The news confirms weeks of speculation that the three would back the show.
A representative for Fela! did not specify the amount of the celebrities’ investment, but their endorsement alone gives the musical’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 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 the music of 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 his death in 1997.
“I have an abiding regret that Fela never achieved the recognition he deserved during his lifetime,” Stein said. “We have a long row to hoe in terms of general knowledge and acceptance.”
In addition to green-lighting Fela! Kuti’s estate has licensed his catalogue to the newly revived Knitting Factory Records. The well-timed deal will result in the reissue of Kuti’s complete catalogue — 45 albums — during the next 12 years.
“The industry always talks about who the next big legacy artist will be,” said 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 US, to his music.”
Up first is the October 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 organised by Knitting Factory Records and its marketing partner, Giant Step. .
MCA reissued Kuti’s catalogue in 2001, but Bernstein, who helped market that series, said its potential wasn’t fully realised. “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 said.— Billboard