Carrying the torch

An interview with Nigerian musician Femi Kuti, son of the legendary pioneer of Afrobeat

Courtesy Of Glen E. Friedman

He looks and sounds just like his father.

Standing onstage bare-chested, he holds his golden saxophone guardedly like an oddly beautiful weapon. Around him, a large ensemble of horn players lays down a heavily organic, almost impenetrable groove as dancers, fellow Nigerians, bring the colorful event to life—a large swirling ritual of talking African beats and trance-like, hypnotic rhythms calling like a glorious desert bonfire to the night.

For Femi Kuti, 39-year-old son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikapulato Kuti, music is still a weapon. And who can blame him? In 1977, when Femi was just a teenager, he watched in horror as soldiers angered over his father’s satirical Zombie album broke into his home, threw his grandmother out of the window (she died), beat his father within an inch of his life, and burned the whole place down.

His father, Fela, became internationally known for his defiant stance against the corrupt governments of Africa as well as for creating the Afrobeat sound, which mixed elements of American jazz and funk with traditional African music. He was inspired after visiting America in the ‘60s, where he had a romantic relationship with a member of the Black Panther Party, Femi’s mother.

Thrown into prison in Africa over 200 times, Fela became a renowned voice of dissent through 70 albums of bold musical energy that inspired countless fans worldwide. In Africa, his marathon five-hour concerts were cause for town-wide celebrations. After a life of hedonism, he died of AIDS-related heart failure in 1997—by which time his son had already begun his own musical journey.

Nowadays, Femi still plays Afrobeat, albeit a more concise and modern blend (see the review of his new album, Fight to Win, in Shelflife, page 31). For Femi, gone are the excesses of his father (28 wives, promiscuous large-scale orgies, massive marijuana fests), but the energetic and soulful lifestyle of rebel music remains a driving force in his life. Alongside his wife Funke, sister Yemi, and 12-piece band Positive Force, this Kuti carries on the crusade against corrupt Nigerian politics while defending vanishing cultural traditions and speaking out on the dangers of AIDS.

Like the musical children of Bob Marley and John Lennon, Femi has struggled to define himself outside the large shadow cast by his father—and his new album shows he is doing that.

The N&R recently spoke with the gravel-voiced singer/ saxophonist from his hotel in New York City, where he is currently on a busy tour opening sold-out arenas for the likes of Jane’s Addiction and R.E.M. Kuti and crew give a special headlining performance—not to be missed—in Chico on Nov. 15 at the Student Union Center in the BMU.

CN&R: I saw [Nigerian President] Obasanjo on C-SPAN the other day with [U.S. President] Bush. Did you catch that?

Femi Kuti: I watched some of it [scoffs]. The conflict in Nigeria has been going for years before he came into power, and it is his duty to resolve it. It has degenerated to such an extent that soldiers massacred a whole village without trial in the name of democracy. I think it is very sad. And Obasanjo has done this before; what did America say? Bush agrees with him. When the war starts in Nigeria, everybody afraid to talk, afraid to die. If the people of New York kill a policeman, would you bomb a whole town? He should not be president.

What is the most important political message you want American audiences to come away with?

Well [sighs], all these world issues. What happened on the 11th. Everyone is becoming afraid to do anything. When you look at the rest of the world, there is so much suffering. Look at Africa—the biggest continent in the world. Every country has serious problems. A president like Obasanjo, after he has beaten the shit out of my father, he is made president again. The extent of the poverty in Nigeria, millions are suffering. They all come to America for your system. In 10 years time, there will be more problems. America opens its borders, says it is so good, blah, blah, blah. How are you going to provide jobs for all these people? When you put 20,000 Nigerians here with no jobs?

Are you still associated with MASS [Movement Against Second Slavery, a political organization Kuti founded]?

