Femi Kuti’s father, Fela Kuti, was a one-man action group to rid Africa, and specifically Nigeria, of corruption, hypocrisy and poverty. His weapon was music, a richly layered fusion of jazz, rhumba, high-life, psychedelic rock and all kinds of Nigerian pop and folk styles he called Afrobeat. Fela died in 1997, and since then, two of Fela’s sons, Femi and Seun, have kept his legacy alive. A musical celebration of their father’s life, Fela!, a huge hit on Broadway garnering rave reviews, has recently opened in London. All of Fela’s officially released albums have been rereleased in a box set, while a new film about Fela’s life, directed by the artist Steve McQueen, is also in the works. Sublime met Femi Kuti during a recent visit to London.
Sublime: Your new album sounds fresher and more vital than any of your previous outings. What have you done differently?
Femi Kuti: It’s years of practice, years of being dedicated to the cause – and going back to Lagos to record. Sodi, my producer and I agreed that this time we should try to record in Nigeria instead of rushing into a studio, like we normally do, for three days in Europe. I said to Sodi, OK, come to Nigeria, if you can find a good studio where you’re sure we can walk in and record without any electricity problems. He looks around and comes back and says: ‘I’ve found Decca. I will have to bring in a few bits, but the studio has a generator and even a back-up generator.’ I say to him: ‘Are you sure? OK, but if we start recording here, you better not complain!’ I couldn’t believe Decca still existed. It was the first studio I recorded in in 1989, and even my father recorded there. So Sodi goes to Paris and comes back with some tools and we start recording. And bim! the lights go off! Then the generator doesn’t work. We have to turn off the central air-conditioning, we’re sweating, we’re angry and everybody’s frustrated. All this anger and frustration fuelled the record.
S: Were you improvising a lot of the lyrics in the studio?
FK: No. These are all lyrics that were written down. I’m already thinking of the next album now. I want to work. Everybody complained after Live at the Shrine that it took me too long to bring out a new studio album. ‘Are you getting lazy?’ they said. ‘Don’t you know what to do with your life?’ That really upset me.
S: So you weren’t being lazy?
FK: Ha ha! I wasn’t being lazy. I was fighting in Lagos. Fighting no electricity. Fighting poverty. I had to help many people. Besides, I had to run The Shrine. And I considered Live at the Shrine to be a proper album. It could easily have been recorded in a studio, but I wanted people to see how an audience reacted to my music, how popular The Shrine was, how popular Fela was and how I’m gaining ground. Unfortunately, the world didn’t consider Live at the Shrine equal to a studio recording, and the recording deal broke down. It took time to get another deal.
S: If the non-African music business didn’t accept Live at the Shrine as a proper album, have there been any other instances in the last few years where your vision of your music ran up against the expectations and conventions of the international market?
FK: It’s always everybody’s desire to get airplay and be known as an artist. I use my father as a big example. He never got airplay. But in the underground he was one of the greatest musicians. Everybody knew him because he stuck to his guns. Even after his death, he’s still way, way present. I thought that should be a big lesson for any musician. If I didn’t get any airplay, I didn’t really let it bother me. I knew what I was doing. I know that in fifty years’ time, people will still be talking about Live at the Shrine. It’s something in my history. It’ll be there for ever. So I’m not concerned about record companies not giving it its due.
S: The record business is in trouble. The internet has radically changed the industry. Nobody knows what it will look like ten years from now. How do the changes affect an African band like yours?
FK: The whole business has collapsed. Everything’s breaking down. If you were selling 20m before, and now you’re selling 2m, you’re lucky. Everybody has to start all over again. We have to think of how to make a living. What has always been my edge is that I’ve been used to a live band. We’ve always been able to get by. Not making huge amounts of money, but just enough to feed myself, my family, my band and their families. The internet and downloading is not really affecting us. The telephone companies and the multinationals are backing a lot of young boys and girls playing music. They’re doing a lot of gigs and they’re getting well paid. The more people download your music, the more popular you are, the more people you draw to your concerts, and the better the chances are you are going to attract one of the big companies to sponsor you. I’ve never sold millions; I was never that interested in the sales. I was more interested in making sure that every gig I played was successful. If an artist was dependent on his sales, probably he’d be demoralised right now. In Africa it was already difficult to sell records, so the artists had to find different ways to survive.
S: Isn’t there a grave danger in this sponsoring system that an artist like you, with strong political lyrics, will be left out? Surely those companies aren’t going to sponsor artists calling for changes to a system that has made them rich?
FK: Someone like me would never get sponsorship from any of them. I haven’t played in Nigeria outside The Shrine for ten years. Well, a friend set up a gig for me outside The Shrine last February. He said: ‘You’re rotting away in your Shrine. People need to see you outside!’ He paid me quite a good sum. It was a good concert. But you need the multinationals to back you to survive, really. Luckily I’ve got quite a good name in Europe and America, so I get to tour every once in a while and we can survive.
S: Doesn’t this mean that the tradition of West African political songwriting is in danger of being lost because sponsors wouldn’t be interested in supporting rebels?
