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Never mind the nepotism: the musical heirs stepping out from their parents’ shadows

Time was when celebrity children had a hard time being taken seriously, but a new wave are embracing their family legacies – and even working with their parents. Alli Patton speaks to the Kutis, Andrew Hagar and Lola Lennox about carrying the rock’n’roll mantle

Friday 29 January 2021 13:31 GMT
<p>Family portrait: Lola and Annie Lennox (left), Femi and Made Kuti (front), Kelly and Ozzy Osbourne (back), and Rufus and Loudon Wainwright III (right)</p>

Family portrait: Lola and Annie Lennox (left), Femi and Made Kuti (front), Kelly and Ozzy Osbourne (back), and Rufus and Loudon Wainwright III (right)

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Since the dawn of red carpets, celebrity offspring have been shrouded in a second-hand allure. From Nancy Sinatra and Liza Minnelli to Jaden Smith and Miley Cyrus, these children of the rich and famous have made headlines since the day they were born, but often the story goes that they find it tricky to step out from under their family’s shadow and be taken seriously on their own terms. Celebrity is not a birth right, and an illustrious surname does not guarantee the keys to a lucrative career. While there is certainly nepotism in the entertainment industry, famous parents are rarely enough to sustain a career in film, TV or music.

No one wants to be Kelly Osbourne, accused of getting a leg-up from their stadium-headlining dad, as was the case with her 2002 debut album, Shut Up. Fans had no trouble being convinced that her record contract was more to do with the reputation of her father, the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, than with her own talents. There’s little space now if you’re just not very good; a different breed of musical progeny is emerging, offering fresh takes on growing up in the limelight and forcing the outside world to rethink certain misconceptions surrounding them.

For Andrew Hagar, son of Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar, picking up a guitar felt like the most natural choice in the world. “I wasn’t just trying to chase fame,” he tells me. “I was doing this because I really genuinely believe in myself and my art.” Hagar Jr believes that many “second gens” in famous families often struggle to get people to look at them as anything other than a novelty act. “I guess I had a lot to prove,” he says.

Some artists manage to make fans forget their famous parents by going down a different path, whether that means a different genre of music or a different artform altogether. Very few people would equate rapper Nas’s success with his father, renowned jazz musician Olu Dara. And without a quick google, it’s not immediately obvious that Redfoo and SkyBlu, the electronic duo of LMFAO, are the son and grandson of Motown Records founder, Berry Gordy. Sting’s daughter Eliot Sumner, adopted a pseudonym, Vaal, with which to launch her DJ career.

Others have more trouble shaking off the shadow of their famous parents: Jakob Dylan, whose band The Wallflowers sold 4 million copies of their Grammy-winning 1996 album Bringing Down the Horse, is still dogged by questions about his father, Bob. “I still go into a restaurant and people say, ‘I love your dad's work,’” he griped to The New York Times in 2005.    

Andrew Hagar says he has come to terms with the fact that he will likely never eclipse his father’s success. “I’m totally OK with that,” he says. “I just wanna make good music and be myself.” He has experimented with what he describes as a “hodgepodge of garage rock, psychedelic rock, folk rock”, the sonic cocktail of his two singles released last year, “Judgement Day” and “Cold Knife Karma”.    

Trev Lukather, son of Steve Lukather from US rock legends Toto, caught the music bug very early on. “Toto reunited in, like, 1999 with its original lead singer, and I saw dad shred for a song’s solo,” he remembers. “These people were reaching out to him and I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna do that. That looks like fun.’” Growing up playing music and jumping into the industry at a young age, he fully understands the insecurities, the pressures and the comparisons that come with being a Lukather. For some time, he struggled with finding himself and not knowing what he wanted to do or who he was musically. It took him time to strike upon his own sound and message, away from his last name. 

“What my dad’s accomplished is nothing that I’ll be able to accomplish because those days are over… those times are done,” he says. “We live in a completely different world.” With that as a reminder, he says, much of the pressure to emulate his father’s career was removed: “I was actually able to become myself, and who I am as a musician and a writer.” He admits to a slight tip of the hat while he’s playing and writing. “What I do is very different from what my dad does, but there is a homage,” he says, of his “fast-paced, in-your-face” guitar chops that can be heard in his band Levara. “I can’t help how I was influenced.” 

When the junior does manage to outperform the senior, however, parent-child dynamics can be put to the test. The Wainwrights, for instance – a musical dynasty that includes father Loudon III and his children Rufus and Martha – are infamous for their fraught relationships. “[My father and I] had periods where we almost killed each other,” Rufus told The Independent last year, revealing that they had attended therapy sessions in a bid to improve their understanding of one another. “I wish I was speaking figuratively, but it was pretty hairy at times.”  

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Loudon, meanwhile, freely admits to being jealous of his talented children in his 2017 memoir, Liner Notes, writing that he would much rather be in the spotlight himself than watch them perform. “That’s just an admission of guilt, I suppose, or something like that,” he told The Independent. “I think our family, because three out of my four kids are performers, it might seem unusual, all these songs and admissions and dwelling on the family issue. But families are entangled – ours certainly is – and there’s been drama, excitement… thrills and spills.”

By comparison, other artistic parent-child relationships are absolute bliss. While working to finish her latest single “Back at Wrong”, singer-songwriter Lola Lennox tried out a couple of different producers, but something wasn’t clicking. Her mother, synth-pop siren Annie Lennox, suggested: “Why don’t we just try something together?”  

