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Artist Feature: Femi Adeyemi on Fela Kuti

Click here to listen to the Fela Kuti radio show.

“Music is the weapon of the future/music is the weapon of the progressives/music is the weapon of the givers of life,” Fela Anikulapo Kuti famously declared. Known for pioneering the musical genre Afrobeat, as well as being a multifaceted performer and instrumentalist, his shows at his Afrika Shrine in Lagos – together with his band Afrika 70 and later Egypt 80 – remain legendary. But Kuti was also one of the leading political figures of his era. A perennial agitator and human rights activist, which manifested itself through highly-charged lyrics and cover art, his barbed criticisms of the Nigerian government lead to multiple arrests. Kuti passed away in 1997, but his zeal for addressing injustice, and the crafted, vibrant ways in which he delivered those missives, lives on.

Today, the influence of his idiosyncratic sound can be found across a host of contemporary music spheres: there are samples in tracks by the likes of Missy Elliott, Nas, Common and Pete Rock, there’s House duo Masters at Work’s Tribute to Fela EP.  It appears in the work of multifaceted DJs such as Antal, Floating Points and Hunee, as well as the electric piano nuances of Kamaal Williams’s work. Meshell Ndegeocello has covered his songs, which often ran close to forty minutes long, while French indie pop stars Phoenix have taken inspiration from his grooves and UK-Nigerian artist Obongjayar from his politically-fuelled pop sensibilities.

For Spring/Summer 2019, Carhartt WIP has joined the list of those eager to pay tribute to Fela Kuti, with capsule collection created in close co-operation with the Fela Anikulapo Kuti Estate, his former manager Rikki Stein and Knitting Factory Records. The designs take cues from his iconic album artwork, such as his 1975 release Expensive Shit, while also incorporating references to tracks like Ye Ye De Smell and the recording Live In Detroit 1986. These motifs are applied across a range of pieces, from graphic t-shirts and bucket hats, to shirts and caps.  

To accompany the collection, the out of print “Live In Detroit 1986” album will also be re-released on vinyl, limited to 500 copies. Meanwhile, Carhartt WIP, Dazed and NTS Radio will once again collaborate on a short film, which sees London-based artist Akinola Davies to the Nigerian capital Lagos together with rapper Obongjayar. The result is the experimental “One Day Go Be One Day,” which takes cues from Fela Kuti’s spiritual roots.

To soundtrack this collaboration we asked NTS Radio founder Femi Adeyemi to prepare a Carhartt WIP Radio show featuring his favorite Fela Kuti tunes. As usual, we also sat down to chat with the London-born, LA-based creative about his relation to the Nigerian icon. For those seeking a deeper insight into the life and work of Fela Kuti, we thoroughly deeply recommend the documentary Music Is The Weapon which explores his lively Kalakuta Republic, his political struggle with British-colonizers and the local government, his musical outlook and his love of table tennis.

Hello Femi, what was your first encounter with the music of Fela Kuti?

Femi Adeyemi: My first encounter with Fela’s music was through my uncle. My grandma used to live in Ikeja, Nigeria, near the Shrine and apparently my uncle would sneak out of the house and go to the Shrine to party. He was so popular there that Fela, his son Femi and the dancers all had a nickname for him – "Action Time". I have vivid memories of being taken there by my uncle any time we'd go back to Lagos to visit my grandma. The last time I went to the Shrine was in maybe 2000, my uncle took me again... they still call him “Action Time”.

Has his work inspired your own creative output? If so, how?

Femi Adeyemi: It's hard to say his work inspires my creative output but his rebellious approach to life and music definitely resonates with me when it comes to my work. I can definitely relate to him going against the grain as a young west African man especially in the 60/70s when things were probably a little more conservative.

Fela Kuti was famed for creating music imbued with the spirit of protest. What should we be protesting in 2019?

Femi Adeyemi: Man, where do I even start… I think most pressing for me personally is the damage that’s happening to the planet. Everything else doesn't count for much if the planet ceases to exist.

Is there a track or album which stands out as your favorite? Why?

Femi Adeyemi: Zombie – because my uncle played that all the time.

Fela sang a lot against the colonialism, exploitation of Africa and the disappearance of local African culture for a one-dimensional global one. How would you sum up the political influence of his work?

Femi Adeyemi: I think we're definitely seeing some of the dangers he spoke about in his music coming to the forefront. However, the message in his music still resonates not only in Nigeria but runs through Africa and the world which makes me believe that the better times are yet to come.

What tunes did you choose for the Carhartt WIP Fela Kuti mix and why did you choose them? What makes them special to you?

Femi Adeyemi: Most of the tunes I selected were the songs I grew up listening to. I actually really enjoyed doing this mix because of its feelings of nostalgia and I also got to revisit all this music and appreciate it all over again.

Do you think the world needs more musicians with a political vision to change some of the problems the human race is facing? Or do we have enough Bonos?

Femi Adeyemi: I think generally my generation are all a little apathetic. However, there does seem to be a new wave of younger music and musicians that are starting to speak up and that’s a good thing – kind of perfect timing especially in our current climate. I'm down for more Bono’s as long as they aren't making Bono type music.

If you could be part of Fela’s band, what instrument would you like to play and why?

Femi Adeyemi: I've tried playing instruments before – it wasn't pleasant. I think I would have preferred to be one of the dancers… dancing I can definitely do.

Fela Kuti discography