Femi Kuti: Carrying The Torch

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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…

 
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.

-Femi Kuti on carrying the Afrobeat torch

 
Photo of 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?

Fela and his wives
One of my younger brothers [Seun Kuti] is playing, but I think it’s deeper than that. It’s cultural; it’s tradition. The burden of the father goes to the first child, whether he likes it or not.

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?

Femi Kuti by Mary Grace Dunn
It was very easy. My father told me about it. He never did it. He could never get it, but he told me it was very simple. He showed me the technique with a straw. So, one day I just picked up my horn and tried it and I just got it. You have to keep on practicing and practicing and practicing because you get it but you can lose it. It’s like riding a bicycle or something. I’ve known it since at least 1979 but it didn’t mean anything to me. We all went to a friend’s house and [this man] was doing the circular breathing and everybody was tripping and I said, “Why are you tripping, I can do that?” They all started laughing at me, and thought I was joking. I said, “No, I can do it.” So, we all had a bet and went back to my house. They said, “Go ahead do it,” and when I did it they were all shocked. Then they all started begging me to do it on stage, but it didn’t mean anything to me at that time. Over the years, I started to practice and make it better, enhancing my performance.

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…

…too many.

Yes, too many. I agree.

[Laughs]

So, are you always coming from that social, political, righteous stand point? Is that where all of your songs start?

Positive Force Dancers by Dragan Matic
Not really. It starts with the music. I never start with the words. A melody comes. Maybe I dream and wake up hearing this melody, or I’m practicing and hear this melody I like and I start from there. I look for a bassline, maybe a bassline comes and I say, “Oh, this is a very powerful bassline.” Then, I build up the song and I like to sing about what I want to sing and the words just flow.

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.

 
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.

-Femi Kuti

 
Photo of Fela Kuti

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?

Femi Kuti
Hip-hop came from Afrobeat. The producers of hip-hop were all Afrobeat’s friends, and at least 50-percent of hip-hop came from Afrobeat. A lot of soul came from Afrobeat. Miles Davis was influenced by Fela; he said it. A lot of people in America don’t tell the truth that they were influenced a lot by Fela. They listen to him in the back room, in their private apartments and were inspired greatly. American music was greatly, and still is greatly inspired by Fela. His music sneaks into America on many fronts. Ironically, if Miles Davis can confess in a way and say one of the greatest musicians he ever heard was Fela, I wouldn’t be surprised if Quincy Jones heard Fela. Carlos Santana doesn’t deny that he has listened to Fela. So, the press and the arts from America may downplay Fela’s influence, but even Alicia Keys is a Fela fan. The Roots are Fela fans.

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.

How so?

Fela Kuti
It was the CIA that instructed Obasanjo in ’77 to burn his house down. That was the feedback that came to my father before the burning of the house. An American came and said, “Look, be very careful. The CIA is on your case and they are talking with your government to kill you.” That was the instructions, to get rid of him. He was a young man. He didn’t understand the gravity of the CIA. Like the CIA played a roll in the death of Lumumba. Even the U.N. played a major role in the death of Lumumba. The world does not know this, or the youth do not know the gravity and the influence of the CIA and the U.N. in bringing down strong, good African leaders.

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?

Femi & Made Kuti
Yes, of course. When I started out I was the only one playing, and by the time Shoki Shoki came out, people who didn’t even know Fela got to understand Fela. People went out of their way to look for this music. Then, when my father’s back catalog was released it became a worldwide thing. This has been the mission from day one: to spread the message and not kill. I think I can proudly say that we have done a good job in keeping him alive, in that sense, where his enemies wanted him to just die and even ridicule him in death. But, they have lost the battle because they could not ridicule him for his death, trying to pretend that because he died of AIDS he’s a useless man; trying to downplay the fact that his house was burned or the number of times he was beaten and harassed; trying to make him out to be a useless musician smoking grass. Now, the truth, because of his back catalog, is [there] for the world 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?

Femi Kuti & Positive Force
He’s sitting right here, right now. He’s getting very into your TV and cartoons.

What’s his name?

Made.

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.”

JamBase | Worldwide
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