A representative for “Fela!” did not specify the amount of the celebrities’ investment, but their endorsement alone gives the musical’s profile a significant boost just a week before its premiere.
“There’s going to be an enormous incentive for people to investigate Fela when they know that Jay-Z and Will Smith are all rabid fans,” Rikki Stein, Kuti’s former co-manager and executor of his estate, recently told Billboard. “It’s a sign that the underground is moving overground.”
“Fela!” will help find a larger audience for the music of Kuti, who pioneered Afrobeat from the sounds of James Brown and West African high-life music, became a political icon in his native Nigeria and earned the admiration of everyone from Paul McCartney to the Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil before his death in 1997.
“I have an abiding regret that Fela never achieved the recognition he deserved during his lifetime,” Stein said. “We have a long row to hoe in terms of general knowledge and acceptance.”
In addition to green-lighting “Fela!,” Kuti’s estate has licensed his catalog to the newly revived Knitting Factory Records. The well-timed deal will result in the reissue of Kuti’s complete catalog — 45 albums — during the next 12 years.
“The industry always talks about who the next big legacy artist will be,” said Ian Wheeler, label manager of Knitting Factory Records. “It should have been Fela years ago. We’re really trying to bring a new audience around the world, and particularly in the U.S., to his music.”
Up first is the October 27 release “The Best of the Black President,” a compilation of Kuti’s best-known material. The set is being sold at previews of “Fela!” and at Felabrations, a series of Afrobeat DJ parties organized by Knitting Factory Records and its marketing partner, Giant Step.
Lost in the shuffle
MCA reissued Kuti’s catalog in 2001, but Bernstein, who helped market that series, said its potential wasn’t fully realized. “MCA was a major label, and no matter how much they said they loved Fela and how important he was, he was definitely lost in the shuffle,” he said.
Stein is all too familiar with labels’ conflicted admiration for Kuti. In the mid-’80s, he said he met with every major about a potential deal. “They all received me respectfully and saw Fela as akin to Miles Davis or any of the jazz greats,” Stein recalls. “But they’d ask: ‘Rikki, which three minutes of this 18-minute song do you want me to put on the radio?'”
“I’d ask Fela to write me a small tune,” Stein added. “He used to say, ‘I’m writing African classical music. Don’t mess with Tchaikovsky.'”
A deal nearly came to fruition in 1993, when then-Motown Records president Jheryl Busby offered Kuti a five-album deal under his new Africa-oriented label, with a $1.3 million advance for each album and another $1 million for full ownership of Kuti’s catalog, Stein said. But after talking to his spirit advisers, Kuti refused to sign until April 1995. Busby left Motown the week of the scheduled signing, and Andre Harrell’s first action as Motown’s new president was to ax the African label.
“Fela!” re-creates the Shrine — the Lagos, Nigeria, nightclub where Kuti played multiple nights each week with his band, Africa 70. Singers, dancers and musicians perform Kuti songs including “Shakara,” “Zombie” and “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” behind lead actor Sahr Ngaujah, who has won an Obie Award for his spot-on portrayal of Kuti in the show’s Off Broadway run last year. The effect is less stuffy theater than raucous concert — just as its creators intended.
“The Broadway experience can be like sitting with blinders on,” “Fela!” director/choreographer Bill T. Jones said. “This is a show you enjoy as much with your body as with your mind. It’s free and communal.”
“There was a constant struggle between keeping Fela’s music pure and deconstructing it for the audience,” said the show’s musical director, Aaron Johnson, who translated Kuti’s Yoruba and pidgin lyrics and is also the conductor/trombonist of the acclaimed Afrobeat band Antibalas. “I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the response so far.”
Nor have the most controversial aspects of Kuti’s life been smoothed over, from his simultaneous “wedding” to 27 women to his clashes with the Nigerian government that led to a brutal 1977 attack on his compound, which he called the Kalakuta Republic. “It’s all out there,” Stein said. “Fela has not been sanitized.”
And there’s further proof that a Kuti revival of sorts is under way: A screenplay for a biopic is in the works, to be directed by the U.K. filmmaker Steve McQueen (“Hunger”).
“I believe that with the show, the film and the reissues, a lot is going to change,” Stein said. “We’ll see a much wider audience for Fela. There were a million people at his funeral shouting, ‘Fela will live forever.’ Of course, they were right.”
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