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.
TR: You and your family have long had a difficult relationship with authorities in Nigeria.
FK: We will always have this difficulty, as long as the governments are corrupt. As long as the governments don’t provide a good education, electricity, good roads, water—all the simple amenities for the people that we know exist. We will always have that problem.
TR: Describe Afrobeat for the young people who have never heard it.
FK: Afrobeat is a mixture of music that my father played—especially jazz, [West African] highlife, traditional African music and the gospel kind of music that his father was signing. My father was the pianist of his secondary school, and he used to sing all of my grandfather’s hymns, that my grandfather composed. So all of that was already in him. He knew all the songs of my great-grandfather and grandfather. So he had all of this before he went to college. He heard Miles Davis, came back to Nigeria, and it was highlife. And then there was traditional music. Out of all this he found Afrobeat.
TR: Is it necessarily political?
FK: It did not start political. But when my father came to America, he met the Black Panthers. He read books of Malcolm X. This was when America was revolting against [the legacy of] slavery, and black people were getting angry, and he met all of these people. And when he got back to Nigeria, he thought he was bringing something positive for the Nigerian government at that time. “Hey, look what’s going on! The black people are revolting in America. We here in Africa, we can make this a great continent.” He had all of these ideas, and he went to the minister of culture, who just looked at him and said, “You are talking rubbish.” That got him angry, and he started to be involved in political music.
TR: But for you, is it necessarily political?
FK: Yes, because it is now a heritage. It is life. It is what we witness every day. We still have no lights; we have no electricity; many people do not have water. Many people cannot afford a square meal for their families because the poverty is so bad. If you are not the friend of the government, you cannot have a good life. Now that is not the way it should be.
TR: So these facts inform your music?
FK: If I am concerned about my son, yes. Because what kind of life will he have? And his children? Now, if I wasn’t enlightened by my father, I would be quite a stupid African. Ha! If he wasn’t enlightened, and people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Kwame Nkrumah did not sacrifice their lives for Africa, my father would not have understood the fight of the slave trade. People cannot understand what 500 years of slavery meant. And even today we ignore that fact because education does not make us understand the gravity of what happened. We are not talking about six years. We are not talking about 20 years. We are talking about nothing less than six generations of slavery. … We find excuses that we mustn’t think about it. Because of a desire to be part of the material world, because we are scared, we are ready to say, “To hell with our ancestors,” and just live in this age that means nothing. So what is the base of our existence?
TR: When you talk about the base of existence, it makes me think of how in Day by Day you talk about Christianity and religion and it’s role in Nigeria and Africa. What is your message there?
TR: But you also have some very critical things to say about Christianity in it.
FK: Yes. Because we know what Christianity is. We know what Christianity did to Africa, what Islam did to Africa. We had our own religion. … When the Christians came and shot us and gave us the Bible, and took our resources and took our people, all in the name of Christianity, is that what the creator wanted? When the Muslims came from the North and said you are pagans and Christians and cut off our necks, that is not positive religion. Religion has to peaceful.
TR: I want to talk about family because you are so associated with it and Fela’s legacy. You are bringing your son on tour with you, correct?
FK: He has to go to school now, so he hasn’t been on tour for about three years now. He’s very angry, but he has to go to school! I don’t want him to fall into the victimization of them calling him a dropout, like me. I don’t want his peers to think they are better than him because they went to university, and he didn’t get the chance to go because he was playing music. … You can get lost in music. It’s a world of its own. When you go into the art form, it consumes you.
TR: I ask because you are seen as the steward for what your father created, and I’m wondering if you are passing that on to your son. Or if you consider any of that to be real?
FK: Yes, definitely. I know it is in him. He’s a great percussionist, and he catches everything so fast. If he does play music, his greatness will not surprise me. … I would love him to play music, but I want to be very objective. If he chooses a different direction, I will be happy for him. If he has a happy family, and his children are happy, I will be delighted for him. I want him to be happy at the end of the day. If he plays music, I will not be one bit surprised. And if he ends up fighting with his music, it will not surprise me one bit!
TR: Indeed, your family has been wrestling with Nigeria’s future for generations. Where does that future stand?
FK: It is difficult, but we will get by. I still am very optimistic. It’s not just Africa now. It’s the whole world. Look at the recession. Ah! It’s very bad. If you didn’t have a job, you would be worried stiff right now. In Europe and America, no jobs. Ha! Now, Europe and America are feeling what the ordinary man in Africa has been feeling for years. What I have been feeling. People ask me, “Ah, has the music industry collapsed?” I say I never sold 20 million albums, so I have no idea what it means to be a rich artist. I’ve always struggled, making sure my live gigs are good, so I can come back and play. I’ve never relied on the album.
TR: Playing live is just more fun and more interesting?
FK: Yes, because it’s your life. The album is more a statement of, what did he do in his lifetime? You can refer back to it. You can rely on it for history’s purposes. … But this is life now. What is happening today! … [At the North American tour’s New York City opener], I will make sure it is going to be one of the great sessions I will play, because I will give everything, on that night. …
As I was explaining, people ask me about the record industry collapsing. I believe in 50 years time, it won’t be about commercialism any more. It will be about being real. Not just finding a gimmick—singing “Hey baby, baby, baby.” People will say, “What is he saying? What is this motherf***** saying?! He must be such an unintelligent fool.” People will want to listen to Miles Davis again. John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Dizzy Gillespie, “Things to Come.” Fela Anikulapo Kuti! People will want to listen to real music because people will have understood life. So the world has to pass through this stage to let us understand that commercialism and materialism is not real, it has been fake all this time.
TR: Fela was often called the “black president.” What are your thoughts on our new black president?
FK: I like him. I think he’s real. I think he’s the best thing that has happened to America in a long time. … If Obama can get elected, with so many votes coming from young people, there’s a new vibrant force coming out of America that the racists and the not-real people have to be very afraid of. That generation has come of age, and they are going to change so many things. They are the ones that don’t see why they should buy anybody’s album. They just download. F*** everybody! Ha! This is a very powerful generation, and that makes me very happy.
TR: So can Obama help Nigeria and Africa, too?
FK: He has already helped. Don’t you see? He has already helped. But I won’t say “he,” because it is not him. It is everybody who took part in the election. The change has come, whether we like it or not.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.