The Bold Magic of Afro-beat Master Femi Kuti
When I read about brutal excesses of repressive regimes across the African continent, I can't help admiring the conviction and courage of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a musician who dared to defy some of the most ruthless dictators of Nigeria's dark, post-colonial rule. Inspired by the Black Power movement and heavy sounds of James Brown, Sly Stone and soul music of the late 60s, Fela Kuti brought some of that fire back to Africa when he formed his own band and stage show that transformed him into Africa's most popular artist. But Fela seemed to care less about his comfort as an artist than becoming a voice for change in Nigeria, and he paid a terrible price in terms of endless beatings, harassment and imprisonment by the ruling authorities. When Fela Kuti died of AIDS in 1997, Africa was left with a huge hole in its heart. We are fortunate to have Fela's "Afro-beat" tradition live on in his son Femi, who in his own way, has expanded it and taken it to new heights.
Femi inherited the head of the Afro-beat mantle from his father, the late Fela Anikupalo Kuti, perhaps the greatest musician and activist voice to emerge from the African Motherland. With his undeniable magnetism and electrifying stage presence, Fela Kuti orchestrated a fabulous stage show with more than 30 dancers and musicians, who blazed their audiences with color, energy, sexiness and sublime artistry. Fela used his musical success and popularity as a platform to speak out against oppression, corruption and injustice. For many years Fela dared to criticize the brutal, repressive military rulers in Nigeria, and as a result he was continually harassed, beaten and imprisoned. Yet Fela never faltered in his criticism of the tyranny of the ruling elite and he became an icon to the Nigerian masses and West Africa as a whole; at his funeral in 1997, more than a million common Nigerians crowded the streets around his nightclub “The Shrine” and his home, to pay their respects.
In 1984 the Nigerian government arrested Fela on phony currency trading charges and jailed him for two years, which inadvertently thrust Femi into limelight as he unexpectedly was forced to assume leadership of his father’s band. Femi had only been playing with his father for a few years, and as a young man in his early 20s, Femi suddenly had to carry on his father’s legacy. He proved he was equal to the task, and after his father was released in 1986, Femi felt he had to establish his own band, and for a while he fell out of favor with his father. But with time Fela came to approve of Femi becoming a musical force in his own right.
Femi’s band, Positive Force, was originally formed in 1986, in the early years after Fela’s release from prison. Like his father, Femi played the Afro-beat sound, with a large stage ensemble of 17 people, including a six-piece horn section, two percussionist, guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, and four singer-dancers. After several European tours and two Nigerian albums, Femi and Positive Force debuted in the United States in 1995, captivating audiences much like his father did years before him. Femi sings about many of the injustices that his father decried, and his music and lyrics bear the same sense of compassion and humanity. Femi won a record contract with MCA as a result of the success of his 1999 release Shoki Shoki. One of his hippest grooves, a playful song about sex called “Beng, Beng, Beng” – which is actually intended to promote awareness about AIDS, was banned by the government for its supposedly lewd lyrics. Perhaps with the democratization of Nigeria the political authorities have moved away from the overt repression that plagued his father, but the “Beng, Beng, Beng” episode still leaves one to wonder if the government will ever allow Femi and his musical tradition to exist in the spirit of free speech.
I was fortunate to catch Femi in between performances in Nigeria. Femi had a great deal to say about Nigeria and Africa in general, and is keen on taking his tour back to the United States. His tour is promoting a new two-disc CD compilation set of his some of his best works with Positive Force called Definitive Collection: Femi Kuti. Femi also has been working on a studio album, which is due to be release later this year or in the beginning of next year.
JA: How did your father’s death affect you personally, artistically, emotionally and in terms of your career?
FK: It was devastating, he had been ill for a bit but we didn’t realize how ill. My father was a great man very strong and man ready to die for his beliefs. I still miss him for all reasons, chatting about music, personal problems and normal guidance a father can give. He made me the individual I am today, one day I asked him to teach me to play a saxophone and he said do it yourself, at the time you get annoyed but you realize he was teaching you to be a stronger person. The death of his 10th anniversary is coming up and we are going to have a huge party at the Shrine – a good way to celebrate his life.
JA: What was it like for you, as a young man, to take over your father’s band in 1984 when the government jailed him on trumped up charges? You must’ve been in your early twenties back then, and it must’ve been a great responsibility.
FK: My father was always getting into trouble with the authorities; he was often hounded harassed & jailed for his outspokenness. In 1977 his compound was attacked by 1000 soldiers and my father was injured. My grandmother was thrown out of a window and later died due to her injuries. So when in 1984 he was jailed for 10 years for currency smuggling by the authorities we couldn’t believe it. I then took over the band from 1984 – 1986, it was quite a daunting task because I had not performed by myself in front of so many people but I could not let my father down, once I started though it kind of came naturally to entertain the crowd. When my father came back I then decided to head up my own band which as you know he wasn’t happy with, but ultimately we made up.
