A positive force: Femi Kuti brings Afrobeat back to Ridgefield

Growing up in a world shaped by violence, Femi Kuti needed look no further than his family to find influential role models.

The Kuti family is famous in Nigeria, where Femi grew up and lives today. His father, Fela Kuti, who pioneered the Afrobeat sound and was politically outspoken, was one of its most famous musicians and his music was popular worldwide. He was not popular with the ruling Nigerian government, however, as he used his music to criticize the government, its treatment of its people and to speak out against European colonialism. Soldiers were sent to beat him in the 1970s in an attack that killed his mother and he was arrested several times years later for the social messages he spread via his songs. Before her death, Femi’s grandmother was a feminist activist on behalf of the anti-colonial movement there. Is it any surprise then that Femi grew up not only to be a musician but a strong supporter of social and political causes?

Femi, who returns to the Ridgefield Playhouse July 26 at 7:30 p.m. with his band, the Positive Force, was born Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti on June 16, 1962, in London. As his father had done, he shortened his name for his stage name. Femi last performed for Ridgefield audiences in 2015.

A two-time Grammy nominee with multiple Billboard world music awards, Femi has been making music since he joined his father’s band, Egypt 80, in 1979 at age 15. He launched his own band, Positive Force, in 1986, accompanied by his sisters Yeni and Sola as lead dancers. Like his father, who played multiple instruments, Femi plays the saxophone, trumpet and keyboard.

Asked how he forged his own musical path while his father was so well known, Femi declined to make comparisons. “I never looked at it like that. I loved my father, I admired him so it it wasn’t a competition for me. I just knew I had to do my own thing,” he said. He describes his music as very much having been inspired by his father’s music and with roots in African music.

Femi creates his own style of Afrobeat music infused with African folk, soul, funk, jazz and R&B and has 10 albums under his belt. His latest record, One People One World, on which his son, Omorinmade Anikulapo, joined him, was released this year.

Femi’s show at the Playhouse will feature songs from older albums up to the current album. “I always like to take people back to the past to understand where I am coming from,” he said. “It’s going to be full of energy. I always like to show people the beauty of Africa through the music.”

As his father and grandmother before him did, Femi is politically and socially outspoken. He often sings of the current state of Nigeria, a country where military corruption and graft in the government has pervaded for decades. “Right now it’s just using my music as a tool and as a voice for the oppressed, talking about injustice.”

With Femi’s newest album, the stories he is telling are reflections of his life. “After all these four decades of playing music, it’s where I am right now,” he said. “I love ‘Best to Live on the Good Side,’ which is really the way I live my life and the way I want my children to be. What you hear in the album is really what I discuss in daily life. It’s where I am at right now.”

Speaking of the “now,” as Femi was being interviewed for this piece, news outlets began announcing the Mandela 100 festival in Johannesburg, South Africa, to take place this December and celebrating Nelson Mandela. Headline performers include Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Femi. “I’m very excited,” he said, noting Martin asked him to join the festival.

Besides his music and taking care of a large family, Femi said he keeps busy with managing The New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, which is an open-air entertainment center, to preserve Fela’s legacy. It hosts an annual music festival honoring Fela. Before his current tour kicked off in July, Femi was performing there two nights a week for several hours at a time. On July 3 of this year, he personally welcomed French president Emmanuel Macron on a visit to the shrine. Femi has long been popular in France.

“I am looking forward this tour,” he said. “I want to finish the tour very powerful and strong and I am really looking forward to every date.”