FK: They would love to get people like me lost. But Europe will not sit down and let people like me get lost. Even if American companies were to cooperate with the multinationals to get people like me lost, my American fans would not let that happen. People in Europe and America are more enlightened about things like corruption, and they will fight injustice. Injustice is being fought more in Europe and America than in Africa. If I asked for political asylum, I’m sure I would get it. As I don’t ask for it, people will understand that if I don’t get any gigs it’s not because I’m not a good artist, it’s not because I’m not a good musician. They will know it’s because I’m fighting these corrupt multinationals that are exploiting the people of Africa, pretending all is well. All is not well!
S: Nigeria compared to twenty years ago – what’s changed? Has anything changed for the better?
FK: It hasn’t changed for the better. It’s more hypocritical. There’s more deceit. The only good thing is that there is more international exposure, and more people are enlightened because of the fight of my father. When I’m singing, people will get the message immediately. Before, if they sent the police to arrest my father, the police were only too willing to arrest him. If they sent the police to arrest me, even if they are willing, at the back of their minds they would be reluctant. A lot of the police are my friends. They love what I’m doing because they, too are underpaid. They have families, they have children, and the state is not taking care of them. So they know what I’m singing, that I am not doing what I’m doing because I want to be famous and rich. If that was the case, I wouldn’t have to be there. They know I could have moved out of Nigeria a long time ago. I’m staying and sticking to my guns and feeling their pain and singing about it, and that’s why I command respect on the street.
S: Were you ever tempted to move somewhere else?
FK: Of course. When you travel, sometimes you want to just sleep and forget that a country like Nigeria exists. You don’t want to watch the news. You don’t want to see the pain of others. But then you wake up and you know you have to be frank with yourself. Of course I would love to have a peaceful life, but that is not realistic. That would not be true to myself. That’s why I fight for peace for everybody.
S: In Los Angeles you’d probably be bored and lonely in no time at all.
FK: When I’m in Lagos, there’s always something to get on my nerves to keep me on my toes, ha! Here, I can laze around, I don’t know what to do with my life when I’m here. I’m sad. When I’m back home, the electricity goes off. I go: YES, THIS IS WRONG! They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Building The Shrine, too, was a very good way of trapping myself in Nigeria. Now that I have The Shrine, it’s like I’ve tied myself down. I’m committed. All my beliefs as a young man are embedded there. Nothing can entice me or change me – I’m stuck.
S: When you left your father’s band to form your own group, Positive Force, your father didn’t speak to you for five years. Was that the most difficult decision you ever had to make?
FK: Yes. I was unhappy. My father was human, he was wrong many times. I thought the way I was brought up, with due respect, was wrong. I thought he should have taught me to read and write music. He didn’t. So I had to struggle to try and teach myself the sax, the trumpet. OK; it’s a good thing because now I can take up an instrument, and now I’m too proud even to listen to anybody teach me. I’ve been playing the trumpet for nine years, and when I started, everybody was like: ‘You will never play the trumpet. Never. Let me show you a few tricks.’ I’d say NO! I’ll find my way. I’m now finding my way. But I’m very proud that I’m doing it myself. When I left Fela, I didn’t know whether I’d be successful, but I knew I had to leave. I was angry enough to say: ‘OK, even if I die taking this decision, so be it.’ That is the way he brought me up. To take very hard decisions for oneself. In later years when I asked him: ‘Why didn’t you teach me’, he said he thought I would not need education to be a successful person. Then he asked me a few questions. ‘Are you successful?’ Yes. ‘Are you famous?’ Yes. ‘Are you making money?’ Yes. ‘Are you feeding your family?’ Yes. ‘Did you go to school?’ No. ‘So what’s your problem? I’m right.’ We laughed and made up. OK, I didn’t need school. But it was a very hard life I had. I wouldn’t have my son go through the kind of emotional torture I went through as a young man. I’ll make sure he goes to school. But it was an experiment my father felt he had to make with me for reasons obvious to himself. Fighting against colonialism, fighting against what he was fighting against, he felt: ‘OK, I’ll use my son as an example.’ And I’m a success. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have gone the wrong way, couldn’t have failed. I succeeded. But it was a big risk, too.
S: What was your involvement with the Fela! musical?
FK: Not much. Before it was on Broadway, I knew about it. As soon as it got on Broadway, I was happy. I wanted it to come to Nigeria. I want it to come to The Shrine. It’s good if the Americans get to see it and the Americans help to protect the heritage for us. It’s good if it comes to England and is successful here, too. It makes the political statement stronger, makes our fight stronger. But it still has to come home.
S: And will it?
FK: It will. The producer, Stephen Hendel, has given me his word that it will. Only then would I go to watch it. I said to them: ‘I want to watch it in Lagos at The Shrine. If you’re not going to bring it to The Shrine, I’m never going to watch it.’ So we came to an agreement: ‘OK, come and watch it and I’ll do everything in my power to get it to Nigeria.’ So I went to watch it. I’m really happy that I went. I cried, cried, cried like a big baby! It took me all the way back, aye, aye, aye, it is a very strong play.
Femi Kuti, Africa for Africa (Wrasse Records)
Fela Kuti, three box sets with nine discs each, and a box set containing all Fela’s officially released albums