Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have officially signed on as co-producers of "Fela!," a new musical about Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti opening Nov. 23 on Broadway. The news confirms weeks of speculation that the three would back the show.
Although a rep for "Fela!" did not say how large of an investment the celebrities are making, their endorsement alone gives "Fela!'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 the 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 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 dying in 1997. Stein plans to capitalize on this exposure to cement his legacy as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
"I have an abiding regret that Fela never achieved the recognition he deserved during his lifetime," Stein says. "We have a long row to hoe in terms of general knowledge and acceptance."
In addition to greenlighting "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," says 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 Oct. 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.
"We're a conduit for raising awareness of Afrobeat," says DJ Rich Medina, who founded the Kuti tribute party Jump N' Funk in 2001 and headlined four of 18 Felabrations nationwide. "It's a way of helping the cause."
"The first thing we're doing is galvanizing the core base of Fela fans," Giant Step founder/CEO Maurice Bernstein says, "then using the messaging to make him relevant in a universal way. You can live in Detroit and understand what [the famous Kuti saying] 'Music is the weapon' means, just like you would Bob Marley's 'One Love' or Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On?' "
The first batch of reissues, to be distributed by Sony RED, arrive Feb. 2, 2010: "The '69 Los Angeles Sessions," "Live With Ginger Baker," "London Scene"/"Shakara," "Rodoforofo Fight," "Open & Close"/"Afrodisiac" and "Gentleman"/"Confusion." It's not only the first time Kuti's early London recordings with Koola Loobitos will be reissued but also the debut of his catalog on vinyl, which Knitting Factory hopes will attract a new generation of music collectors who listen to African-influenced bands like Vampire Weekend.
"Every day there are traces of new people discovering Fela's music," Wheeler says. "But there has never been a swell of activity around him like this."
Though MCA reissued Kuti's catalog in 2001, Bernstein, who also helped market that series, says 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 says.
Stein is all too familiar with labels' conflicted admiration for Kuti. In the mid-'80s, he says he met with every major about the prospect of a 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 adds. "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 says. 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 axe the African label. "[Andre] came from Uptown Music; we needed downtown music," Stein jokes.
In Knitting Factory Records and the producers of "Fela!," Stein has found partners who are more faithful to the cause of growing Kuti's legacy. "Fela!" re-creates the Shrine -- the Lagos, Nigeria, nightclub where Kuti played multiple nights each week with his band, Africa 70 -- in startlingly accurate detail. A collective of singers, dancers and musicians perform Kuti songs including "Shakara," "Zombie" and "Teacher Don't Teach Me Nonsense" behind lead actor Sahr Ngaujah, who has already 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 and more raucous concert -- just as its creators intended.
"The Broadway experience can be like sitting with blinders on," "Fela!" director/ choreographer Bill T. Jones says. "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," says 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 Kalakuta compound. "It's all out there," Stein says. "Fela has not been sanitized."
And there's even 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 says. "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."