Femi Kuti: Day by Day

By: Jim Welte

Femi Kuti by Nicolas Hidiroglou
The mythology of Fela Anikulapo Kuti is unrivaled in music. As the story goes, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer stood tall in the face of vicious, politically-charged harassment from the government for nearly three decades. His Kalakuta Republic compound was raided relentlessly, including a 1977 incident in which soldiers fatally tossed his elderly mother out a window and burned and destroyed nearly every piece of Fela’s livelihood. Despite the raids and countless dubious arrests, Fela endured, smoking massive spliffs while sporting tighty whiteys, delivering a big F-U to his foes in the form of long, sinewy, nasty funk tracks over which he taunted the government and its military. He was the Black President long before Obama. It’s the stuff of legend.

But, as with any legend, there’s some wiggle room between mythology and reality. The fable makes little space for Fela’s frustration and fatigue in his incessant but ultimately unsuccessful battle with a brutal regime. The myth largely overlooks the 1990s, when Fela grew increasingly frail and his defiant message more muddled. When he succumbed to an AIDS-induced illness in August 1997, he was immortalized.

Few have felt that gap between myth and truth more than Femi Kuti, Fela’s son and the heir to the Afrobeat throne. Since long before his father’s death, the 46-year-old multi-instrumentalist has been the dominant face of Afrobeat, taking his Positive Force band across the globe and releasing five studio albums, a live DVD, a best-of collection and a remix album. His seventh studio album, Day by Day (Downtown Records), hit stores on November 18.

He has had a remarkable career by any standard. Femi has also faced a bitter dose of reality. Shortly after Fela died in August 1997, Femi’s younger sister, Sola, died of cancer. Five years later, on the heels of his two most successful records, Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win, Femi was sacked by his French record label, his band split up and his wife, Funke, a dancer and singer in his band and the mother of his 12-year-old son, Omrinmade (“Made”), left him. To cap it all off, Femi’s mother, Remi, with whom he was very close, died at the age of 60. As Femi spent time in France recording parts of Fight to Win, rumors swirled back home that he was in an asylum.

“It was a very traumatic period for me,” he says. “I was in a lot of emotional pain. I had to be a father and mother to my son. It was difficult leaving him at home to work. It was a very hard time.”

Femi Kuti by Mary Grace Dunn
Meanwhile, a revolt of sorts was beginning in his extended family. Seun Kuti, a precocious and talented singer and saxophonist and Femi’s half-brother, had aligned with Martin Meissonier, an acclaimed French producer and manager who had worked with Fela in the 1980s. Seun brought in many of his father’s instrumentalists and kept the Egypt 80 moniker Fela had given them. Meanwhile, widespread reports in Nigeria told of tension between the half-brothers over the Kuti legacy. Seun’s scorching 2008 debut album, Many Things is full of blistering Afrobeat and drew broad acclaim. Femi was widely credited with introducing his father’s music to a new generation and ushering in an explosion in global interest in Afrobeat in the late 1990s, but now someone else was demanding a seat at the table.

“People just wanted to start a fight and cause friction,” Femi says. “People tried to play with my emotions and tried to make me look bad. I never understood the competition. I never had a problem with him. People have said that I didn’t want him to succeed and that I didn’t want him to play music. How can I stop him from playing music? Who am I to do that?”

Personal strife was compounded by national chaos. Corruption reigned under Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president from 1999-2007 and the man who helmed the military when it harassed Fela in the 1970s. Despite being home to one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, nearly 70-percent of Nigeria’s 140 million people live below the poverty line, and one in 20 are infected with HIV/AIDS. The 2007 election of Obasanjo’s handpicked successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, was widely regarded as fraudulent.

Yar’Adua’s election had frightening consequences for Femi and his sister Yeni, who in 2000 had opened the New Africa Shrine, a performance and community space in the vein of their father’s Shrine, which was destroyed along with his commune in 1977. In December 2007, after years of peaceful relations with police, law enforcement raided the Shrine and hundreds of patrons were beaten and arrested. As a result of the incident, the 2,000-strong attendance at Femi’s thrice-weekly performances at the Shrine dwindled to just a few hundred until recently starting to rebound. “They succeeded in scaring people for a while,” Femi says.

