Aug 3, 2009

Femi Kuti about his father


Femi Kuti, Fela eldest son, arrives as a musician, bandleader and Nigerian political influence with an impossible ancestral burden. And yet somehow, he manages to both groove gracefully-his brand of Afrobeat is tight, thoroughly modern and electro-fied, more concise and radio-ready than his father's extended compositions perhaps, but filled with the same sentiments of outrage, sorrow, reassurance, solidarity, joy and humor-and resonate politically, with a tempered version of his father's anti-establishment political ideas that leans more towards non-confrontational activism.

Appearing onstage this past autumn in America with his 11-piece group Positive Force and three scantily clad female dancers, Femi exuded poise, confidence and plenty of sex appeal as they played Femi originals and encored with Fela's "Lady"; perhaps most exciting, though, were the stunningly funky, as-yet-unrecorded songs that the group performed, numbers that showed Femi is in many ways just beginning to arrive. When this interview was conducted in Los Angeles and then New York City this past September, Femi was in the midst of recording a track with The Roots' Ahmir and D'Angelo for D'Angelo's to-be-released-someday sophomore album.

The interview

Your father often talked about your involvement, starting as a teenager, with the Yoruba spiritual tradition. What exactly does that involve?

It's just being in touch with the other side of life. There is no religion...the African way of life is to be constantly involved, or aware, of death. And instead of running away from death, is to confront death. One must never be afraid to die, or when the thought comes, you have to face it, not say 'Okay, I'll think about it tomorrow.' The African way is ancestor worship...we believe...the Creator Himself is too busy, you could say...or...let me make it clearer. My father, for instance, is dead. So instead of praying to God, I'll talk to my father. He's dead, so he's closer to being able to get things done from the heavens. Now he's spiritually more opportune to do greater things from the heavens than I would be able to do. His spirit assists me in my endeavor.

Okay. Like your father, you're involved in Nigerian-and African-politics. Talk about what your group MASS does; is it an actual political party, or more of a activist organization...?

It means Movement Against Second Slavery. We have a weekly radio broadcast, criticizing or praising the government. We have a paper now that comes out at the end of the month. We come out with statements, and things like that. We're very diplomatic because I don't think we should ever be too antagonistic, because we do not want any more wars in Africa, so we have to be very careful and we have to think about how to win the battle without blood.

Do you think the latest "democratic" structure that's been put in place in Nigeria will work?

Honestly, I don't believe so. Of course I will try to remain optimistic about it. I will give them until the end of this year. If by the beginning of next year we don't see major changes in the government, it's a failure. They don't look like a bunch of serious people. Africans are looking for a leader. And they are more like puppets. They are arguing about furniture for their houses. It is disgusting. They are supposed to be discussing about the suffering of the people, right now. Everybody that took part in this election had served in previous governments or were military men, so it's the same group of people...the military men are in the Senate, there
are governors, the president, he's a military man.

And of course, the new democratically elected president is the former dictator whose government burned down your father's home...

Yes, his government was the worst government! His government killed students in '79. He was burning markets. He burned my father's house. The soldiers were everywhere. They were beating civilians on the streets. You could not move whilst driving. That was his regime, yes! It was horrible. Obusanjo's people would come and give you six lashes on the streets, there and then. And he's back in power and you just wonder, "Wow. What next?" And you see, once a military man, always a military man.

What is the U.S.'s role in Nigerian politics, as you understand it?

I think, what I understood was, from the beginning America was forcing Nigeria to just be democratic. I think America has to let Africa CHOOSE its system of government, because democracy will not work in Africa. It works in France and America because, for instance, in America, English is really the language in America. So everybody understands what is going on. Now you cannot say one language is a major language in Nigeria, for instance. There are hundreds of languages. There are so many minority groups who never have any say in government and never had a major say in Parliament or anywhere. So there will always be minorities and they will always be cheated in government. That system of democracy cannot work, you see?

How can Africa become important in world development? Because Africa is contributing absolutely nothing today. We have 50 leaders sitting in the UN; when America say shut up, we all shut up; stand up, they all stand up. So what kind of good is that? And at the UN, you have what is called the veto power: France, Russia, China, America... everyone else has to shut up. And they're talking about "democracy"! It's supposed to be one world, one nation, one vote! So, if you do not practice what you preach, then is this really about capitalism, is this what you are really talking about? So. African leaders should be asking these kinds of questions, but they are only concerned about their selfish interests. They are just protecting the multinationals in Africa. That's what I see.

