At 50, Femi Kuti shows no signs of slowing down. The eldest son of Fela Kuti records and performs with unbridled passion, and continues to bring his brand of Afrobeat to the world.
As a staunch critic of corruption, he’s never one to bite his tongue. He speaks the truth and does so unrelentingly, much to the chagrin of the powers that be. I had an illuminating chat with him on a host of topics ranging from the international explosion of Afrobeat, to colonialism, to the current issues plaguing Nigeria today, to name a few, and he was very forthcoming and open throughout our chat.
TIA: As Fela's eldest son, you obviously grew up surrounded by music. At what age did you know that you wanted become a musician?
Femi: Early, around 6, 7 or 8.
TIA: You’re a multi-instrumentalist, what was the first instrument you picked up?
Femi: The trumpet.
TIA: How did that evolve into you playing other instruments like the saxophone, keyboard and everything else you play?
Femi: My father mostly used a saxophone, so I moved towards that as well. I moved to the piano because I wanted to enhance my creativity and my compositions; to gain more knowledge. I needed something to sustain the fast tempo of my music, sort of like an undercurrent. So I started to teach myself the piano and bring its effect into my music.
TIA: Afrobeat is absolutely huge right now. Did you ever envision it being the global phenomenon it is today?
Femi: Yes. I always knew it was very special. In Nigeria, we listened to everything from America – Michael Jackson and everything else - but nothing affected me like Afrobeat, and not just because it was my father’s music. I felt it had full meaning for someone like me. It was African music.
TIA: You’ve been a supporter of the Occupy Nigeria movement. What effect has the movement had on the country?
Femi: I don’t think it has achieved its goal, but it probably made the leaders more careful in their dealings with the people. They now know that there can be a revolution at any time. So they (leaders) are wary of the people. But it didn’t have the effect I would have loved because the subsidy was only partially removed. I think there are too many corrupt forces involved, so I don’t think there will be any real change. If there is any change, it will probably be something that is unexpected. Like in most struggles, the people that organize it compromise; the labor union can bring the whole country to a standstill. No other organization can really do that. Transportation, everything – they can stop everything. When they compromise, which they always do - for as long as I’ve known them, they’ve always compromised - and when they do, everything just falls out of place. So to that point, the effect all this has had so far is that the leaders know that the people are angry and that they need to be more careful. But they will just find another way to do what they always do.
TIA: I see.
Femi: Unfortunately for us here, people are very resilient. People just want to survive and be happy. Religion plays a very important role in that, so you have people who will say “God will provide, and everything will be ok” and they just moan and complain and blah, blah, blah, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t know how long we can go on like this. So it [Occupy Nigeria] has shown that people are angry and that an uprising is possible, but that hasn’t happened yet.
TIA: What’s the future of the movement?
Femi: Well, I don’t think it’s about a movement. It’s about the people of Nigeria. There is an obvious climate for change. People are very poor. In Lagos state, they have banned the use of okada [motorbike taxis], which is an important and affordable mode of transportation for a lot of people. Now, many cannot move about like usual. There are thousands of riders who can no longer feed their families. Crime has increased. Now the police are back on the streets. The hardship is unimaginable. I don’t even know how people are getting by these days. So I think we’re sitting on a time-bomb. I don’t think it’s going to be about Occupy Nigeria or anything like that. Somebody is going to be fed up and they will do something about it. Look at the Tunisian uprising; someone got upset and burned himself alive. That’s how the uprising started, and then it spread throughout the Arab world.
TIA: That’s right. It was a spontaneous thing initially.
Femi: We’ve been having clashes here though. It could be something like a policeman shooting a bus driver, and there will be a very serious riot in that area. There are ongoing gang wars and things like that. There is Boko Haram in the north. Everyone is so scared about which way the country is heading. Corruption is at its worst. So we really are sitting on a time-bomb here, and I don’t think Occupy Nigeria will be the main catalyst. It could be one of the many contributing forces to bring about an uprising, or sweeping change.
TIA: The title of your last album - Africa for Africa (Knitting Factory Records) - is self-explanatory. Nevertheless, can you tell us more about it?
Femi: As you said, the title is self-explanatory. The way I feel about the struggle and the way I see Africa, many of us don’t appreciate our history. For instance, when we look at 400+ years of the slave trade, we don’t look at it properly and ask the right questions. I think we take those 400+ years for granted, and unfortunately for us, there are no books in Africa that can tell us more of the facts of that era and what the African people went through. I’ll give you an example. If an African man, woman or child was caught 200km from the sea, chains were put on them. He or she was flogged, sometimes to the point of death. If they lived, they were dragged from there to the beach with no food or water. From there, they were taken to the other side of the world. Today we have electricity, we have cars – life is so different from 200 years ago, even just 100 years ago. So when we even talk about it, we talk about it with the frame of mind we have now. It’s difficult to really imagine what was going on in Africa; being intentionally deprived, the pain of the African people for 400 years. It took Europe centuries to even acknowledge that what they were doing was wrong. And this is a small slice of the history of the continent.
TIA: This is true.
