Femi Kuti Live!
A conversation about his family’s musical and political legacy, and his thoughts on the radical future ahead for the Obama generation.
It’s hard to imagine the pressure Femi Kuti must feel, taking the stage as the son of one of the world’s most legendary performers, charged with carrying forward the Afrobeat music his father, Fela Kuti, created decades ago. “It’s true,” Femi offers. “I do stand in big shoes—because my feet are bigger than his. Ha! I am about an inch taller.” So much for that.
Femi long ago found his own voice, but it’s one that’s no less provocative and defiant than his father’s. The family’s confrontation with Nigerian political corruption and authoritarian rule throughout Africa stretches back generations. Until AIDS slowed Fela, and ultimately killed him in 1997, his music defined black political resistance on the continent. Since then, Femi has kept that spirit alive, first with a couple of commercially successful albums at the turn of the century, then with relentless live performances at his family’s renowned Lagos club, The Shrine.
As Femi launched his North American tour this week—promoting his first studio album since 2001, Day by Day—he sat down with The Root to talk about his family’s musical and political legacy, and the radical future he believes the Obama generation heralds. Ominously, just days before the tour began, Lagos authorities raided and shut down The Shrine. After a global outcry, the club quickly reopened, but the standoff offered a stark reminder of the charged relationship Afrobeat and its founders have always had with Africa’s ruling class.
The Root: Let’s start with The Shrine. Tell us what it is.
Femi Kuti: The Shrine for us is like the mosque or the church. It was like that for my father, and what we have tried to do is put it like he would want. The Shrine is a cultural, social place, and it was built in honor of my father. So if the government cannot close the mosque or the church, it should not think about closing The Shrine. It is a spiritual home for our ancestors, where we do our own style of worship by playing truthful music.
TR: And what is the problem, in your mind, that the authorities have with it?
FK: I think because lately I’ve been very outspoken, very critical of the state government. … They gave the excuse of the street traders—that we are the cause of the people who come and sell [drugs] on the streets, and that we are supposed to get rid of those people. Now, we work with the drug law enforcement agencies because there’s a lot of drugs on the street. It has nothing to do with me. The drug people know I am not involved in it. We work with about three police stations who come and police the place every night for us. So when the state government descends upon us for this reason, we can’t understand.
TR: So in your mind, this is all just smoke screen for harassment.
FK: Yes, harassment because the place is getting popular again. In 2007 in December, the police came and arrested about 450 people that were inside and just started flogging them in the streets. They beat the living daylights out of them, took them to the station and said they were looking for armed robbers. … So everybody was scared to come to The Shrine because the police kept patrolling. It took us months to get people to come back in.