Want to find your own sound, really hear your own voice? Stop listening to music, Femi advises. “On this album, it all comes from me,” he remarks. “I read a book about Miles Davis, who had a policy of no listening to music, to find clarity. I wanted to try that for myself, if I could create something more meaningful, coming directly from me, I had a good idea for the sax, how the trumpet should sound. I really feel my own presence.”
This deep listening has helped Femi take a thoughtful step away from the long shadow of his father’s music. Fela trained Femi from his early teens, dictating his style and hoping the young man would take over the band one day. Femi learned much, and valued his father’s experience, but couldn’t satisfy his own artistic urges that way. Through intensive practice and lots of persistence and soul searching, Femi formed his own band and found a new way, one that kept alive much of what makes Afrobeat distinctive—interlocking rhythms, catchy call-and-response choruses, dense arrangements, hot-button lyrics—but that made room for new insights.
Though striking out on his own, Femi kept alive one of the hubs of Afrobeat, The Shrine, a club in Lagos where Fela, and now Femi, communicated with their audience and let the spirit of the crowd guide their compositions. While Fela was famous for a weekly Q&A session that helped him focus his message, Femi turns to The Shrine to test his compositions methodically.
“It’s all experimental in my head. You start imagining a house and you think the door should be here, but people will find it different way to come inside,” reflects Femi. “So, I take my compositions bit by bit to The Shrine. I like starting with a bass line. I’ll give it to the bassist, then sit watching the audience, as he plays for 30 minutes. Depending on the bass line, I can see if people like it or not. If they don’t, I can discard it or change it.” Though some demand more work, many of Femi’s songs—like “Carry On Pushing On”—are instant Shrine hits.
Popularity and public support have not come easily to Femi. It took years to get his first big Nigerian hit in the 1990s, even after the musician had been embraced abroad. Times have changed, however, and technology has helped Femi buck the obstacles and harassment of irritated local elites. With blistering criticism of government corruption, elite hypocrisy, and economic injustice (“Politics na Big Business,” “No Work, No Job, No Money”), Femi faced everything from being barred from the radio to police raids of The Shrine (which sparked an international outcry).
From satellite TV (Femi credits South African channels for his 90s breakthrough back home) to social media and the internet, the smear campaigns and airplay bans that once daunted Fela have had less impact on his son. “Thanks to Twitter, people don’t read the news from the state-run media,” he laughs. “Younger people are getting all their news from Facebook and Twitter. This new technology has favored me.”
After decades of winning an audience in Nigeria and around the world, after many years of combating the authorities who sought to shut down both Femi’s critiques and Fela’s legacy of protest, Femi has found himself in an enviable position. Thanks to the worldwide success of Fela!and an international network or advocates and fans, many former political persecutors have gone from making his life rough to asking for the musician’s blessing. Fela and Femi have come into their own.
“Things have changed much for the better in the last year,” Femi reflects. “I’m older, I’ve been nominated for a Grammy three times. Fela! has created so much international enlightenment on my father and me and the whole family. Now the government built a museum for my father and the town where he comes from is trying to build a museum. Governors and politicians are trying to be friendly. They are finally seeing this is not a family they can mess with anymore.”