Fela Kuti’s cool funk fights AIDS on ‘Red Hot’

Over the last 10 years, the Red Hot Organization has successfully dedicated itself to fighting the AIDS epidemic through popular culture. They have released 14 benefit albums and have produced several related film projects, and their success stems from their desire to produce albums that are driven by the artists who make them. This technique insures a high level of creativity and artistic integrity. Red Hot founder John Carlin notes that, “most benefit records don’t make people’s play-lists after the first month. We’ve been happy to discover that, years later, Red Hot tracks remain in rotation.”

The Red Hot Organization tries to engage people in the struggle against AIDS and the HIV virus through benefit albums that not only support a good cause, but also are of a high musical and artistic value that people enjoy listening to. The proceeds generated from the sale of the album go directly to combat the AIDS epidemic currently ravaging sub-Saharan Africa.

On “Red Hot + Riot,” their most recent release, Red Hot simultaneously produces another musically excellent AIDS benefit album, while paying tribute to the African legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Born in Nigeria in 1939, Kuti became internationally famous throughout the 1970s with his enormously innovative style of music he called “Afrobeat.” The music owed a lot to the American funk and jazz-fusion revolutions that occurred at the time, but it also remained true to the upbeat, danceable rhythms of West Africa that he grew up with. In 1997, Kuti died of AIDS-related causes, a tragedy which provides one reason why it is so appropriate for Red Hot to use Kuti’s music to increase awareness of AIDS.

“Red Hot + Riot” accomplishes this goal by enlisting some of the most talented musicians in popular music. These artists include D’Angelo, Macy Gray, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Bilal, Common, Blackalicious, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mixmaster Mike, Tony Allen, Roy Hargrove, Nile Rodgers, Antibalas and Kuti’s son, Femi. Throughout the album, this disparate group of talented musicians demonstrate how well his music has aged and also, how relevant it still sounds today.

Demonstrative of many of the best moments on the album, “Shuffering and Shmiling” blends contemporary musical styles with Kuti’s Afrobeat sound. The track contains about 20 musicians who work to lay down a complex and funky groove. Their recreation of Fela’s song flows with an intense urgency. Eventually, Dead Prez and Talib Kweli come in and recite lyrics that are often very spiritual, contemplative and politically provocative.

They speak on a variety of subjects that affect Africans. For example, Dead Prez questions the morality of Christianity when he asks, “What is it worth to have the biggest religion/when the people on earth got miserable living conditions?” Later, Talib Kweli urges Africans to be proactive in their lives when he says that, “the bear won’t attack me / I be attackin’ the bear.” Both artists seek to engage listeners in a dialogue about the issues in Africa surrounding the problem of the AIDS epidemic.

Another song that successfully unites a Fela composition with modern musical styles is “Gentlemen,” featuring Meshell Ndegeocello and the band Yerba Buena!, with baritone saxophonist Ron Blake. The song is interesting because it combines many instruments that Fela used himself on his recording of the song, ranging from percussion and drums to electric guitar and horns, complemented by modern beats and keyboard programming. This infusion of contemporary technology gives the song a strong hip hop flavor. The programmed keyboard loops also give the song a futuristic texture. In this way, “Gentlemen” is another powerful example of the creativity and talent present on the album.

“Red Hot + Riot” does an excellent job of creating exciting music while engaging the listener in a provocative discussion about AIDS and other issues in Africa. It truly demonstrates how much of an influence Kuti’s legend has had on contemporary music.

Nevertheless, the album ultimately shows how tragic it is to lose a musician of Kuti’s caliber to AIDS. It also speaks to the plight of millions of Africans who live with the disease today. Since this album is aimed at a mass audience, hopefully it will achieve Red Hot’s goal of helping to incite people to act in the fight against this pressing world problem.