‘Red Hot + Riot’: Reflections on AIDS in Africa on Benefit Album’s 20th Anniversary

Twenty years ago, Red Hot released the album Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti, a tribute to the great Nigerian musician Fela Kuti who succumbed to complications related to AIDS five years earlier in 1997 at the age of 58. Fela was more than a musician. He was an activist and spiritual leader who fused American funk with African rhythms to create Afrobeat, which is more popular today than it was during his lifetime. Red Hot was invited by the Kuti family to produce the album with access to his publishing and master recordings (courtesy of Knitting Factory Records who had recently acquired his catalog).

The project kicked off with a superstar session brought together by Questlove led by D’Angelo and Fela’s son Femi Kuti. The musicians were a mix of Femi’s band Positive Force and the Soulquarians who often backed D’Angelo and Questlove (notably James Posner and Pino Palladino) along with Nile Rodgers, Macy Gray and others covering the song “Water No Get Enemy.” The idea for the project began with a conversation with Questlove at sessions for an earlier album – Red Hot + Rhapsody – where the Roots were collaborating with Bobby Womack on “Summertime.” Quest suggested that Red Hot should do a tribute album – track by track – to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, but we couldn’t clear the rights. Fela’s death and music was in our head, so we went back and suggested taking the Riot title and making an album raising awareness about AIDS in Africa.

The next session we produced after “Water No Get Enemy” was Baaba Maal covering Fela’s “Trouble Sleep.” We had built a studio, Fun Machine, run by Andres Levin, in the office on Spring Street where Red Hot’s sister company had grown to be a successful digital studio. You could see the World Trade Towers from the studio the day we recorded: September 10, 2001. They weren’t there the next day. Because of the struggle keeping the company going in the aftermath of 9/11, Andres copied the sessions onto disc so I could listen to them at home. I carefully saved all of them as well as the ProTools sessions. Because of that, the 20th anniversary release of Red Hot + Riot not only puts it on streaming platforms for the first time but also two hours of bonus material — including the acoustic Baaba Maal session and a cover of “Sorrow Tears and Blood” by Bilal, Common and Zap Mama that was never finished back then, but completes the album twenty years later.

Red Hot Riot

From the first Red Hot album, Red Hot + Blue, we included African musicians and talked about the terrible impact of the HIV pandemic on the Continent. But it was hard getting people to pay attention to the issue and to African music at the time. A Fela tribute wasn’t the obvious choice back then that it is now. It was an uphill struggle to get label support and the right mix of artists to do it. But we did.

Red Hot projects have always been hard to pull off. The music industry is charitable but doesn’t often support charity records that compete with commercial releases. When we did Red Hot + Dance, we got caught up in the struggle between George Michael and his label. It was hard to get Nirvana to donate a track to No Alternative and even more difficult to deal with their label, who didn’t let us use the band’s name on the packaging or marketing materials. Ironically that became our best marketing strategy of all time: the album with the hidden Nirvana track. But our struggles are nothing really compared to what it has been like for people with AIDS or the LGBTQ+ community.

Fortunately, over the past few decades, things have improved in the U.S. Medication allows people to live with HIV (thanks in large part to activists at ACT UP and TAG that that Red Hot helped fund in the early 1990s) and just recently two people who identify as lesbians were elected governors for the first time. But sadly, that’s not the case in much of the Global South. It’s shocking that HIV infection in sub-Saharan African remains at roughly the same level as when we released Red Hot + Riot in 1992. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 71% of people living with HIV, a devastating reality where 75% of global HIV related deaths and 65% of new infections occur. Of the 38.3 million people living with HIV worldwide, 27.3 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa; 7.8 million of the 27.3 million infected people are in South Africa including about 6.3 million young adults and children. To put that in context, 11% of humans live in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it accounts for over 71% of the global impact of AIDS in terms of infections and mortality.

The stigma around men who have sex with other men, women’s lack of resources and agency and the vilification of sex workers and drug addicts has inhibited progress to aid the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Often ignorance is used to distance the culture from topics like intimate partner violence, sex education, the LGBTQ+ community and women’s lack of agency and access to care. Unfortunately, young women and girls bear the brunt of the impact from cultural silence and their pain and misfortune is passed onto future generations. The HIV/AIDS epidemic’s root is the intersection of structural and cultural setbacks in awareness, acceptance, understanding and treatment. Music hasn’t been able to change that – even supercharged with Fela’s Afrobeats and activism – but it remains a powerful force to raise awareness and make people reflect on the devastation of this preventable disease around the world.

According to the CDC, AIDS in Africa peaked in 2002, the year Red Hot + Riot was released, at 4.69 million people infected the prior year. Now, 20 years later there remains over 25 million people infected with HIV on the Continent. To put that in context, the total number of COVID cases in Africa is projected to be about 4 million, with around a hundred thousand deaths. The estimated annual deaths from AIDS in Africa in 2018 was 470,000. In a global context, worldwide deaths from COVID to date is the tragic number of 6.61 million people. Over 40 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

In “Water No Get Enemy,” Fela Kuti embodied a philosophy larger than his music. “If your child dey grow, a water he go use/ If water kill your child, na water you go use.” Fela symbolically compares an institution to a parent who continues to use water after their child drowns. Regardless of setbacks, the community must continue to provide solutions for our social ailments. Fela conveys that living necessities are non-negotiable regardless of circumstance. The charge to support vulnerable people fighting against global pandemics is non-negotiable.

We cannot let the silent continue to suffer. “Ko s’ohun to’le se k’o ma lo’mi o,” Fela writes. “There is nothing you can do without water.”

Joe Lynch