“A self-centered way of life will bring all of us down in the end,” Made Kuti sighs on “Different Streets,” the saddest funky track to come out in 2020.
The song [a cut off his forthcoming solo album, For(e)ward] starts off on an invigorating note, with an Afrobeat rhythm driven by a pulsing riff. Kuti delivers a freeform alto sax solo and lays down thick layers of drums, playing all the instruments himself. But when he sings, the Nigerian musician sounds defeated.
“We must now understand just how scary it is that we are facing the same problems from the ’70s,” he murmurs during a mid-song monologue, his voice low in the mix as he echoes the frustrations of his late, great grandfather, Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Throughout For(e)ward, Made offers a fresh take on the Afrobeat sound that Fela pioneered in the 1970s and ’80s. Just as importantly, Made (pronounced “Mah-day”) carries the torch for his family’s Black consciousness and activist politics, using his songs to address government neglect, police brutality, and the need for progressive action in Africa’s most populous nation.
“You cannot deny the things that you are taught as a child, and you cannot deny the things that are expected of you as a child as well,” the 25-year-old musician born Omorinmade Anikulapo-Kuti tells SPIN over WhatsApp from his home base in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos. He clearly takes his role as an artist seriously—in his family, he says, “You are forced to always think and learn.”
Decades ago, Fela Kuti became famous across the globe for his bold Afrobeat grooves. In songs that routinely filled both sides of an LP, he laid down a potent distillation of West African highlife, Yoruba rhythms, and James Brown-style funk. Singing in Nigerian Pidgin English—a widely-spoken dialect that helped him reach a broader audience across the country and continent—Fela lampooned corrupt officials, zombie-like soldiers, and colonial mentalities that still held sway in the years after Nigeria’s independence from British rule in 1960.
Made was a toddler when his grandfather died in 1997. But Made’s father, Fela’s oldest son Femi, has kept the Afrobeat message alive in more recent decades as the leader of his own band, The Positive Force. (Fela’s youngest son, Seun Kuti, also is an established Afrobeat artist.) As a kid, Made grew up immersed in the art and activism of the New Afrika Shrine, a rebuilt version of the famous venue that Fela operated in the 1970s, where his father’s concerts frequently stretched for hours into the night.
“I’d wake up for school the next morning and I’d see him still playing,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Made was eight years old when he first picked up the alto sax, and these days, he plays bass full-time in The Positive Force—though he’s also studied classical music, composition, and piano. “I have an internal clock for Afrobeat, in that playing Afrobeat rhythms are almost second-nature to me. I feel almost too much at ease playing them sometimes,” he says.
For(e)ward is his first-ever release. Set for release on Feb. 5 via Partisan Records, it’s coming out in conjunction with Stop the Hate, a new solo effort from Femi Kuti. The albums will be packaged together as a double-LP entitled Legacy+—emphasizing not just the connection between father and son, but also their shared concern for their home country, a major hub for culture and politics in Africa and across the globe.
Just days before speaking with SPIN, Made was in the streets to join mass protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, aka SARS, a notoriously corrupt and violent police unit. On his track “Your Enemy” (recorded before the #ENDSARS movement began in October), Made bemoans the police brutality that has become endemic in his country: “What did he do? What did she do? Where are you taking them?” he calls out over a dense layering of keyboards, drums, and saxophone.
Like many Nigerians, Kuti’s frustrations don’t stop with SARS. In other parts of his album, he tackles shortsighted educational goals, the corruption of Nigeria’s political class, and sexual harassment in the country’s universities. And like his father and grandfather before him, Made Kuti refuses to stay quiet as he leverages the power of music to promote change.
“We must try to find a way to revolt without it being violent,” he says. “I believe the best revolution will come from the mind. It will come from thinking. It will come from rediscovery.”