Femi: So when you understand just this portion of our history, it’s not going to take 50 years for Africa to come out of this fresh. The corruption today is still part of the effects of colonialism. Part of how Europe and America have continued to dominate and put whoever they want in power, so they can take our resources at will. All they need is a corrupt leader who they will support. Europe and America have supported corrupt leaders all over Africa for a very long time. Leaders like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Lumumba in Congo and Sékou Touré in Guinea, for example, stood up to colonial powers, but they [the west] encouraged and supported bad governments for their own benefit. When there were good governments, they [the west] did everything they could to bring them down, from the assassination of Lumumba, to the toppling of Nkrumah, and the hard times Sékou Touré had in trying to govern. So even if they want to pretend that they are in favour of democratic government in Africa today, we shouldn’t forget their contribution to the downfall of Africa. The way Europe and America behave is very hypocritical. Their citizens might not know what they are doing in Africa, but Africans know the facts of what they have done in Africa.
TIA: The narrative usually given is that Democracy is the answer to Africa’s problems.
Femi: When we talk about democracy today, we forget that Africa was very democratic before the slave trade. Our chiefs and other local rulers were usually selected by the people. This was the system, so democracy is not a new concept to the African people. It’s in our genes, but Europe wants to pretend as if it’s just their way and they have the best solutions for the world to move forward. Africans need to understand this history. How do we understand this history? The people who have the means to get this message across to the people have to keep on doing it. We need to educate our people about ourselves. If it takes 100 years, then fine. We need to keep educating ourselves, and re-educating ourselves away from the European versions of our history. We need to continue the conversation amongst ourselves. I don’t just mean continental Africans, I mean all Africans. Marcus Garvey talked about it, so did Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. There are many others we don’t even know - past and present - who fought and are fighting to educate their children and teach them about themselves; making them aware of their history from a non-colonial mindset.
Considering the extended period of colonialism and imperialism, the change in mindset won’t happen overnight. It was such a long, devastating period in our lives. We’re not going to come out of it fine in 5 or 10 years. It will take time. So that’s what I mean by the title of my album Africa for Africa. I put that in the marketplace to have it in the consciousness of the people.
TIA: It certainly got our attention.
Femi: If only 1 or 2 people get the gist of the album, and keep on talking about it, then great. If this generation doesn’t get it, then a new generation will come. Everyone is talking about Afrobeat today, and you asked earlier about it being so big today. When my father was fighting for justice in the 70s, nobody knew then that they would be playing it all over the world now, or that there would be a play about his life. If the Nigerian government doesn’t want to recognize him, then the world will recognize him. The people championing and recognizing him now are not from my father’s generation. The people who are now into the music and the message are up to 3 decades younger than me. They talk about my father and listen to the music every day. This wasn’t the case when he was even alive. When people are fighting for a just cause, nobody knows when the results will come, but the key thing is to keep on fighting. Don’t stop, continue to plant the seeds and hope for the best. I believe we are on the right track, but I don’t think I will see the change I envision in my lifetime, but that doesn’t matter. We need to keep on going.
To go back to colonialism, how we self-identify in terms of nationality was given to us by Europeans. The name Nigeria was given to us by a European, and so many of us cherish and idolize the name Nigeria, or any African country. Kwame Nkrumah had the vision to recognize that it was wrong to maintain a colonial name after independence and changed his country’s name from Gold Coast to Ghana. Sankara also recognized it. He changed the colonial name of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. So you see, some African leaders had seen this and recognized that Africa is a colonial structure cut apart like a cake by Europeans to be exploited for their own benefit. France, Belgium, Holland, England, Portugal, everybody; they were all here. They were all a part of it. They need to keep on saying sorry to Africa every day. Not just once and that’s the end. They need to keep saying they are sorry. Until we all understand the gravity of what they have done to Africa, there will always be problems. So when I say Africa for Africa, in part I want to make sure this information doesn’t die. It must be told and retold. The Jews in Germany who survived the holocaust realized how important it was to tell their story. The Germans are still apologizing. Africans should tell their stories. No one else will.
TIA: Do you have a new album coming out?
Femi: Yes, hopefully in March or April of next year.
TIA: What’s the title of the album?
Femi: It’s titled No Place for My Dream.
TIA: One of the highlights at this year’s Felabration in Lagos was you sharing the stage with your younger brother Seun. Is there any possibility of both of you recording an album together in the future, or perhaps even going on tour one day?
Femi: I keep an open mind, but it’s not part of my plan. We’ve met on the road several times and played festivals and things like that. People have tried to put on big Afrobeat concerts, where it’s not just the Kuti family, but other bands as well. People have tried, but as you know, there is a big recession globally; so many people don’t have the money to see as many concerts these days. Everybody is suffering, but I keep an open mind for doing shows. An album, I don’t know. I’m so used to working on my own, but if someone wants me to do something on their album, fine – but it’s not part of my plan. If he [Seun] wants me to do something on his album, then of course! These are not no-go areas.
TIA: You’ve been playing this music for many years now, and I know you have children. Are your children musically inclined like you are?