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People are so poor and desperate. They have nothing, and the churches get people to donate their money for prayers. Wouldn’t it be better if that money went towards a better medical system for people and a better education system for their children? The pastors live like gods. People need to understand the effect of religion on our lives.

Femi Kuti

Photo by: Nicolas Hidiroglou

Enter the trumpet. Of all the things to get Femi through his darkest hours, he turned to an instrument that he had only dabbled with in his nearly 30-year career. Femi says that more than any other instrument, the trumpet demands commitment. That devotion has made him serene in a country largely devoid of serenity.

Femi & Made Kuti
“The trumpet has really helped me become a calmer person and I really don’t get that angry anymore,” he says. “With the saxophone, you can leave it for a few weeks and come back, but you can’t really do that with the trumpet. You must do it every day, and it has made me more disciplined in many ways. It has changed my life.”

He’s also mended fences with Seun. Femi says his half-brother has apologized for his role in the tiff, and has since performed at the Shrine. “The trumpet has helped me focus on what is important in my life, and I have found it easier to move forward from little things like that,” he says.

The most important thing to Femi now is his children. He has three of his own, and has also adopted four others, all friends of Made whose parents were reportedly too poor to look after them. Much as his father Fela took him under his wing and made him a part of his band as a teenager, Femi has brought Made on tour for several years, and has made a place for him in his band. Made plays saxophone on all of Day by Day and sings on the song “One Two.” To Femi, passing on his father’s legacy to his own son is his life’s goal.

“My ultimate objective before I leave this world is to give to him everything I know and arm him with all of the musical knowledge I have,” he says. “That is now the purpose of my life.”

Femi’s tranquility is reflected in the music of Day by Day. While you could hear his anger on the tracks he unveiled on his 2004 Live at the Shrine DVD, Day by Day is jazzier, more melodic and less forceful. The title track features a lilting, gospel-infused chorus.

Femi Kuti by Nicolas Hidiroglou
However, the emerging personal calm in his life and music hasn’t made Femi less angry about the state of his country and the African continent. On Day by Day, he rails against the negative impact of religion in Africa, and questions the value of democracy in a continent that is so riddled with corruption and whose fate is so intertwined with financial assistance from global institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“I have no faith in religion, and we face a battle to educate people that they are wasting their time,” he says. “People need to understand how religion came to Africa. It came to Africa brutally. Christians came here and took our people, they took our gold and they gave us Jesus Christ. Islam came and took our gold and gave us Muhammad. People go to church every day, they spend the night in church at night vigils, waiting for the savior to come.”

On one seven-kilometer road near his home in Lagos, Femi counts 58 churches, many with pastors who travel in private jets and some of the nicest cars in Nigeria. “How many churches do you need?” he asks. “People are so poor and desperate. They have nothing, and the churches get people to donate their money for prayers. Wouldn’t it be better if that money went towards a better medical system for people and a better education system for their children? The pastors live like gods. People need to understand the effect of religion on our lives.”

Femi has little faith that democracy alone will allow African countries to get out from under the weight of corruption, poverty, and disease. He says with the U.S., China and European nations so reliant on Africa for mineral resources like oil and diamonds, Western governments fuel the fires that turn into war and genocide. “If America, China and Europe did not buy these things from these people, what would they have to sell to fund their wars?” he asks. “This has been going on for hundreds of years.”

Although poverty and corruption have vexed his country all his life, Femi knows that change is inevitable. Fela’s formation of his own political party in the 1970s and his indomitable anti-establishment crusade earned him the nickname “Black President.” Now, the U.S. has its own. “Nobody believed that a black man would ever become President of the United States – NEVER,” he says, with joy in his voice. “I don’t even know if Obama ever believed it himself.”

Despite years of personal and national strife that would break most men, Femi sounds rejuvenated. At 46, he’s brimming with energy to write and record new music and do what he does best: deliver one of the best live shows on the planet.

“I now know how to tackle family and political problems better,” he says. “I will handle it all much better now. I’ve been writing more, and I’m ready to go back into the studio. The people have been waiting too long for this album. I hope they forgive me.”

A behind the scenes making of Day by Day

Femi Kuti will be on tour in America this January. Dates available here.

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