Making Sense of World Music
All of which is to try to introduce the problem we face here, trying to be all, "Yes, we are professional music critics!" about Femi Kuti's performance last night at the Showbox. We'll start out by being honest: we really know for shit about Femi Kuti. This is only slightly less than we know about his dad, Fela Kuti, of whom we are vaguely aware from back in our college days when we experimented with potentially dangerous habits: in this case, listening to NPR, only moderate use of which can transform you into an insufferable middle-class white liberal.
But to continue trying to play the part, here's how we'd have written this piece if we were a real music critic for some mainstream newspaper or magazine (or, God forbid, NPR), where our paycheck depended on us constantly demonstrating decisiveness and never admitting we didn't know the name of a single song we heard at a concert we were reviewing. First, we'd start by talking about Fela Kuti and how he was a pioneer of Afrobeat, which mixed jazz with more traditional African music, and became a superstar in Nigeria. Being forever obsessed with how pop music was tenuously related to Sixties radicalism, we'd applaud Fela Kuti's political activism, and talk about how, from his Nigerian commune, his willingness to give voice to the oppressed threatened thuggish Nigerian dictators, successive regimes of which would jail him, only to have the next coup release him to win the public's good will, only to then have to jail him yet again once he justly criticized their corruption and barbarism. And we'd note the fact he took some 25 wives at once during the 1970s, and thus burnish our multiculturalist creds by accepting polygamy from a leftist African icon in a way we never would of nut-job Mormon fundamentalists down in Utah. Then we'd note Fela's tragic death of AIDS in 1997, even as he continued fighting for political freedom in Nigeria, and then segue into how Femi Kuti took up where his dad left off, continuing the tradition of politically engaged Afrobeat music, mixing American influences (jazz, funk, prog-rock) with native musical styles. And, once the issue hit the streets, we'd sit back and wait for the call from Da Capo requesting rights to include the piece in the latest installment of Best Music Writing.
But alas, we've been around the block enough times to know that mostly, the above is BS. Yes, Fela Kuti was an icon and dissident. But like most political icons who make their name opposing oppressive regimes, Fela's lionization relies on the convenient fact that he never actually became the president of Nigeria, despite several attempts, and thus never met the same fate as Lech Wałęsa or Václav Havel or Léopold Sédar Senghor, who had the misfortune of having to try to run a country, their dissident credentials tarnished by years of politics and all the attendant shortcomings, disappointments, and compromises.
Furthermore, while Femi's music gets pseudo-indie cred by virtue of being international, we have to remember that fundamentally, it's mainstream pop back in Nigeria. While Femi hits all the right political notes—a song about fighting AIDS, a spoken-word discourse on the evils of European colonialism—is it any more credible coming from him than Madonna or Kanye West? Or is it a sign of how we continue to fetishize Africans who puppet the rhetoric Westerners like to hear that we keep from lumping Femi Kuti in with the Live Eight crowd? Surely his non-threatening music and politically correct sentiments, coupled with the fact he's a true-blue African, could add some badly needed credibility to bloated big-budget affairs where celebrities repeat self-righteous truisms about the world and after which nothing changes.
So what can we really say here about Femi's show? It was good—talented musicians, charismatic lead man, a solid stage show with scantily clad back-up singers. He packed the Showbox fuller than we've, well, ever seen it. And he got the crowd going. College kids awkwardly gyrating, hippies doing that flailing-arm dance-thing they do, clouds of pot smoke hazily rising from crowd. Femi demonstrated he's a talented multi-instrumentalism, switching fluidly between sax, guitar, and keyboard. People cheered when he exhorted them, listened attentatively when he discoursed. But quite honestly, we left wondering if Femi's appeal is the same back in Nigeria. All too often when it comes to culture—whether it's movies or books or music—what America imports from overseas says a lot more about us than the cultures that created it.
For the foreign cutting edge to break into the American market, it either has to be sufficiently non-threatening to please the moderate liberal middle-class culture consumers, or demonstrate enough mass appeal or street credibility to overcome negative responses. Think of Reggaetón, which took 30 years before it was sufficiently pop music to make the grade in the US, or how dancehall superstar Buju Banton's refusal to reject the gay-bashing of songs like "Boom Bye Bye" gets his shows cancelled on Seattle's "tolerant" Capitol Hill. On the streets of Lagos, does Femi have the same credibility his father once enjoyed, or is he more akin to Jakob Dylan, an uninspired musician whose career was jump-started by an anachronistic attachment to what his dad did, and whose own music was never as innovative?
Somehow, we're guessing that in the gritty slums of Lagos, the real au courant music is much more in the hip-hop vein (as it is everywhere), where kids who can't afford two drummers, keyboards and a horn section are spilling their hearts out on dubbed tapes. Surely there's posturing in imitation of American rappers, but at the same time these kids are telling it like it is, or at least expressing what they think about the world and their own hard-scrabble lives. In a country still mired in corruption, the airwaves and recording studios are probably still off limits to those whose ideas are actually dangerous, and without that access, how are Americans even going to have the chance to hear their music? And even if we did, would we like what they have to say as much as Femi's retro-Third World liberation rhetoric, which hippies old and young can get behind? If we could heard what the kids in the ghetto really thought about women and AIDS and America and gays, would it still get promoed on "All Songs Considered"? We're not so sure.
We don't mean to tear Femi down here—like we said, frankly, we don't know how to judge his work other than admitting it was fairly danceable and everyone seemed to have a reasonably good time at his show. But for a musician whose name and career are so intertwined with his father and with politics and with a certain American market segment's tastes and preferences, it's impossible to avoid trying to talk about what we're supposed to take away from the show. To give Femi his due, he was there to educate as much as to entertain, which leaves us asking the very legitimate question as to whether he's really more credible a source for political commentary than the likes of Cypress Hill, whose album liner notes provided the primary sources for those stoners we knew in high school and their inevitable pro-legalization essays. Not to ask such questions is really to help suppress and constrain Femi's message, essentially taking away his voice and perspective by uncritically accepting anything he has to say. So, is Femi a real activist making us ask difficult questions, or is his music another commodity, an ethnicky trinket picked up from Pier 1 to give a touch of exotic color to a living room? Gino understood this dilemma precisely, and that's why he utterly rejected the World Music racket.
And here we are, semi-pro music critics faced with either puppeting sweet nothings about Femi we got from the "real" critics, or trying to grapple with the limitations of our own understanding of the still-quite-large (whatever Internet idealists like to think) world in which we live. In the end, that's probably the best thing we can say about Femi and his adoring American fans—we may not truly be able to understand the world he comes from or how he fits into it, but he made us ask questions without easy answer, which is a good deal more an achievement than getting a crowd nodding along to socio-political slogans, never certain whether that's a sign of agreement or merely moving to a beat.
A slightly different version of this piece appeared on Seattlest.com on July 26 as "World Music 101: Femi Kuti at The Showbox."