The Indie Artist You Need to Listen to This Month: Femi
Get into Femi's latest single "Señorita."
This series features the most exciting independent and alternative artists from Africa and its diaspora. Black artists are complex and multidisciplinary. Every month, we'll introduce the hottest, boldest musicians out there that you need to listen to.
Femi is a rapper/singer/musician who hates being put in a box. His new EP, From Spain With Love, is a fusion of flamenco, jazz and funk inspired by Amílcar Cabral living in Portugal while actively fighting for African countries' independence. It's an EP about dreams, regrets and life outside of a nation's borders in which Femi mixes his Nigerian-Americanness with a multitude of other inspirations to create a unique blend.
As far as musician names go, it's not easy to stand out making Afro diasporan-influenced music when your first name is Femi and your last name not Kuti. Not that Femi cares much about it, "Femi isn't a particularly uncommon name in my ethnic group," he explains. "My music sounds the way it does because I've spent so much of my life in places where Femi is a weird name. I stand out among others and we have to figure out how to relate to each other despite being culturally out of pocket. That said, if niggas can go by 'Miguel' out here (no shade) I figure the world's ready for a Femi!"
How has Spanish music inspired this new EP ?
Flamenco music inspired me to learn guitar in the first place, which changed how I write and think about music. I'd heard plenty of guitar-centered music growing up in the States, from rock to folk, but none had inspired me to learn the guitar until I heard what Paco de Lucía did with a guitar.
I started reading about Amílcar Cabral, the African revolutionary who fought against Portugal for independence for Cape Verde, Guinea, and Angola and was one of the greatest political minds. How was it like for him to live and study in the capital of Portugal, the literal fascist state that controlled his country? Like jazz or funk music, flamenco is also a style of music associated with an oppressed people, especially Romani people. What did he listen to over there, what songs would he have written and what ideas would he have had if music had been his thing? Things snowballed from there.
When did you start making music?
I started making music as a kid as a way of rebelling against learning music the way I was being asked to. My parents had me in piano lessons because they thought it was the respectable instrument to learn. But they had me learning the classical stuff. My piano teacher did her best to encourage it, she even let me perform my own compositions [but] eventually my parents stopped trying and I dropped out of piano lessons.
In high school, I played saxophone in school bands. The deeper I got into jazz band and wanting to learn to improvise, the more I realized that what had really prepared me for that were the piano lessons I had brushed off. So I went back to piano and soon after that wrote my full songs with chords and lyrics.
How would you describe your music?
The most accurate description might be something like "experimental pan-African music," which is pretty far from anything I would have guessed even about myself. I grew up moving between (at least) two very different music cultures: the Nigerian diaspora community where I grew up on one hand, piano lessons and classical music on the other.
In that latter one, music seemed like a specialized thing, largely compartmentalized from other parts of life. When you went to see an orchestra perform, music was something the orchestra was doing. Your role was to sit down and pretended you knew what was going on, then when the conductor gave you the sign, then you clapped.
In the other, music seemed more like a shared everyday thing. It was tied intimately to dancing and the rhythmic organization had to be at least somewhat consistent and decipherable for non-musicians—the philosophy of groove. Song and dance could be led by anybody, musician or not, and it could happen anywhere: bible study, parties, funerals. It was built by everyone who was singing or dancing. It seemed to me to connect a lot of really geographically distant styles of music like Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban music, genres from the UK pioneered by Africans and West Indian producers, highlife.
What's your inspiration when it comes to lyrics?
From Spain With Love was a concept album about immigration. Each track covers a section of the main character's life, and each song was a letter sent home at different points of his life after emigrating from Cape Verde to Spain. For this project, I thought about my parents immigrating to the States from Nigeria, what dreams were deferred to chase this one and what they must have thought about the families they built here and the families they left behind.
Writing lyrics is a place where we can try to speak about our lives with the kind of honesty we might not be willing to in actual interactions, when relationships and reputations are on the line. A lot of pop music, especially hip-hop, has gone in the other direction: we sing along to songs about experiences fewer and fewer of us have any real sort of access to.
How did you come up with the visuals for the music video Señorita?
The director, Rob Rodriquez, did a great job of representing the overall story and themes of the whole EP using just "Señorita." The water theme was especially powerful: Cape Verde is a chain of islands and served as a midway point on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and I had always imagined the protagonist immigrating by sea.
What are your future plans, music wise?
I like the idea From Spain With Love started me on, of organizing my music around places. I've got a couple other EPs in the works in that vein: From Indiana With Love where I concentrate on more of the soul and Americana influences, and From Mars With Love where I focus on the jazz, funk, and fusion sides of things and play with the sort of space-y Afrofuturist aesthetic those cats were on. Down the line I'd really like to do a Cuba-themed project.
There are some remixes coming out with Señorita, produced by DJ Broso, a friend and longtime collaborator. He's a first generation kid like me—of Garifuna heritage, now based out of Honduras, and produces tropical music with influences from throughout the diaspora. He always has a fresh and unexpected take on whatever we listen to or make together and these remixes are definitely no exception to that.