Femi Kuti is visiting Philadelphia, fronting his own band, and my wife, who like Femi hails from Nigeria, tells me that no one — no one! — other than Femi should get to perform Fela’s music in public.
Fela is of course Nigeria’s most famous song writer and entertainer, now deceased since 1997. Femi is his talented, yet intevitably derivative, son. My wife is a Nigerian nationalist and presented with a performance by the Senegalese singer Cheik Lo of Fela’s classic “Shakara” song, on the classic Red Hot + Riot album, says emphatically that no one — no one! — but Femi should sing any of Fela’s songs.
“No one?” I ask Chizo. “No one,” she answers.
My wife doesn’t know Femi, and never observed an instance of nepotism that offended her sensibilities. She’s heard his music and knows he is trying hard to protect his father’s musical legacy. “This is a matter of blood,” Chzio tells me. “Blood trumps even talent.”
Who needs a pseudo-meritocracy when values arise from family, from place? Femi, on tour in the U.S., isn’t about to lay claim to Fela’s legacy on the basis of his DNA, yet his actions betray his beliefs. He is Fela’s oldest son after all. In an interview with the august New York Times, no mere aribiter of African music but of American high culture generally, insists that the Broadway hit musical, based on Fela’s songs and orchestrated by the neo-Fela Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, ought to travel to Lagos to perform before the home Nigerian team.
Femi is no Roland Barthes, no Gramsci of popular culture, but he understands enough about Fela to demand the great musician be recognized first and foremost as a Nigerian and next as an African. Only when his geographic roots are affirmed can the world hail Fela as a “world” musician. “It’s good that it’s on Broadway, the publicity is great, everyone is talking about it,” Femi told the Times, referring to the Fela musical. “But if there is truly respect for the music and the message, it has to come to Africa, back to Lagos and the Shrine that we, his family, have built for him. That is important spiritually and culturally.”
And important to Nigeria too. In life, Fela was often spurned by a Nigerian elite too ready to embrace conventional British norms. Now in death, Fela is a hero of authentic Nigerian-ness. He is a folk hero fast becoming a secular saint. For a man without a country in life, in death Fela is a national hero, and Nigerians — notably Femi, flesh and blood — are proudly claiming their own.