By Dave Pehling

OAKLAND (CBS SF) — As the pioneer of a musical style that would eventually be known as Afrobeat, Nigerian musician and political firebrand Fela Kuti emerged in the early ’70s as one of the most important figures in African music. While he spent much of the ’60s producing a jazzy style of highlife (an uptempo style that first surfaced in Ghana) with his group Koola Lobitos, a stay in Los Angeles near the end of the decade led Kuti to radically change his music and politics.

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Activated by the revolutionary stance of the Black Panthers and the propulsive funk sound of James Brown, Kuti returned to Nigeria, renamed his band Africa ’70 and began to focus on social and political messages. Recording fiery, hard-grooving salvos indicting the corrupt government and military leaders working with corporations to exploit Africa, Kuti rose to become not only a force on the growing world music scene but a political force in his native country. Despite intense government persecution that culminated with an attack on his compound that left Kuti’s mother dead, the musician would maintain his rebellious stance throughout his career until his death from AIDS in 1997.

Kuti’s music would inspire legions of imitators and a hit Broadway musical, but his legacy has largely been carried on by his two sons, his Femi and Seun Kuti. While younger brother Seun was already performing onstage with Fela as a member of his latter era band Egypt ’80 before he even entered his teens and took over leadership of the band when he was 14 after Fela died, Femi had already branched off and started his own group Positive Force in the late ’80s.

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Femi was already a veteran bandleader when his career broke through on a global level in 1998 with the success of Shoki Shoki, an album that cross-pollinated Afrobeat with hip-hop, neo-soul, and house music. He would continue his exploration of bringing other musical styles to his core sound on the follow up Fight to Win which featured guest appearances by American rappers Mos Def and Common as well as soul singer Jaguar Wright. He also set up his own version of the Shrine, the Lagos nightclub that his father had used as a headquarters and regular performing venue during the ’70s.

While personal issues found Femi stepping away from music for a number of years during the mid-2000s, he returned in 2008 with Day by Day, an album that returned him to a more straightforward Afrobeat sound, but maintained his fiery political commentary critical of injustice by the Nigerian government and corrupt leaders the world over. Since then, his recordings have been more sporadic — though he did release his latest album, One People One World, on Knitting Factory Records earlier this year — he continues to tour with his large ensemble and remains a regular attraction at music festivals.

Femi Kut brings his group Positive Force to Stern Grove this Sunday for his first appearance in the Bay Area in two years, headlining the free afternoon concert after an opening set by jazzy, politically minded Oakland hip-hop/soul ensemble Sol Development led by MC and spoken word artist Karega Bailey.

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Femi Kuti
Sunday, August 5, 2 p.m. Free
Stern Grove