but never loses site of the fact that complaints are worthless when you’re standing still. The only solution is furious groove.

MP3: Seun Kuti-“Rise”

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