Jan 6, 2016
Lagos lineage with Femi Kuti
Originally published @skiddle.com
Mark Dale chats to one of the world's greatest living Afrobeat stars, Femi Kuti about his father, family, re-opening The Shrine, and the state of Nigeria ahead of hitting Manchester in July 2015.
Femi Kuti is a Nigerian musician and songwriter who has lead his own band, Positive Force, for over 25 years. He has achieved considerable acclaim for live performances with this large scale ensemble, who specialise in the funk, jazz and traditional music-inspired Afrobeat.
Highly political in its lyrical content, Afrobeat was invented and pioneered by Femi Kuti's father, Fela Kuti, one of Africa's first global music superstars who, through ceaseless practice, innovation and international touring, honed the music to become one of the best possible soundtracks to dancing.
Since his death in 1997, Fela's legend has only grown, his music constantly reissued and his lifestory recently turned into a musical "Fela!"
As the eldest son of Fela Kuti, Femi continues this tradition. Having played within his father's band as a teen, he struck out on his own in the late eighties and ever since has helmed a politically charged, upbeat dance band that thrill festival and club audiences the world over. Along the way he has produced seven albums and worked with the likes of D'Angelo, Macy Gray, Nile Rodgers, Common, Mos Def and Jaguar Wright.
Speaking to Mark Dale from his home, which is ten minutes outside of Lagos, Femi Kuti talks about Afrobeat, his father's legacy, politics and his efforts to re-open The Shrine, the Lagos-based nightclub which his father first opened as a focal point for his musical and political expression. He also delivers the surprise news that the Fela Kuti dynasty will continue exclusively on this stint of UK dates.
"My bassist resigned," says Femi Kuti. "There's no way I can get a visa for the new bass player in time. But luckily my son, Made, is at Trinity College of Music in the UK, so he will come and play with me."
What does it mean to be an ambassador for Amnesty International and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador? What do you do?
Well, for Amnesty, if there's some kind of crisis or injustice somewhere, they use me to speak out about it and highlight the problem, like maybe talking about Boko Haram in Nigeria. The same for UNICEF, really. I might go to an affected area and see the problem for myself and I'm used to highlight the problem, as a method of communicating with the people about a specific problem.
You take your job as a musician very seriously and try to practice for six hours a day. How many instruments do you play?
I play the sax and the trumpet and I fool around on the piano. But the instrument I spend most time on now is the trumpet because I'm trying to take my trumpet playing to the same level as my sax playing. The first instrument I had was a trumpet, but my father didn't give me a teacher for that, so it just lay in the house. My father moved to the sax and he asked me if I wanted to also move to the sax, I obliged and said yes.
Did your father teach you how to play sax? Is that why you chose that instrument? Did you want to be like him?
Yes, I think so, but did he teach me? No, he just put it in my mouth. He told me how to hold it and taught me how to blow into it, but that's all. Growing up I had always loved the trumpet, that's why I picked it up again in about 2001.
Was it a difficult decision for you to leave your father's band and establish your own group Positive Force? Did you ever regret making that decision?
Yes, it was an incredibly difficult decision because I understood the consequences of what I was going to do. I had to be prepared psychologically for it. I knew my father would be upset with me, I knew everybody would be upset with me, the family, all his fans.
I'm convinced it was the right decision to make. I didn't like that my father and I fell out about it, but I knew it was the right thing to do. It took a long while for him to understand... it took a long time for us to become friends again. It was a high price, but definitely the right choice.
If I hadn't taken that decision then I would not be in the position I'm in today. I would probably still have been leading his band at his death and my whole life would have been about his band. I didn't really want that. I was already being groomed to be like him, I was dressing like him, I sang and played like him. Everything was about me taking over. And something in me just wanted more than that. I wanted freedom to really express myself.
Afrobeat is an angry music, yet your group is called Positive Force (watch them above). Can anger be a positive emotion?
Yes. The reason for the group being called Positive Force was I needed a name to make people understand why I took the decision to leave my father. It was for good reasons that I chose to leave, not for the reasons that many people thought. I needed a positive name to express that.
Yes, afrobeat is anger, but it's not a violent anger. It's an anger that's trying to make people see that there needs to be urgent change if there's not going to be a catastrophe, if we are to avoid anarchy and chaos. If people do not solve these problems we are going to be in a much bigger mess than we are already in.
It is an anger directed towards corruption and injustice, a call that we must address these matters before it becomes a crisis that is unresolvable.
On your 2001 album Fight To Win you seemed to be trying to move away from a traditional Afrobeat sound, yet on later albums you have returned to a more recognisable Afrobeat sound. Are you conflicted about being described as an Afrobeat artist?
