Femi Kuti, the legendary afrobeat singer, saxophonist and songwriter was awarded national honour of the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government in Paris France by the Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak at the Philharmonie de Paris.
The warm gesture was extended to Femi Kuti at the Fela Anikulapo- Kuti Rebellion Afrobeat Exhibition on Wednesday, October 19, 2022, in recognition of his significant contributions to the Arts and Literature and the enrichment of cultural heritage.
Femi Kuti expressed his appreciation to France for the prestigious national honour of the country on his social media handle.
Four years after President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Shrine in Lagos, Femi and Yeni Kuti kicked off an exhibition tagged “Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, afrobeat rebellion” on Thursday, October 20 at the Philharmonie de Paris-Musée de la Musique.
The seven essential pieces by the king of Afrobeat Fela Kuti which was celebrated at the exhibition are:
1. Water Get No Enemy (1975)
This track is phenomenally powerful musically and I think that’s one of the reasons it became an anthem. Water Get No Enemy is the quintessence of Fela’s afrobeat. It is an essential title, one of those which is the most taken up, including by his children Femi and Seun, and which the public regularly demands. The text is also great because Fela explains that you can’t do anything without water, you can’t do without it. We need water for washing, cooking, drinking, healing, etc. As we know, Fela has always been persecuted by the Nigerian regime and a friend told him: “Don’t worry, you’re like water, the government shouldn’t fight you because water has no enemy.” The inspiration for the song came from there. But as often with Fela, we are in metaphor and allegory, there are several layers of understanding.
2. Gentlemen (1973)
Gentleman is a manifesto. It is an extremely militant song in which Fela denounces cultural colonization. He says he feels good being dressed as one should be in a hot country, where you don’t have to wear a suit and tie, and he finally goes after Nigerians who ape the values Western cultures and the lifestyles that go with them, from food to clothes (Hence the cover which shows a dressed monkey Editor’s note). Fela chants that he won’t be a gentleman, that it’s not part of his vocabulary. Musically, it’s a very lively piece, extremely dancing, with a tenacious rhythm. It takes in the stomach and it is difficult to get rid of.
3. Zombies (1976)
Zombie is a very lively track, played very loudly by each musician, where Fela like the musicians are in the performance, which gives a particular sound and an almost rock energy. Fela also powerfully sings this angry, mocking and assumed title. It should be known that generally, when Fela composed a piece, he first played it for a while in front of the public of his club Shrine in Lagos, before recording it. But once recorded, he never played it on stage again. Zombie, a rant in which he openly mocks the heads of the Nigerian military, compared to zombies for their indiscriminate violence, is an exception. Aware that this track was likely to bring him problems, he did not play it live before releasing the album. In fact, this title triggered terrible reprisals from the Nigerian military junta in power at that time. In February 1977, she ordered the sacking of the Republic of Kalakuta, the community that Fela had founded in Lagos and where he lived with his family and all of his extended entourage. During the attack of a rare violence, soldiers raped women, brutalized men and set fire to the house. But they also defenestrated Fela’s 76-year-old mother, who died 14 months later from her injuries. Which brings us to the next piece…
4. Coffin For Head of State (1981)
This album is both powerful and bitter with very special chords. The musical grid is really special, both sad and intense. In this piece, (written after the Kalakata Republic was completely razed during a trip to Europe by the musician in 1978 Editor’s note), he tells how he and his family brought in 1979 a coffin symbol of a trampled justice in front of the seat of the Nigerian military government, a staging that aimed to recall General Obasanjo’s role in the death of his mother, feminist activist Funmilayo Anikulapo Kuti. On the musical level, we are still with the group Afrika 70, in my opinion, the best group of Fela. They have a fabulous sound because they know how to make their instruments speak in a very expressive and controlled way and each one is in a well-defined role.
Fela is an outstanding composer and a formidable conductor who, like a Mozart, a Beethoven, a James Brown or a Prince, composes the scores of each of his musicians. It’s quite remarkable and that’s also why we can say that Fela invented afrobeat because this musical formula, before him, didn’t exist.
5. Expensive Shit (1975)
This song recounts another adventure of Fela with the police arriving at his home for yet another arrest. He has weed and in order not to be imprisoned for drug possession, he swallows it all at once. The police, who are not fooled, take him anyway and ask him to defecate to have evidence and accuse him. If I remember correctly, he held back long enough, but he was thrown in prison, and during the night – you have to know that Fela is a bit like Robin Hood, the spokesman for the people, and therefore wherever either there is always someone to help him – his excrement is secretly collected and exfiltrated outside the prison. Then they give him a drink that cleanses his stomach and intestines so that the next day when he goes to the toilet, his jailers can only note that there is no trace of grass or illicit product in his stools. Suddenly, he made a song of it by valuing his shit (he laughs). I remember that Fela always had either a joint or a musical instrument in his hand and often even both at the same time. He smoked a lot. But he also ingested THC in the form of jam, which allowed him to travel with it.
6. No Agreement (1979)
No Agreement is another manifesto, a chanted slogan that is self-sufficient. Fela was a man of slogans, he spawned a lot of them, notably the famous ” Music is the weapon of the Future “) and he could have worked successfully in advertising agencies. It’s also one of my favorite tracks, but more for musical reasons: it’s trance, and trance is part of Fela’s universe. It is an essential dimension of her music and the fact that she loves us in a physical way. What’s interesting is that it’s not just something rhythmic: the music is based on very few chords, very few notes, and patterns that loop, which gives the trance side. If there were more notes, it wouldn’t work.
7. C.BB (Confusion Break Bones) (1990)
This was recorded at Angel studios in London with Fela’s other band, Egypt 80, formed after Fela suffered a lot. At that time, he made several stays in prison, he was beaten, deprived of food, and passed into a slightly more mystical dimension. I don’t think he conceived music in exactly the same way anymore. Part of the joy is gone, it is less in the demonstration and in the happiness of the groove, an essential dimension of Africa 70. This piece is very original because it is symphonic with chords in minor key. I recommend it to discover another facet of Fela, quite mystical, but which brings us into an acidic, bitter, and completely new musical universe. There is a musical texture that I have rarely heard elsewhere, including in Fela’s repertoire. The writing and the arrangements are very clever: each note played by each of the instruments is the fruit of impressive musical maturity.