On eve of Nigerian elections and the opening of 'Fela!' in Lagos, Femi Kuti talks politics, legacy, and music
Femi Kuti makes something more than music. His dozen or so album releases and hugely popular concerts (“one of the more powerful live shows on Earth,” according to the Onion) are imbued with the weight of family legacy and Kuti’s own individual intents. It is "music as message" in a way few acts take on these days –- protest and admonishment and hope all embedded in Afrobeat exuberance. In his own words, Kuti’s songs are his primary “weapon” in a lifelong struggle to bring awareness and resolution to the strife in his home country of Nigeria.
The eldest son of the great musician and activist Fela Kuti, Femi began his musical career at age 16 as a member of his father’s band. After Fela’s death in 1997, Kuti continued in his father’s footsteps, embracing outspoken activism, maverick musicianship and a relentless tour schedule. His newest effort, Africa for Africa (released April 12 on Knitting Factory Records), was recorded in the same studio where he first laid down tracks with his father.
A direct return to his roots, the album embraces raw funk and deliberately dirty production -– a mix of joyous dance beats and deeply potent lyricism. With the upcoming presidential elections in Nigeria on April 16 and the opening next week in Lagos of the Broadway hit “Fela!,” Kuti is raising his voice high, still seeking, through music, revolution, renewal and redemption.
Pop & Hiss: I’d like to hear your thoughts on music as a method of communication, a way to connect to the times. I think great music is always indicative of the moment that it’s made in. With that said, can you talk a bit about the intent of this particular record and ideally what you would like people to take from it?
Femi Kuti: I think the most important thing for Africans to understand, especially the young people of Africa to understand, is that all African countries, despite their political structures, are all one people. I want them to see that we are brothers and sisters and to try to love one another instead accepting this divide that exists for very stupid, ignorant reasons. We need to unite Africa, because we are so far behind the rest of the world. We need to take steps toward health and education for our children. We need to take care of ourselves and not rely on the West, on the rest of the world, to solve our problems.
Finally, people need to understand what 500 years of slavery did to Africa, what 50 years of colonialism did to Africa, what so many recent years of corrupt government has done to Africa. Young people, especially, need to understand this history in its context. They need to understand what people like Marcus Garvey, my father, my grandmother, people like this who sacrificed their time and their lives to fight for the emancipation of Africa.
People need to understand the past in order to step into the future. Africa has resources –- the human resources of great African doctors, athletes and artists -– collectively, as a nation, we have natural resources as well. We have what it takes to move into this future. I am trying to enlighten people on these issues and trying to encourage them to move forward.
I think there are many reasons. The most important is that music is a way to make very complex things understandable, palatable. Especially for young people, people in their teens, these topics are hard to understand; these issues are difficult to digest. Young people want to have fun. They don’t want to go to hear a lesson, but if you incorporate that lesson into a musical form, it’s a way for them to understand. You could put the knowledge of a whole book into a few lines of music, and because of this, the listener can quickly visualize everything on a large scale.
Growing up, listening to my father, I was able to understand what his deeper message was. It opened my mind. His music passed on information in a way that was pleasurable, simple, moving. Young people can dance and sing, and then it is only later that they realize what the song was talking about, that it had a deeper meaning. Music is very powerful that way.
Can you talk a bit about the elections of the last few weeks and of the upcoming presidential elections in Nigeria and how have they differed in the past?
We have had years of corruption. Africans are impatient right now. They just want to make enough money to live their lives. They want a job to support their families. This is a worldwide issue, of course, at the moment. The world is struggling right now. In Africa, truly democratic elections are still evolving as a process, but they seem to be much better this time, in part because we, as a people, as voters, have the same needs. We are unified in the same pressing desire for the basic rights to an education, to healthcare, to roads, electricity -- this is the right of everyone in Africa. It belongs to the bus driver, the household workers. It’s not just for the elite. It’s for all Africa. So we are hoping that these elections are closer to attaining some form of democracy for us.
And you are part of bringing the "Fela!," the Broadway production of your father’s life, to Lagos next week. Can you talk a bit about that?
A: I wanted people here to see how Americans saw the story of my father and how he changed the world. Now, a lot of critics here resent that the show is coming because they don’t feel it’s “African” enough. They resent that an American is playing my father. They are making judgments about the performance and the dance -- that it's not “African” dance. But these are trivial criticisms. If you keep an open mind, you see that the Americans were able to communicate the message of my father in a way anyone can immediately understand.
I didn’t go to the show on Broadway wanting to see my father. I didn’t go to the show to see “African” dance. I wanted to see a show that expressed the essence of what my father meant to the world. I cried when I saw the show because that message came across so powerfully. I’m hearing complaints like the American star of the show doesn’t look like my father or sound like my father -– blah, blah, blah. But they are complaints from minds that are not open. What I want to know is, if you are going to complain about the Americans telling this story, why didn’t an African company do the show themselves? Why did no Nigerian produce this show years ago?
If it were not for this show, then I’m not sure if as many of people would be talking about my father today. Now that’s not to say that the average person on the street here in Lagos will not come and enjoy and be moved and satisfied by the show. I think the average person here will love the show. The Americans succeed in communicating my fathers’ life in a way that is understandable to all cultures. If you were to take this show to Japan, people would understand, because the Americans have told it in way that crosses those boundaries. So I think it’s important that people here in Nigeria set aside their assumptions and open their minds to it.
You’ve been playing music (with your father first) when you were 16 and have been carrying on the work of your father, in your own individual way, since his death. Does that legacy ever weigh heavily on you?
Sometimes I do think that I wish could be somewhere in Hawaii on the beach or something. And of course, I would like to be able to spend more time with my family. But these are selfish thoughts, especially when you compare this to the history of my family. There are people in my family, and many, many other people in history, who knew they might be killed for what they were doing. So you can’t compromise when you see injustice and you see the truth. I try to give myself to my family as well as to my music, but I cannot compromise.
You just had a child a few days ago. Do you have hope for the future, for the world that she’ll become a woman in?
There are so many good people in the world, people who truly want peace and love and want it now. The world at this moment is going through a very drastic, very bad time. And all these recent natural disasters -- the tsunami in Japan -- these are heartbreaking things beyond our control. But we do have control over what we do as people. And we do have control of our own lives. I try to do my music and be strong and be there for my children and keep alive that hope for the future.
-- Jessica Hundley
Photo (top): Femi Kuti. Credit: Julian Mignot
Photo (bottom): Femi Kuti in performance. Credit: Jerome Flament