THE INTERVIEW: Femi Kuti
Femi Kuti is an international protest figure superstar musician from Nigeria, the first-born son of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He began performing with his father’s band, Egypt 80, at age 16. He went on to start his own band, Positive Force, with whom he has released nine albums and toured the world several times since. His latest album, Day by Day, came out in October, 2008. Femi is on the verge of embarking on a North American tour. I had the honor of speaking with him earlier today at which point he told me The Shrine, his home base club in Lagos, Nigeria, has been forced closed by the Nigerian government.
How would you describe the evolution of your music? Where is your music today that it wasn’t several years ago when your last studio album came out?
I’m getting more experience, age, more mature, and so the music is changing with all of this. I’m happy people think it’s getting better, people are enjoying it, people support what I’m doing, that’s most important.
What are you listening to right now that’s inspiring you?
Nothing really, I’m trying to start work on my next album, so I’m working on some new stuff.
You’ve shared the stage with a lot of amazing musicians, With whom have you collaborated in your career that you’ve learned the most from?
How old were you when you started playing with Fela and Egypt 80?
Who are some African musicians you feel are pushing their genres and innovating new trends in African music today?
I think most Africans are trying to do that. There’s a lot of hip hop Nigerian artists that are very American-Nigerian orientated. That may be typical of my fathers influence on the music scene. There are many artists developing a unique style for themselves. It would be wrong for me to pick one.
Who specifically within the genre of Afrobeat do you respect and listen to?
What are they going to teach me?
Well, I guess you have a point.
Well I mean if I was playing at a concert and any afrobeat band is there, I would be forced to listen. I could listen from my dressing room I could hear. There are not a lot of bands playing good afrobeat, I mean, it’s ok. There are many in America, Australia, France. Many are getting hooked on the afrobeat.
As someone who thinks of something different when they hear the black president than someone like me who grew up in the US, what did the election of a black president, Barack Obama, mean to you and what do you think it will mean for Africa on the whole?
Well, what it means to me might take a while. Barack Obama is first an American, generally, it shows that Americans are open-minded. I never believed Americans would vote a black man or black person President, the highest office in America. Americans are open-minded, there’s a new generation of Americans who are not thinking on a racial basis, and are completely open-minded. So that impressed me, that gave me a lot of hope for the world and America. If Americans can see things in this light, there’s a strong future for them and the world. America dictates a lot of world opinion, if America moves to the right, the world moves to the right, if America moves to the left, the world moves to the left. It impressed me a lot.
Do you hope because of his African roots Obama will change the way America has dealt with Africa in the past?
I hope he will be very objective. I hope he won’t be lenient in dealing with the corruption of African governments because he’s a black man. I hope he doesn’t fall for that. He has to be very objective, because all the African governments are corrupt. So it should not be because he’s a black American he should be lenient on corruption, I think that is where he should be hard because he should want Africa to become a great continent. He has to be very hard on his policies, because he has to put an end to the corruption with his policies in Africa. He has to prove that the African government is not being proper democracy according to what we know it should be. The African government is corrupt.
I read in an interview on jambase.com, when talking about the raid on Kalakuta republic that killed your grandmother and ransacked Fela’s compound, you raised the possibility of the CIA being involved. What makes you think that’s the case and would you clarify your stance on the issue?
Because somebody came to warn my father before the attack and warned him the CIA wanted him dead. He said it many times. He was warned that the CIA was going to kill him. I was there, I heard him say it many times.
Who came to warn Fela?
An american, I don’t want to name names here.
The CIA definitely has a history of targeting African ideologues that oppose them like Patrice Lamumba and many others.
Lamumba, anyone, Any western government is always opposed to any Pan-African in government.
One of Fela’s major accomplishments that is often overlooked was his ability to mobilize people into action around a cause. A lot of people dismiss him as a dissident, just a crazy musician, but he made things happen in Nigeria organizing youth groups and political action groups. Could you talk about some of the ways in which you’ve continued his legacy of political action outside of your music?
I think its just through music. I stopped giving to organizations because I found out its so corrupt, people are just taking my money, I give people money to make posters you know, put up the flyers, but they get ripped up in the street. And they’re just ripping me off in my money. We’re at a critical point, where the corruption is so bad, people are so desperate for money right now. It is not smart for me right now. I’ll just continue to talk about the problems, sing about the problems, and deal with the problems. I can be in any part of the world today, having a good life, or having a better life than I’m having here [Nigeria], but staying here is a political statement. People are mad at me for staying here, so maybe I mobilize many generations by staying here. Three generations have passed through me knowing I have achieved what I’ve achieved by staying here in Nigeria. I didn’t go to America to stay, I didn’t go to Europe, I’ve stayed here. Everybody told me you’ve got to move, fuck that. Everybody said I won’t be in demand if I stay in Nigeria. I opened the market, I’ve kept the market my father opened. It won’t do any use to admire what I’ve done. I use my music, what I sing about to make a difference. And I don’t want to run for office, any kind of office. I just want to be a musician.
What are some of your unfinished goals for your music career?
Wow, that’s a question for God Almighty to answer, not me. I want to arrange and produce some albums. I hope I can always impress and please my fans and other people, and my self as well. I’d like to spend more time with my family. What else…I’d like to see Africa Unite in my lifetime I’d like to see highways running north to south east to west like I see in America, I’d like to see big airports like I see everywhere, train stations like I see everywhere, I’d like to see the United Countries of Africa, I would like to see the eradication of poverty and the end of suffering. We’re the richest continent I can’t understand why we’re suffering. I would like to see the end of corruption. And all these things that I stand for in my lifetime, I would like to see an end to it in my lifetime. But that’s up to the creator to decide that. I’ll just do my part, keep practicing, playing music, and fighting.
Just for your information the shrine was closed yesterday by the government. So now we’re having a big battle right now, trying to get it open.
On what grounds did they close it, they just decided they didn’t want it to be open?
They said people were selling things outside, like sweets, and fried meats, biscuits, things like this on the streets, not in the shrine, on the streets, on the major road. Now they’re saying we’re responsible for those people. So they are closing the shrine because we let people come and sell things there. And we’re like how do they expect us to get rid of these people? Do we own the road? The road belongs to the federal government. How we can we go to the federal governments’ property and say get out of here? It’s the government’s problem to do that. They have to remove them not us.
Have they tried to do things like this before?
Yea. They have closed the place for two days now, we are losing all kinds of money, our instruments are there, we can’t rehearse.
So what can you do to fight them?
We don’t know yet, we have many options, maybe we are going to court, we don’t know yet. Right now we’re talking to the office of the commissioner to give us the go-ahead to open the place. They said 10 o’clock this morning, they didn’t show up, then they said 2, they didn’t open it, so we’re still waiting.
Well whatever I can do to help, I’m not sure how receptive the Nigerian government is to petitions from American music fans…
Well maybe put it in your article on the internet so that more journalists will put it in their papers, ‘The Nigerian government closed the shrine, blah, blah, blah, things like that.