As a general rule, artists on tribute albums either hew too closely to their inspirations or louse up perfectly good songs in the name of artistic adventure. Red Hot + Riot, a new homage to Nigerian musical pioneer Fela Kuti that pairs progressive American rappers and soul singers with a stellar crew of world-music stars, tends toward the first pitfall. Fela’s music is legendary, and guests such as Talib Kweli, Macy Gray and Fela’s son, Femi Kuti, make no real effort to advance it. But they don’t do anything to diminish it, either, and because few listeners can afford to be Fela completists, Riot serves as an electrifying primer and as an inexplicably rare marriage of African and African-American music.
First, though, the three-penny Fela bio, for the unfamiliar: The inventor of the propulsive and brassy James Brown-influenced music known as Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti gave strident voice to Nigeria’s fucked-over lower class. Naturally, this earned him the enmity of Nigeria’s military government, with which he spent much of his life locked in public battle, usually with words but occasionally with guns. Fela ran for president (twice), was attacked by government troops (often) and married 27 backup singers in one ceremony (beat that, Jay-Z). In 1997, when Fela’s heart stopped beating as a result of AIDS, close to a million mourners lined the streets of Lagos City.
Throughout its 76 minutes, Riot pulses with the sound of progressive — and mostly African-American — performers tipping a collective hat to a truly courageous predecessor. “Kalakuta Show” showcases Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab’s rapid-fire rhyming atop a Fela sample, and Meshell Ndegeocello impresses with her so-cool rendition of the fiercely pro-African “Gentleman.” (Did your mind write a check that your soul can’t cash? she teases, embracing Fela’s mockery of Europhile Africans who wear “proper” continental suits despite the sweltering heat.) Senegalese guitarist Cheikh Lô blends “Lady,” Fela’s anti-feminist anthem (yes, anti-feminist — Fela was enlightened in many ways; gender equity wasn’t one of them) with “Shakara,” the title of which translates from Fela’s native Yoruba language as “Empty Braggart.”
Anchoring the album, though, is the recording that sparked the project, a freewheeling ten-minute rendition of “Water Get No Enemy,” Fela’s veiled 1975 skewering of military rulers for ignoring the waterlike flow of the Nigerian people. With the Roots’ ?uestlove and jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove keeping the music moving, Femi Kuti trades lyrics with neosoulsters D’Angelo and Gray — Femi in his father’s native Yoruba, the others in Fela’s trademark pidgin English. If your head they hot, now water you gon’ use, goes the lyric. If your child they grow, now water you gon’ use/Water, it no get enemy/You don’t fight him unless you want to die. Fela flowed with the people and still died — and too early at that. (He was 58.) With Red Hot + Riot, at least the music lives on.