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?
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?
Do you plan to stay there if things continue to get worse?
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?
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…
And is that what you anticipate, passing the torch to your son?
Yes, he’s being trained for that.
Do you have any sense for why it was you who followed the lead and not any of the other children?
As a child, what did you feel was the most valuable lesson you learned from your father?
Not to be afraid.
And as a grown man, have you learned anything different, either through his death or by watching him through adult eyes?
Numerous things. Even on a daily basis. Things come to me in my mind and tell me if I’m not on the right track [and] how to get back on the right track [by] analyzing his life against mine. Trying to put my son on the right track, I learn on a daily basis. It’s part of life. As long as you are alive you strive in this way.
Those seem to be some of the benefits of growing up in the manner you did. What were some of the more difficult aspects of your childhood?
Training myself to become a musician – teaching myself, looking for ways to enhance my creativity. I think if my father had groomed me from when I was a baby or a little boy my life wouldn’t have been this difficult.
I’ve seen you play a number of times, and one of the things that always blows me away is your horn playing. You seem to have mastered circular breathing. How difficult was that for you to really get a grasp of?
What is your favorite aspect of performing live?
When the band and the audience reach a climax and they all marry together; the whole hall evolves into one. Sometimes it gets to a climax where everything just seems to be one.
We’ve touched very loosely on the fact that you are carrying the same message and mission that you always have. For somebody who might just be learning about Afrobeat, a younger person, what would you say that message is? How would you verbalize that?
World peace. Fairness. Justice.
When you compose music are you always starting from that mindset? There are lots of love songs in the world…
Yes, too many. I agree.
So, are you always coming from that social, political, righteous stand point? Is that where all of your songs start?
You’ve made your own mark. I think maybe in the beginning of your career it would have been easy to say that you are the son of Fela and that’s why you are doing this, but now it seems clear that you stand on your own two feet. In your opinion, how have you developed Afrobeat? Where have you taken it from your father’s foundation?
I don’t think I am where I want to be at all. I feel I can still develop and take it much much much further than where I am now. I know I still have a lot of work to do practice-wise. I’m playing the trumpet now, so I know I can create another sound. I’m having piano lessons, too. I think I can take it very very far in maybe ten years from now. So, that’s frustrating; knowing you can get to a point and knowing all the work you need to do to get to that point. I’m still working very hard on that. I wouldn’t want to compare what my father did and what I’m doing, I think people like tripping on that when they are having a drink or at a party and having an argument. It’s part of life but I don’t think it’s for me to get involved in that. I just want to see my father understood and to understand his time. I know what he went through in his life on a daily basis – how he started, how the government and his friends all turned against him, how he was alone, how he had no friends. His fans became my generation, and his fans today are even younger than my generation, who were not even born when Fela’s house was burned. They [don’t know] all the trials he went through growing up from a young man up to the time of his death. So, knowing all this, it would be wrong of me to compare. As a composer I can’t see how I could bring myself to compare knowing his pains and what he was thinking about. It would be very unfair of me. What I want to do is to develop myself as best I can so at the end of my life I will have had a fulfilled life as a musician. That is why a musician has to constantly practice, which is boring.
On the Definitive double-disc album that came out this year there are a lot of guest hip-hop artists. How do you feel Afrobeat and hip-hop intersect?
Has Fela’s image since his death changed in Nigeria and Africa?
I think it’s stronger, and his enemies don’t want that to happen. People wanted him to die and have him be lambasted because he died of AIDS. They thought that would be the end so they could get on with their dirty, rotten business and continue pretending to the world that everything is okay. Even the CIA would be very happy. They played a very large roll in his death.
We’ve talked about your father a good deal. I’m wondering what your childhood with your mother was like, what type of influence she may have had on you.
She kept the home. If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would be here today. My father’s role was more on the political side. We didn’t have the conventional father and all that, but my mother was truly a mother in all senses. She sacrificed her whole life to give her children everything. Wherever I stand today, I would give maybe 90-percent to her.
I’m also curious about other bands that are picking up Afrobeat. There are bands in America and DJs all over the world. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. I’m wondering where you see it going.
Everybody is playing Afrobeat now.
Is this something you are proud to see?
You spoke of preparing and training your son to be the next in line. How do you do that?
By letting him know his grandfather [and] playing his grandfather’s music. The mind of a child is so fresh and so innocent, so he’s able to grasp things very quickly and analyze them at such a rate he will not give it a second thought. His mind will be full of so much information he will be able to understand his grandfather. He has his father at his disposal, and then he has his life. So, if he goes into music, or whatever he decides to be, he’s going to become a leader and strive with his profession, fighting against injustice and all those things. I strongly believe he’s going to be playing music, and his son will be playing music. It is the destiny of the Kuti family.
Does he still tour with you?
What’s his name?
How old is he?
He is eleven, and he’s making funny faces at me.
How do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
I’ll be dead, I don’t know.
No thoughts on what you want your legacy to be?
I know it will be very strong and powerful because I will not relent. I will not relent for a second of my life. I will not give in. Everyday that I wake up I will wake up practicing and fighting for that just cause. So, I wouldn’t care about my death like that because I will be fighting. If my generation fails to recognize what I am talking about, the next generation will [understand], or the next, or the next, or the next, or the next. But, I will always continue to fight any ungodly man I see in my music and my life. I will keep on fighting against the bad leadership in Africa and the influences of America and Europe that are killing millions of my people back home in Africa. I will continue fighting for these people. Already, I can have a good life. I’m not suffering. I can move anywhere and have a very peaceful life. But, I know if I did that I would not be forgiven in the Heavens. So, when I get to the Heavens I would be embarrassed. So, I am worried about that, I’m not worried about my life. When I get to the Heavens, I want my father and my great-great-great grandfather to say, “Yes, you did live up to the Kuti name.”
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