What Africa has to do is create African jobs. We have to set up institutions and set up research into African traditional medicine. If Africans taxed their brains, and develop new products, medicines that have never existed before, maybe Africans will come up with a cure for cancer, maybe a cure for AIDS. It's all there! And what is happening is time is going so fast. The people who have that knowledge are dying off. And I don't believe that they're passing that knowledge to their children or other people. So if we do not act fast...

Okay. Now, when exactly did you leave your father's band, and why?

I formed my own band in 1986. Because by this time, by the time he came out of prison in '86, I had been in his band for 10 years. By the time he came out, he had so many yes-men around him and the household was very crazy at this time. So by the time he came out, I decided to leave. We didn't speak for five years. I think he truly loved me and I truly loved him. I knew he depended on me a lot. But, I was tired of agreeing with everything I saw. So I said, 'This is enough.'

You've made a number of different choices than your father made. For one thing, although you stretch your songs out live, on record they are much shorter than your father's compositions...

If you [the listener] never knew the band before, you are gonna give yourself MAXIMUM a minute of each track. So, okay, now I have to structure all my songs on the record [like that] and then when I play them live I can do whatever I like.

You're also having your songs remixed by others, like Ahmir from The Roots...How do you do that without messing losing that Afrobeat feel?

Ahmir listened to my music, picked out what he felt was what he wanted to do, and I just put the basic elements on what he did. It's the same number, but maybe a different foundation.

You're also on a big label, unlike your father. So you have to meet all their requirements. That must be frustrating on a creative level.

I'm used to writing numbers all the time and playing them. Now, being with a major company, things are different. You have to wait two years before you go in the studio. And I'm not used to that. When I can't play [new songs], I start getting frustrated. It's like being pregnant and not being able to give birth, eh. There's so much I want to do, I just explode! Because I think I'm at the age of preparing myself for another stage musically. And, at home, I could just compose, play at the Shrine. Getting used to this recording way of life is slowing me down in that respect. And then: Having to play these numbers all the time, over and over. You have to! Because you get into a town, they've heard about you, they like your number, they come to see you play that number...

These are all things your father always avoided...

Yeah. He didn't want to do anything like that. Now, I know to achieve the most in your career, you are going to have to compromise along the way. Now. Do I think this music can be on top of the world? I sincerely believe that. Now how badly do I want to achieve that? Now, I'm DYING to achieve it. But I have to be patient. I have to keep my feet on the ground, know where I'm coming from and where I want to go at all times. And just keep on doing a lot of hard work. And every time I have the time, to practice... Two days have gone and I have not picked up my horn! I feel bad about that.

You also don't smoke, right? Fela was notorious for that.

No, I can't do it now. I stopped in '84 when Fela was locked up. I noticed that was the excuse for his arrest a lot of the time. For me, I never want to give them a reason to come after me, right? If they come after me, it's not because of drugs...grass... Strictly for political reasons. Now the government is not going to do that. Because everybody say, "Why?'

They could still plant it on you-

That would be very hard, because in Nigeria everybody knows I am clean. Right now I will tell you I last tried it about three months ago. Because I was really curious! A lot of my friends, many of my friends, smoke. And I'm not against it! When they all smoke, I still find it very amusing. The good thing is, I don't need it to play, to compose...I have proven that to myself, so. It DOES enhance your creativity, I know that for a fact. It's grass, it's good. It's like tobacco.

But the youths, especially, look up to me. If I did anything wrong, like betray them, they could lose track of their beliefs, especially ..I'm like their idol, I inspire them, so I have a responsibility there. I'm not going to abandon them. That would be the beginning of my downfall--and I'm not ready to fall that far down! [laughs] My life is very important to the people back home. And a lot of people are getting to know Nigeria through me, so that means I have a responsibility. I cannot [do something] because of my own, selfish, personal, reasons. There are too many lives involved.

Interview by Jay Babcock - originally published in Mean #6 (Dec 99-Jan 00)

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