No, I want to be described as an Afrobeat artist. The way I write my music is always with an open mind. I don't restrict myself to a particular pattern. I think that's why people say that I do a lot of different things, like experimenting with machines in the studio. That's me trying to enhance my creativity. I will go to the studio and try things in Afrobeat that people would not think were possible. That's the way I am.
The opportunity came to work with people like Mos Def, Common (above), Jaguar Wright and I seized it. I had reached a new peak of popularity at that time so I thought it was an important time to try and communicate with African Americans.
At that time there was a lot of distorted news coming from Africa and especially Nigeria and I thought it would be better to try and show the picture from my perspective and the perspective of the common people, who rarely have the opportunity to tell their story. I wanted to show that if the people here act in a manner that the world doesn't understand, why it is that they act like that.
We have no education, no healthcare service, corruption is widespread. There's so much oil and yet some people don't have electricity, so of course some of them will become nuisances when they grow up. I had to tell the African community this story.
Maybe they had an idea of this, from listening to my father, but I thought it also needed to come from me. So, my collaborations were instigated on this basis. It wasn't like I was moving away from Afrobeat, it was just that I thought it was important to build that bridge.
Why did you want to re-open The Shrine (watch Femi play The Shrine above)?
I thought that was the best way to honour my father at his death. The Shrine that he had was taken from him because when he bought the land he was tricked. It was a lease. He thought, when he signed the contract, that he was buying the land. He was in court for over a decade, until his death, fighting the landowners.
The law in Nigeria states that in a dispute over land, if the challenger dies, then the case cannot go further. So, we could not take up the fight with the landowners, but it was very important to us to try and bring back The Shrine in order to keep Fela's legacy.
So, what happened was that, when we reached an agreement over the licensing deal to release my father's back catalogue, I managed to convince my elder sister, my younger sister...... my side of the family, to use our own money to buy land and build The Shrine in his honour.
It is a place where we honour not only my father, but also people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, great Africans who have fought for the emancipation of Africa and Africans. This was his dream.
How often is The Shrine open and what kind of music is played there? Do you have African stars from countries outside Nigeria coming to play there? How is it different from other clubs in Lagos?
It was opened in 2000. I play there two times a week now. My younger brother Seun plays there once a month, on the last Saturday. We have a festival in October. Everyone's invited, other Afrobeat groups play there, the Nigerian hip hop scene comes there. It's not strictly for Afrobeat.
Hugh Masekela has played there, King Sunny Ade, many. Many bands from Kenya, Ghana, Mali. As for the other clubs, I am not the social kind, I never go out, so you're asking the wrong person that question. There's a place called The Freedom Park, they have live music there also.
Two of the strongest elements in Afrobeat are funk music and jazz music. Many people would consider these musical style to be American music. Would you say that's true?
[laughs] Why would you say that these were American musics when they were developed by Africans?
Well, if you asked the people who developed that music in America, maybe they would consider themselves to be American.
That is the effect of colonisation. If you asked an enlightened American, they would tell you that it's African, the inspiration comes from Africa and that the people who developed it are African. They would tell you that their ancestors were stolen from here, taken to America to be slaves.
An African American who doesn't know his past, or indeed his present, would probably say that it's American, yes, I accept that. But what you have to understand is that this music did come from the African community in America and that community is... African.
This music came out of the blues, developed through jazz, be-bop, funk, pop, rock and now hip hop. If you speak to connoisseurs or the composers themselves, people like Miles Davis, they could instantly see the connection. They knew exactly where my father was coming from. They understood the roots.
The last time I was in Africa a lot of the young people were enjoying hip hop, R&B and reggae music. How popular is traditional music in Africa?
I don't know in other parts, I can't say for sure, but it depends on the traditional music. There is one called apala, that's from the west, and another called fuji and they are very popular. They don't get airplay, but they do have a very large following. The stars of those musics are very popular at grassroots level.
You played a concert with your brother Seun earlier this year and I read that this was the first time you'd done that. How was that experience?
It wasn't the first time. We'd played together before, in Denmark and we regularly play together at The Shrine. But it was the first time we played together in Nigeria outside of The Shrine, so some people tried to make a big thing of it. It was a big deal for some people. It was a big deal for my brother, I think, because of his age.
Some people like to trouble him that there are still frictions within the family. My brother and I have no problems. He really went all out to make sure this gig happened. Maybe, because of my age, I was very cool about it.
If people want to make up stories about there being a friction, then that's their business. At my age I really don't let things like that bother me. So, for a lot of people it was a big deal, but for me? We talk on the phone all the time and we already played together.
