Jay-Z, Will Smith back Broadway show "Fela!"

Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:33am EST
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By Monica Herrera

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have officially signed on as co-producers of "Fela!," a musical about Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti that opens Monday (November 23) on Broadway.

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 catalog to the newly revived Knitting Factory Records. The well-timed deal will result in the reissue of Kuti's complete catalog -- 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 U.S., to his music."   Continued...

<p>Actors Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith look at a television monitor as Danny Boyle wins the Oscar for best director for his work in "Slumdog Millionaire," as they arrive at the 2009 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in West Hollywood, California February 22, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok</p>