Yes—but privately. When I started MASS, everybody thought it was just a money game like democracy. I say Africa has to start doing its own thing. With the success of my career, I’m going to go out and keep working with good organizations aimed at good life for the children. People are very greedy, and corruption is really the business of a lot of things, especially in Africa. I may call an African man and say, “Hey, let’s do this,” and he is thinking of how to make money off me. The project never gets done. The dream doesn’t come true. So now, it is a family organization. My sister and I finished building The Shrine [a concert venue for African music]. We will make enough money to keep building an amusement park for the kids, things like that. … The Shrine is open now. By the time we finish, I hope to invite Antibalas Orchestra [a NYC club group dedicated to Fela and Afrobeat]. … I’ve talked to Common, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, all of them about this. But it costs a lot of money.

Would you like to write love songs some day?

Of course. I don’t think I was born to be angry. I am political because of my environment—I just feel I have to do something about it. I see the urgency of things now. If the soldiers can kill, like the president says, isn’t that call for change? If the people are so bitter as to kill soldiers, what happens in five years’ time? Yes, we’re going to have civil war. It’s staring out of the face. The people are bitter that all the money from our oil reserves is being taken. Nothing is left for them—no good schools, no good life. They’ve been complaining for years, and they see the leaders get richer all the time. They only going to get more bitter.

You country is half Muslim, half Christian. Can you discuss the current problem facing Muslim conflict with the West?

All I will say is that the problem did not start today. It’s something that should have been resolved a long time ago. If we truly want a better world, we better set out to resolve the issues and put a better world out. More people get bitter, more angry they get. And their children will get angry, and it will go on and on and on.

What is your own religion?

I’m a Shrinite [laughs]. Totally music, man.

I watched a French documentary about you, and it showed the poor conditions of your neighborhood, how electric generators keep you awake at night with a busy rhythm similar to your music. What other influences might a Westerner not immediately recognize in your sound?

The language, the people, the countries. I choose my music to speak out for the people. When you are out in town, like in the film, people are all complaining, “I’m tired, man. When will this get better?” My music is for them.

Yet your own radio bans your music. … Why do Nigerian youth find capitalism so appealing, if it has only made things worse so far?

I think it is the TV. They been watching that. I tried to tell them, look, the American life is difficult. You don’t just come to America and think things are going to be given to you. They see all the videos and things and believe that when they get to America, they going to get this. “I’m going to be a star!” America did not just get great overnight. It took years—Social Security, pay your tax. People watch the movie, and they just dream, you see? They do not listen. In reality, they come to America and become taxi drivers. They could have years of education already; it is silly to me. I tell them to come together, make Africa a great country, so we can be what we are supposed to be in our lives. That is what the government and a true democracy should be working on. Millions of dollars come in from your country. It should be given to teachers, housing, good equipment.

Do you still feel unsafe in Nigeria or targeted by the government?

Yes, I do. The Shrine was attacked when I was building. Some boys came there with guns and start shooting. Said they were looking for bandits. Fortunately, I wasn’t there. Would they have shot me and called it a mistake? People come there asking me for my money all the time. Also, my roof caught fire. Someone said they heard a big explosion, I don’t know if it was a bomb—some believe it was voodoo. Excuses are made. So, I still feel targeted. I fear for my son as well … but it is my duty to be there. I cannot leave. A lot of young people depend on me for a lot of reasons.

Speaking of whom, I know your 5-year old son plays already. What will you do differently for him than your father did for you?

I would love to send him to a very good school for the proper education. Then I will teach him my own education. He has all the tools to become a good musician.

So you firmly believe that music can play a major role in helping unite and better Africa?

I believe so. I believe so. I would like to see music coming from everywhere, north, south, east, west. All the governments are corrupting those around them. If we put our heads together, we musicians can do our part to help provide for the underprivileged. There is a lot of money there—musicians can come together to help the farmers, for instance. If I become so rich, I will do this. I will just buy land and get people to farm.

Anything you want to say to Chico?

No. … Let’s just all strive to make this world truly a better place. Californ-I-a, here I come! [Laughs.] OK. Ciao.