Femi Kuti: Carrying The Torch

By: Kayceman

Femi Kuti
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is without question one of the most important musicians to ever take the stage. By fusing elements of jazz and funk with undulating African percussion and call-and-response vocals, Fela created a new form of music: Afrobeat. But Fela was more than Africa's first international star. Like Bob Marley, he was a social and political leader of almost religious proportions. From his uncompromising attacks on African corruption to the Kalakuta Republic - the self-governing communal compound he created - to the severe beatings and time spent in jail, Fela fought oppression every day, in every way. With Fela's death in 1997, the weight of the Kuti legacy was shifted to his oldest son, Femi.

Having toured with his father's band, Egypt 80, for years, Femi began his solo career in 1986 by forming the band Positive Force. Learning not only from his father's successes but also his failures, Femi lives a much different lifestyle than his controversial father. Where Fela married 27 wives, smoked copious amounts of ganja and refused to wear condoms (and by no coincidence died of AIDS), Femi has one wife, does not drink or smoke, and has been a strong activist of safe sex. Although these differences are stark, like Fela, Femi is the voice for the common man as he continues to develop Afrobeat.

Femi's eponymous 1995 debut was well received, but it was his second full-length, Shoki Shoki (1999) that cemented him as the undeniable successor to the Afrobeat throne. Continuing to evolve, his next album, Fight To Win (2001), began to incorporate elements of hip-hop as he collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Lauryn Hill. His most recent offering, The Definitive Collection (released May 22, 2007 on Wrasse Records) is a two-disc best of compilation that's half straight Femi and half tasteful remixes.

A few months after his latest release and ten years after his father's death, JamBase catches up with Femi Kuti to discuss Fela, Africa, his son, oppression, Afrobeat and more.

JamBase: It's been ten years since your father's death. How has Afrobeat, Nigeria and your own career changed in that time?

Fela Kuti
Femi: I hope it has all changed positively. That is a long time, ten years. Hopefully I've grown. I'm ten years older.

JamBase: How about Nigeria? How have things changed in the past ten years?

Femi: Politically things have gotten worse. People are poorer. The ruling class is getting richer and raping the resources and having a good life for themselves and their families and their friends. Education has collapsed; health care has collapsed. It is quite impossible for the younger generation to get by these days, so there is a lot of crime. And it doesn't look like things will change in the near future.

JamBase: Do you and your family still live in Lagos?

Femi: Yes.

Do you plan to stay there if things continue to get worse?

Yes.

The resistance that Fela faced with Obasanjo [Olusegun Obasanjo - former President of Nigeria] and the Nigerian authorities as a whole was quite well documented. Have you had to deal with any similar types of things?

Well, yes, very negative press. I have a very bad reputation in the media. Which is kind of changing because the papers say one thing and the streets say a different thing. So, it hasn't been a very successful campaign against me.

So you feel the general population support you?

Yes, that's what I'm saying. The press distorts stories but on the street with the youth I still have a very large following. And there is a lot of international pressure from my fans outside.

Responding to this situation, Fela's music was often very antagonistic and very angry, and I find your music to not be quite as combative. Is that something you had to work at, to keep your temper tamed?

Femi Kuti
I think my music is [designed] to try to solve the problems. It is antagonistic, but finding solutions and giving people hope and things like that [are the goal]. You can't compare my father's era and his anger with my life. He started out like I did and then he was arrested and beaten. Maybe if I got beaten I would change my strategy. Maybe if you look at it from another angle, it would be very difficult to arrest me and beat me. How do you explain that to the world? How do you even explain that to the Nigerian people? The support I have on the streets is massive. We have a minimum of 2,000 people everyday we play at The Shrine, any day. People just drop into The Shrine every day, whether we are there or not. So, we have created something that the ruling class cannot ignore anymore. The poverty is blatant; everybody sees it, the whole world sees the corruption. In Fela's time, nobody could really see the corruption. People would say, "Oh Fela is just complaining because he's smoking grass, because he likes too many women." They gave themselves all the excuses in the world not to listen to what he was talking about. Now, every Nigerian has to talk about Fela. The whole world talks about Fela and his world and his politics. So, it's unavoidable [because] the corruption is so blatant.

When you first quit school to perform with your father in the late '70s, did you know that you would one day carry the Afrobeat torch?

In a way, yes.

Did Fela ever specifically tell you that you were the heir? Did he ever impress upon you the responsibilities of what you were getting into?

He didn't say that, but I kind of knew. In 1991, when the press came to meet him and asked who was playing this kind music, he said the only one he had was me.

How have you dealt with the pressure? It's a lot to carry the Kuti legacy and Afrobeat and the political and social message. For a lesser man it could break him. How do you deal with the pressure?

It's part of my heritage so I can't complain. If you walk in the line of understanding your life - your past, your future, your present - you will find a way. If it's not meant to be for you, you will never know how to adapt. Life is already a big fight. It's part of the battles we battle. People will always ask questions, people will always doubt. It's part of the struggle in one's life. So, I don't see it the way many people see it, as a burden. It's more of a mission. I have to continue from where my father stopped and hopefully my son will continue from where I stopped until the African continent gains true independence and we can have a good life for our people.

Continue reading for more with Femi Kuti...


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