JA: How has your band Positive Force evolved from its formation in 1986 to it current state now, 20 years later?
FK: We have changed many members, my ex wife is no longer in it or my sister Yeni. We have three dancers one of them was originally in my father’s band but the other two girls auditioned for the part and got it. With regards to the band only the lead trumpeter and the trombonist are from the original band everyone else has changed.
JA: Tell me about your song “Beng, Beng, Beng” and the government’s reaction to it. Is it still banned, or has there been a change in policy with the new democratic leadership?
FK: It is a bit of fun really and the authorities took it too seriously. I was trying to tell them that the whole issue of Sex has to be addressed and not hidden. One minute there is a huge campaign on AIDS and the next minute they are banning my song. The two go hand-in-hand, don’t they? We need to be more open about sex then the whole issue of condoms can be discussed. I also wrote a song about AIDS – “Cover your Bamboo!” – to try and make people aware of the problems of having sex. As we know AIDS is decimating Africa and unless we all become more open it will carry on at a rate it is. And yes it is still banned.
JA: How do you feel about the political and social changes in Nigeria in the past decade, with the coming of democracy and Obasanjo’s presidency?
FK: There have been no changes; if anything life has got worse. Where do I start… Nigeria is Nigeria… Nigeria is full of corruption and nothing has really changed since my father’s time. There is even more disparity of wealth. Nigeria being oil rich the young people do not understand why they are poor, and crime increases all over. And then there is the issue of religion and the fighting between the Christians and the Muslims, there is a lot of tension and Islamic fundamentalism has grown because of the larger worldwide issues going on. The only way is for the Africans to help themselves. We have to get over our colonialist/slavery mentality and start to change things for the better. Every country has corruption but there are now corrections in place to find out who the people are who are involved and therefore hopefully over time corruption will get better. Also if other countries could alter their foreign policies such as fair trade then yes, this will make a difference. But the reality is strong countries are not going to help weaker countries; they will only play at it. If they become fair-minded they will lose their next election! We live every day with limited electricity and water. We make the most of it. A new president was voted in recently – Umaru Musa Yar'Adua – but to be honest things are not getting better, just worse. When these people get into power they never fulfill their promises. You see them with their big cars, they buy houses in England or America, they give their kids the best education, but the crop of the people, the masses themselves, they lose. Nigerians are used to being let down by their governments. We are Africa's biggest oil exporter, then how is it that we have fallen far behind other developing countries? Here is a nice figure for you: since independence from Britain in 1960, an estimated $400 billion of oil revenues have gone missing, presumed stolen, by the military and political elite.
JA: Do you feel a strong need to face and challenge some of the same political problems and forces that your father spoke out against?
FK: Of course I do, but it is difficult to change anything unless there is a radical complete overhaul of the existing people in government. I sometimes want to stop talking about the issues because nothing will change. Fela accepted a lot of beatings and still nothing changed. Being a spokesperson for Nigeria will hopefully at least make people sit up and notice the problems we face on a daily basis.
JA: Tell us about your new 2CD set “Definitive Collection: Femi Kuti” – what makes this collection special?
FK: The first album is a good retrospective of my past albums Shoki Shoki and Fight to Win; I have also got two tracks from an earlier album. The second album I have put just my remixes, I think it is such an honor for someone to love your music so much to remix tracks. Finally a track I really love was a track we recorded for Red Hot and Riot – “Water No Get Enemy” – which was a favorite of my father’s, this was recorded with Macy Gray and D’Angelo
JA: How do you feel about how your music has been received in America since you first toured here in 1995?
FK: I get a great reaction every time I come over to America which is great.
JA: It seems that hip hop and Afrobeat are an unlikely combination. What was it like for you to collaborate with artists like Common and Mos Def on your “Fight to Win” album (2001)?
FK: It was fantastic, you have to keep on experimenting with your music, I think it really worked well.
JA: A friend of mine traveled to Nigeria and had the good fortune of being taken to some fabulous clubs and music scenes along the Nigerian coast, where she had the most incredible music and party experience of her life. She saw a side of Nigeria that very few hear about or know about, and she felt that there was great undeveloped potential for tourism there. Can you comment on this?
FK: I agree… Nigerians love music and it is a hotbed of musical talent. We know that Nigeria has a lot of tourist potential as the Shrine gets loads of tourists as well as local trade.
JA: Is there anything special you want people to know about your band and this upcoming tour?
FK: Just come and be prepared to enjoy yourselves
JA: Beyond this double CD set, do you have any plans for upcoming albums?