$5m suit casts shadow over Fela Kuti musical

Son of Nigeria's most influential musician pleads with biographer todrop copyright case against show's producers
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The Independent Culture

The son of the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, hailed as Africa's answer to Bob Marley, has waded into a legal spat that threatens to overshadow a multimillion-pound musical about his father's life poised to open in London this week.

Femi Kuti, who is also a musician, yesterday urged his father's biographer, Carlos Moore, to abandon a $5m (£3.1m) copyright lawsuit which he fears will overshadow Fela!, the show that tells his father's controversial story.

In the case, launched in Manhattan last week, Mr Moore claims the musical's producers failed to credit his 1982 book Fela: This Bitch of a Life as a source for the production. The writ claims the musical features chunks of the book, which has been out of print for years but has just been re-released, copied "verbatim" without his "knowledge, authorisation or consent".

Femi Kuti appealed for Mr Moore to settle his differences with those responsible for the show, which has wowed Broadway and opens at the National Theatre on Tuesday. "We want Africans to be able to survive on that continent and get things done right, so we need to settle all our differences."

The show's producers said they were "disappointed and perplexed" by the allegations, which the National insisted would not affect the production. Mr Moore, who had turned down a $4,000 (£2,500) offer for the rights to his book as derisory, added: "It is not the aesthetics of the musical that I oppose; it is the ethics of its intellectual and financial mentors that I contest."

Femi Kuti said the "fantastic" production would help to teach people about the "gravity of the political situation and climate" in Africa. "[His story] is a big part of Nigeria's history. A man that was beaten and incarcerated, unjustly. He was a multimillionaire and the government put him down and the family had to start from scratch. His mother was killed and his children have been victimised."

Sahr Ngaujah, who played Fela Kuti on Broadway and will open in London, said the show could "tip" Afrobeat music into the mainstream. Fela!'s co-producers include Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Demand for Fela Kuti's music has leapt, with sales up 400 per cent, according to his record label, Wrasse.

Aside from the musical, to be streamed into 300 cinemas worldwide next January, Chiwetel Ejiofor is playing Fela Kuti in a biopic expected next year. The Broadway version of Fela! won three 2010 Tony awards and the London production is said to be edgier than the original, but it ignores the singer's controversial relationships – he infamously married 27 women on the same day in 1978.

Femi Kuti said his father's reputation had been misconstrued. "He came from a culture that is polygamous. If the Europeans say, 'One man, one wife,' we can ask them, 'Why does a man have so many divorces and end up with so many women at the end of the day?'"