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Femi Kuti talks Nigerian elections, the music of his father and 'Fela!' in Lagos

May 12, 2011 |  7:55 am

XZ4C2038_Julien Mignot

Just a few weeks ago, Nigeria celebrated a relatively peaceful election, with incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party emerging victorious in a process unmarked by the violence and rioting that has scarred polls in the past.

This was good news to all Nigerians, particularly to the musician Femi Kuti, whose family has been immersed in a passionate fight for peace and justice in Nigeria for several generations. His grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was an active anticolonialist and a devout proponent for women’s rights. His father, Fela Kuti, was perhaps the country’s most well-known political maverick, a multitalented musician who became an immensely powerful representation of the country’s desire for freedom and change.

“Growing up, listening to my father, I was able to understand what his deeper message was,” remembers the younger Kuti, who performs at the El Rey on Thursday night with his group Positive Force, during a recent telephone conversation. “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.”

At 16, Femi, Fela’s eldest son, joined his father’s band and soon after Fela’s death in 1997 began making music of his own. Today, Femi carries on the family tradition with a fervor — at 48, he is an international Afrobeat star and an eloquently outspoken voice for a new Africa. He set about facilitating a Lagos run of the hit Broadway show "Fela!" (based on his father’s life), to open just before the elections.

“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 of accepting this divide that exists for very stupid, ignorant reasons.”

_MG_8797_ Jerome  Flament “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,” explains Kuti. “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.”

Kuti was keen to remind the country of this history, particularly the potent activism inherent in his father’s legacy — and figured that the Bill T. Jones-directed "Fela!" was certain to remind Nigerians once again of his father’s tremendous influence on the country.

“I think the average person here will love the show,” said Kuti before "Fela!’s" Lagos opening, “The Americans succeed in communicating my father's 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 a 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.”

The show was indeed a hit, but for Kuti and his fellow Nigerians the celebration faded with news that over the last few weeks post-election violence has erupted against the PDP’s Christian following. Hundreds of churches have been burned and several people have been killed, just as Kuti kicked off his U.S. tour.

“I heard news from Lagos that there is violence again,” Kuti said last week in a call from New York City, “and it saddens and angers me. There is great hope for Nigeria, but there is still so much unrest and conflict too.”

Yet despite this, Kuti continues his family’s fight with the same stubborn exuberance as his father, and grandmother before him.

“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.”

-- Jessica Hundley

Top photo: Femi Kuti. Credit: Julien Mignot

Bottom photo: Femi Kuti in concert. Credit: Jerome Flement

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