Kuti flipped the glass to half-full, reminding us that shared problems mean shared existence and humanity.
Ready Room, St. Louis
No one could have predicted the heart-wrenching events that were to shake the U.S. when Femi Kuti & the Positive Force began their tour, but their music and message could not have come at a better time. In the wake of the most recent spate of shootings and divisive political campaigning, the Positive Force of Femi and his crew brought a much-needed dose of camaraderie, encouragement, and perspective to the stage.
As we learned at the end of the show, Kuti’s intent for the evening was to show us “the beauty of color through the eyes of the universe”—referring to the spectacularly colorful attire of his bandmates as well as people of color, generally. Picking up the illustrious reigns where his father, the legendary Fela Kuti, left off, Femi shared his perspective on politics and injustice, telling of personal experiences in his Nigerian home while drawing parallels to other parts of the world, including the United States. From the moment the first performers stepped on stage to the final boarding of the tour bus, Kuti made sure that his message of unity, empathy, and accountability was unequivocally received.
String and percussion players comprised the first four musicians to cross the stage, enjoying the spotlight for a brief moment before four horn players circled the set and settled in the corner. Each of the eight wore matching tunics and pants with microprint in orange and blue—all of which would be soaked in perspiration by the end of night, despite the A/C pumping through the well-attended venue.
Three dancing backup vocalists followed, spangled from head to toe, with beads aplenty: draped around their heads, chests, and waists; stacked along their wrists; and swaying like fringe from their tops and across their backsides. What initially appeared to be neutral-colored two-piece outfits in the dim opening lights glowed neon green once the stage lights flared. In the same way, the tidy rings of paint dotting their foreheads, eyes, and cheeks seemed to shift colors throughout the night with the changing lights, emphasizing white, then maroon, and later drawing out the neon patches of the continent of Africa displayed front and center on the rest of the band members’ tunics.
That left only Kuti and the Dancing Man as the last performers onstage, the only two in unique outfits. The Dancing Man appeared in a three-piece suit with a singular apparent purpose: interpretive-dance his heart out with the most blissed-out grin on his face. Kuti wore a tunic and pants with large print in blue and orange to complement the rest of the band’s ensembles. The suit jacket did not last long, and the tunic gradually became steeped in sweat as Kuti progressed from casually mopping his forehead to obliviously dripping all over stage like a leaky faucet.
The audience in front of the stage paid no mind, reaching out to the singer. He held their hands, looked into their eyes, and spoke through music and banter about the beauty and tragedy that connects us all as we suffer the same systemic injustice, in the U.S. just as in Nigeria.
When he stepped from behind the keys and picked up the sax for the first time in the opening number, “Truth Don Die,” Kuti held an unwavering note long enough ask for the audience members to ask themselves a number of questions: How much longer can he keep this up? How did he develop such incredible lung capacity? Is he breathing? He’s transcended the need for respiration, hasn’t he? He may be a little greyer and wiser than the shirtless young man who assumed Fela’s legacy more than 20 years ago, but he performed with every bit of passion as at the start of his career.
The contagion of his zeal was apparent across the stage, as horns rose and fell in sync with the ladies’ shimmying, shaking, and beaming proudly, while Kuti and the Dancing Man spun like dervishes. Beyond the stage, the crowd beamed back, shaking heads, squeezing hands, basking in the joyous experience of community through music. Kuti doesn’t linger in cynicism but presses for action. “We are brothers and sisters,” he bellowed over the crowd in “Africa for Africa.” He insisted on change for “better living” in “Carry On Pushing On,” from his 2013 album No Place for My Dream. And while the timely “Politics Na Big Business” rang awfully close to home for the U.S., Kuti’s condemnation of poverty and corruption reminded us that our political problems are also global problems.
Pushing on beyond the dismay, Kuti flipped the glass to half-full, reminding us that shared problems mean shared existence and humanity. Balancing out the gloom of “failing the nation,” Kuti invoked the theme of his most recent album, reminding us that, in the end, we are “one people, one world,” which ultimately will “rise and shine.”
In this one world, “Nigerian” is too small a designation for Kuti. It may have been a slick cover for mistakenly greeting New Orleans rather than St. Louis, but Kuti mused for a minute about how the ways in which United States and Africa are more similar than different—don’t we all have interstates and potable water?—wishing for Africans to enjoy the same freedom to move across their continent as we do across the States, with the same care and investment for all African countries. “In this sleep/ I start to dream/ that our world/ start to change…there was peace/ Suffering start to go away/ there was peace/ for the dream, money start to flow everywhere,” he sang in “Eko Lagos,” a song about the Nigerian capital in its pre-colonial state.
It was from this place of aspiration that Kuti pleaded with the crowd to carry on pushing through the struggles currently plaguing our society. “I hate to see your country fall to pieces. You have always been at the forefront of unity.”
Rallying the audience to the cause, Kuti stunned us with the opening “na-na-na-na-na-na”s of his father’s timeless “Water No Get Enemy.” The fans—especially those in Fela t-shirts—rejoiced. I shrieked, and we all “na-na-na”d in time with the sax. It was a brilliant and unexpected addition to the set list. The finer points of the song have been interpreted a number of ways, but it is generally taken as a commentary on the power and value of water, by virtue of being indispensable, vital, crucial, and an absolute necessity in every detail of life, rendering resistance futile: “I dey talk of Black power, I say water no get enemy.” Electricity rippled through the crowd of varying ages and skin tones. Hats off to the lady who brought her not-quite-teenage son. I wanted to high-five her for sharing such a landmark experience with the little guy.
The band briefly excited and quickly reappeared during the quintessential Afrobeat grooves of “Water,” returning with the promise of a few more tunes. “Everyone wants to hear ‘Beng Beng Beng,’” but as Kuti informed us, he is sick of playing it. He wrote the song when he was in his mid-20s; he is now 54. “It’s not the same… I don’t Beng Beng Beng anymore. There’s too many things in the way. Like—children.” But he indulged us, complete with gyrating on the keys and lecturing the guys to take it slow and please their partners. Awkward, yes, from the graying, fully clothed, and admittedly senior Kuti, but also charming, just like his father.
Kuti concluded with a history lesson about his father. Fela was not opposing the police; he was opposing injustice. Kuti has used his voice, talent, and fame to continue his father’s work of music with a message.
It remains a mystery how we got so lucky to see Femi Kuti & the Positive Force in such a small venue; his other tour stops are scheduled in music halls and theaters. But the intimate venue suited his purpose. It is important to him to have an impact on his audience. He wants you to enjoy the music, but he wants you to take away something more than entertainment. He wants you to see the world from another perspective so that you can appreciate our interconnectedness. Though we may experience it in different ways, we all suffer from the same systemic injustice that stands between us and peace: the dream.
Awestruck all the way out the door and down the street to the tiki bar, my friends and I gushed our way up to the patio overlooking the alley behind the venue. A tour bus waited, buzzing with fans hoping for a personal moment with the man and his band. When he finally arrived—wearing a different, drier tunic—he talked with each and every one of them, shaking hands, hugging, posing for photos. A class act in every way, Kuti touched us all, leaving us a little warmer and a little wiser for having spent the evening together, with him. | Courtney Dowdall