Lola describes working with her mother to produce the single as a total joy. “We got into the studio and it was so fun,” the 30-year-old tells The Independent. “We all understand each other really well. We get each other’s taste. We get the story we’re trying to convey through the music. And we both have a mutual respect for the ideas that the other offers.” She admits that it was intimidating at first, and she struggled with feelings of self-doubt. “When you’re growing with somebody who has had so much success and has written and created so many beautiful things, you do feel like you have to hit a certain level of quality.” But she was able to channel that insecurity into a drive that helped her to pull off what she describes as her best work. “I always focused on letting the songs speak for themselves, as opposed to me being somebody’s daughter.” 

Lola Lennox: ‘Working with my mother was bliss'

Going one further from collaborating with their parents are the second-generation musicians who take on the role of surrogate. After John Bonham's death in 1980, his son Jason filled in for him as Led Zeppelin’s drummer. A similar arrangement was expected of Wolfgang Van Halen when his father, the guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, died last year. In an interview with the broadcaster Howard Stern, he said he had no intention of taking his father’s place as the band’s guitarist. He had played bass occasionally alongside his father, but for now is focusing on his solo work, and released a tribute to his dad after his death. “You can’t have Van Halen without Eddie Van Halen,” he said. “I’m not my dad. I’m not going to replace him.”

Sometimes progeny end up creating an entire musical family lineage. The Hank Williams family tree may be a twisted one, but it comprises a long line of revered country bad boys still upholding the family’s honky-tonk tendencies. The Carter-Cash clan began with a marriage between country music royalty – June Carter and Johnny Cash – and today their children and grandchildren, including Rosanne Cash, Carlene Carter, and John Carter Cash, continue the family legacy. Nancy Sinatra’s recent reissues have been overseen by her daughters, as she has looked after the musical legacy of her father, Frank. And thanks to Bob and Rita’s children – Sharon, Cedella, Ziggy and Stephen – the Marleys and their impact on reggae will stand the test of time. 

Frank Sinatra discusses musical interpratation with his daughter Nancy in 1967

Nancy Sinatra told The Independent in an interview last Saturday that being the daughter of Ol’ Blue Eyes helped her career, but was also a hindrance. “It always was and it always will be, even to this day,” she said, “because people have preconceived ideas of how I got here: nepotism.” However, she suggested an upside of her family name was that she was shielded from misogyny within the music industry: “People didn't treat me the way they would treat just any girl off the street. They were respectful because of who my father is. So I didn't really see the ugly side.” But asked whether she felt she has ever received due credit for her work, she responded: “No, but it's OK. I've always credited everybody else with my success. It's alright. I'm used to it.”

Fela Kuti is another name that carries considerable weight in the music world. He started an Afrobeat dynasty that spans several decades and genres. Femi and Made Kuti, the son and grandson of the late pioneer, have created a name for themselves with their own variations on those styles, and are releasing a double album together, Legacy+, on 5 February.

Femi is known for taking what his father pioneered – a mish-mash of jazz, highlife and funk – and making it commercially successful. “I really love my father’s music,” he tells The Independent, from his home near Lagos, Nigeria. “It was the music I adored the most growing up as a child. I think it’s embedded in my system, in my DNA, so I know I will always have that sound.” In his youth, he taught himself to play the saxophone and began playing music alongside his father in his band Egypt 80. “I looked up to him politically,” he says. “I adored his courage, his bravery. He remained steadfast in fighting against corruption and injustice.”  

When Femi left his father’s band, he began creating music with a completely different sound, which he explains was his way of “looking for my soul, my spirit”. With his 1998 album Shoki Shoki, in particular, he experimented with computers to “enhance the Afrobeats”, leading to songs such as “Beng Beng Beng” and “Victim of Life”. But Femi’s innovation with the genre his father pioneered came at a price: Nigerian fans apparently rejected his music for almost a decade. His step away from his father’s sound came close to the breaking of a taboo. “I think a lot of people back home were angry,” he says. “You don’t fight a great man like my father.”

Femi’s son Made has an equally progressive attitude towards music and is just as keen to push boundaries. Following the family tradition, he grew up learning a variety of instruments and joined his father’s band Positive Force, playing bass and saxophone. As individual artists, their sounds are easily distinguishable, but the social and political messages that lay at the heart of Fela’s music remain the same.

Family legacy: Made and Femi Kuti

Made describes their double album as “a beautiful connective project”. “Legacy+ is very personal and it carries a very strong message – it’s about truth,” he says. “It’s about progress. It’s about the activism of the family. It’s about the troubles of Africa and the troubles of the world.”  

“The album means everything to me,” Femi says, full of pride. For him, this is a deeply personal project that he hopes will inspire people with its themes of love and family. “The world needs a lot of love, more healing,” he says. Made responds in kind; For(e)ward, his debut album, would not have been possible without the support of his father. He describes Femi as “the one person that I respect most, the person that I learned the most from”.  

The way he views his role in the family legacy is one of “propelling tradition forward. As a musician, as a creator, we’re supposed to adhere and understand tradition and decide where we want to take it.” Fortunately, Made was raised in an environment where he could “move and think freely”.  

“I found myself and through finding myself I could decide if I want to take on this from Fela, this from my dad … but what I eventually decided was I would do everything the way that I want to,” he says.

He realises that many of the steps he has taken through his life have followed those of his father and his grandfather. They share the same values, the same outlook. “But this is not me trying to replicate what they believe,” he says. “My beliefs are in tune with theirs.”  

Whether they are upholding a legacy, paying homage or creating intergenerational music with their folks, perhaps it’s time to rethink the tired cliches around the children and descendants of celebrities. This lot are doing it their way.

Femi and Made Kuti’s Legacy+ double album is out on 5 February

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