Femi: My son is in college right now, and he’s studying classical music. I don’t think he will go through my route, because I’ve been very careful about ensuring he gets a wide and varied education if he wants to play music. My other children are very young, though they like to jump on stage with me. I don’t think their time is going to be like mine. If they want to play music, then it’s my duty as a father to give them all the weapons at my disposal. In the next 10 years, music will change, so it won’t be like my time. However, it will be important for them to know what classical music is about, what jazz music is about and so on; music that has been there for ages. They need to know about the blues. If they choose to explore music, I don’t think it will be hard for them because they have it in their genes, but I would like them to understand where everybody is coming from, where the world is at and where they want to take music in their own time. I don’t want them to be like my father, I don’t want them to be like me – of course they will have those traits – but they have to be more dynamic and do better than we have done. That is my wish for them. The father always wants the son to excel beyond him, to dominate his own generation. Should my children go that route, I feel they will succeed. They have the right character and mannerisms.
TIA: You’re now a judge on Nigerian Idol. How did that come about?
Femi: They asked me. It was very difficult to say yes initially, but I’m happy I did. It was hard to get it to work around my schedule. Sometimes I have to stop what I’m doing for them. I think it’s important for me because a lot of young people are going into the business looking to become stars. They need to understand that you need to play a musical instrument first. It’s not just about a great voice. You need to be able to write your own songs and study composition. There is so much in music. It’s like studying to be a doctor or a lawyer, but people think it’s easy and anyone can just become famous. If you want to be famous, it should be because you are doing a great job. You should want to play music. If you’re doing it the right way, you’ll understand that fame is secondary to playing music. You need to be studious. But many young people don’t understand how difficult it can be. You can go 10 years without a break. Are they ready for that? They could have all the talent in the world, and they still might not make it. There are thousands, maybe millions of talented musicians who love playing music that we will never hear. They [young hopefuls] need to understand that it’s not just about having the ability to perform live. There are many musicians who can play well live, but they just flop when they get in the studio. You need to be able to marry those two worlds. It’s a very challenging profession, not just fun and games; it’s work. Understanding this is the first step. If you become popular, you’ll probably find out that what you want isn’t popularity because it isn’t what you expected it to be. You probably only wanted to play music, but with popularity every aspect of your life is scrutinized.
TIA: In your downtime when you’re not touring or on the road, what do you listen to?
Femi: [laughs] I would love to go back and listen to my jazz albums again. I loved listening to Miles Davis and Dizzy. I hope I can do that before I die. For now, I just want to create my music. If I can do this for another 10 years, that would be great. One thing I didn’t want was to be influenced by what is going on around me musically. When I used to read about some musicians who would go through a hermit type of life just to find the purity in their music, I never thought I would do that, but I’ve done that now for the last 12 to 13 years. I haven’t listened to anybody; I’ve just kept on focusing on trying to develop my style and where I want to take my music. I’ll probably do this for another 10 years, and then just relax and listen to music. But sometimes I’m forced to listen to music whether I like it or not. Like if I’m at a wedding or a party, so I do know what is going on. And in Nigeria, music is everywhere so you cannot really hide and cut yourself off completely. I don’t really need to put on my stereo to know what’s going on, it’s all around me. I just need to create a space for myself. The purity of my music is very important to me.
TIA: The results certainly speak for themselves. Thank you for taking the time to speak with This is Africa.
Femi: A pleasure. Thank you very much.
Femi Kuti charges the crowd at #OccupyNigeria
Two Truths and a Lie... with Femi Kuti!
1. I ALWAYS WANT TO PLAY MUSIC
2. I HATE MY FATHER
3. I LOVE THE AFROBEAT
Femi Kuti: No! I never hated him. Angry, but never hated him. Hated him for things he did, but loved him like mad. When I revolted in Africa it’s a taboo, so everyone was like ‘This is the biggest mistake you’ve made.” Now, I am an inspiration for many young people to stand their grounds.
Yes. I couldn’t even practice. She’s been screaming. [Laughs] Maybe she just wanted to get her voice. “Aha!” The whole house is tired from her screaming.
Looking at her from a distance, there were no tears. So I was like, maybe she’s practicing singing or showing us what she’s going to be doing in the future.
Because I wanted people to know it was for good reasons that I left my father’s band, and because everyone was so much against me. ‘How dare you? How could you?’ It was like playing a game of chess because you know you have to make this move, but nobody can see where you’re going, and you’re hoping the next player will make the wrong move so you can kill the king.
It was tough. For five or six years we didn’t talk. I was very angry. I think he began to understand. He had made moves like that with his parents as well. He became very supportive.
First of all, I thought why would you want listen to the same song for 45 minutes. Why would you want to listen to so many people play solos that are not going to be better than Dizzy Gillespie or Coltrane. I now put myself on the critic side. If I hated the afrobeat, how could I get the people who don’t have that much time to catch them immediately?
Yes. I know it’s going to be a great album. I don’t know if I want to go through that turmoil again.
Yes. Yes! I always put a composition like having a kid. It drains you completely.
Well I did. I had about 20 girlfriends, but I’m not that bad these days. In Africa, if you have a lot of girlfriends it costs you a lot of money--just like anywhere else. I think I care too much about my daughter. There’s little time for womanizing. But of course, I like women.