Corruption exists throughout society, not only at the top of society, with politicians and big business. Do you think these are new problems?
I think these are problems that have always existed, but it's particularly bad right now because it has become like a culture. Especially in Nigeria. Everyone here believes that if you are not corrupt you cannot be successful. I think it will change but it has to change from leadership.
When governments start acting in the kind of manner in which they're supposed to act, be a government of the people, for the people, as it should be, slowly society will change. When people understand that to be corrupt is evil, society will change.
Here it's all too evident that corruption controls everything because everyone is corrupt, your driver is corrupt, your household is corrupt. You can't trust anybody and that is too sad. But this hasn't just happened yesterday, it has been going on for the last 30 years and has been going downhill since.
I really don't believe that all is lost. I am still very optimistic that a generation will come and realise that things have to change and demand that change. You can seee signs that is already happening. Young people here are very sad and very vocal about the situation and you can hear that, like in some Nigerian hip hop.
I don't believe this generation can bring about the change that's needed, but they can influence the next generation and maybe they will be the ones to say enough is enough and can bring about that change. Maybe this can happen 20 - 50 years from now.
Do you think young people in Nigeria are proud of Nigeria?
They are upset, but yes, they are proud of Nigeria.
Do you think that pride people have, in an individual nation, maybe stops them seeing a bigger picture, one of Pan-Africanism?
Well this is what Patrice Lumumba fought for and died for, this is what my father's life was all about. Until we see the bigger picture we will just keep going round in circles. People who are nationalist like this, they don't want people to see the big picture, because if they do, that's the first step to bringing down all the corruption.
We need to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters, as one people. We need to understand that Nigeria, along with every Southern African country, these are just colonial structures. There is a voice that says these things, but it is not in the majority right now. Their voices are always drowned out by the nationalist voices, who pretend to be very patriotic. But it's a very convenient patriotism.
Why can't the African people stand firm, come together, protect themselves, protect their continent, protect their traditions and culture?
Today we can see many young Africans who don't like the indigenous names, they prefer to be called David Simpson, because they believe they will get a better job than if they are called Kokumo. But this has always been the fight of my father, my fight and the fight of Afrobeat. It is a difficult fight because the nationalist voice is a corrupt one and it steals in order to be able to silence the other voice. Though it's not as loud, that other voice is still there.
There is a familiarity not only in the music of you and your father, but also in the words that you speak. How do you think your father would feel knowing that you still sing about many of the same problems he complained about?
It's very sad. My father was saying these things when I was 13. Now I'm 53. I think my father was already a very depressed person before he died. He was always in very deep thought. If he saw the way Nigeria was now being run, I think he would die from high blood pressure.
I read that you're a judge on Nigerian Idol.
I resigned. The programme is on the world stage, I tried to advocate that it should be more African. It's too American. We should be showing Africa to the rest of the world, not try to imitate others. We should be encouraging the younger ones to play musical instruments, learn a skill, have a career for life, but what happens on Nigerian Idol is that all these young people come out, they make a lot of noise, then they become nothing.
Then they start roaming the streets. They don't even bring out a song. They become stars only with their pictures in the paper, but in reality they are nothing. And yet they go there with so many dreams. I did not want to be part of something that did not mean more than that.
Your father's story was in the past few years successfully translated onto the stage in the production of Fela! Do you think the time is right for a movie to be made of his story?
Yes, I was very impressed with Fela! I cried when I watched it. I think a film of his story would be magnificent, if it's done properly. Mindblowing.
How important is it to you that your own children follow you into music?
I don't know if it's important like that. What's important is that they are happy and they can be what they want to be. That's what's important.
If they don't want to play music, that's not something that will make me turn over in my grave. They all seem to be wanting to play music and that doesn't freak me out, if it's something they are happy doing. But if they choose to do something else, as long as they are smiling, that will make me a happy father.
What is the difference between arrogance and self belief?
[laughs] That's a very deep question. It could go many ways. Arrogance is like corruption. Arrogance doesn't really mean that you know what you are doing or can do what you say you can do.
Self belief should come with being humble and with the understanding that mistakes can happen. I think to be humble, to be like that, it comes with being spiritual.
Arrogance is very negative, it means you think you are insurmountable and you think you know a lot, but you don't even know God. If you are arrogant it means you are disrespectful to other people, you don't care.
If you have self belief, you are more likely to respect other people, to help them, because probably you have made mistakes, but you are the kind of person who can learn from these mistakes and then want to correct other people from making these same mistakes, that's why you believe you are right in the path you have decided to go. If you understand what I'm trying to say. One is negative, one is positive.
Originally published @skiddle.com