Africa Confidential, June 2005NIGERIAFemi Kuti: Son of the Shrine
The Africa Confidential Interview
Print this special report
Femi Kuti, one of world music's biggest stars, is the son of the legendary Nigerian afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. He has developed his father's polyrythmic legacy by adding the exuberance of today's young Lagos as well as the sounds of American dance music such as house. Femi is a keen critic of African governments and has continued his family's history of political activism in Nigeria. He has just released a new album - The Shrine - named after Fela's legendary club, now owned by Femi. Africa Confidential caught up with him in London before his UK performance in June 2005.
Africa Confidential: Tell us about your new album, Africa Shrine.
Femi Kuti: It was recorded live in March 2004 at the Shrine. It's for people who want to come to the Shrine but will never be able to. It's to let them know about it. It's me and my people at the Shrine.
AC: You've collaborated quite prominently with international artists, most recently with American hip-hop artists Mos Def and Common. Was this a conscious effort to internationalise your Afrobeat music or is Afrobeat inherently international?
FK: It was an opportunity at the time and I understood it. I still do. There are great stars in America and why not? But I don't think it was anything deliberate or about heritage. I'd already worked with other artists like D'AngeloErykah Badu and many others. and
AC: In that sense would you see Afrobeat as international?
AC: You've done all these amazing collaborations worldwide. Would you ever consider a collaboration with any British artists?
FK: There are many things I'd thought of doing. This album was an opportunity. When we went into the studio we sat down and started discussing it and just said 'Why don't we just perform live at the Shrine?' and someone said 'OK'. So we did and people liked it. But if an opportunity arises and I'm in London and not too tired or busy then I wouldn't rule it out. I like to keep an open mind.
AC: You marry your politics and your music very effectively, like your father did. With the current war on terror and governments becoming increasingly authoritarian, in democracies or otherwise, what role does music have to play nowadays in our world?
FK: That's a difficult question. They are becoming authoritarian to themselves, not to the world, not to me. I don't they think they realise what they are doing.
Killing people teaches you nothing. You can't compromise music. You learn and study and life and death become more clear. If you want to be a joker you'll get nowhere playing music. If you want to fool yourself you'll get nowhere playing music. Music plays the role of truth. I won't lie to you or try to deceive you. If I want to be with a girl I'll just say. Otherwise one day you might find me with a girl and then I'll be very embarrassed because I lied. I never wanted that kind of life.
You can't tell the world you're going to war in Iraq to find chemical weapons and then not find them. They've killed Iraqi people and American and British people have died as well and while they sit at home with their children, they've put the whole world in danger. And they say they're right - but I don't want to argue about that. But the war is not about chemical weapons. If we are going off to die, let us know why we are dying. If you kill all those people it must be because of somebody's greed.
Now the ammunition maker is sitting down somewhere, say in Hawaii with his family, and he's making bullets that are killing people. Do you know how many dollars these bullets cost? If one bullet was fired maybe it costs a dollar. Now whole rounds are fired [he imitates machine gun fire at this point] and lots of people are killed. That costs money. Each bomb that is made and thrown costs money. Somebody's making a lot of money, whether we like it or not.
Now these same people, if we were to ask them, give us the AIDS drugs to cure people - what would they say? Because you can't spend money to make bombs that kill people and not want to spend money for drugs that gives mankind life.
AC: So you see music as the voice of truth in the face of political dishonesty?
AC: You mentioned the subject of 'children', but of course you're a representative for children at large with Unicef?
FK: No, I work for myself now.
AC: So you're no longer working with Unicef?
FK: No, I'm not saying that. If they want to use me for anything or my face, they can because it's what I was doing. Unicef will not teach me how to take care of or how to treat my child. I will play the role of father. I want to give my child everything and make sure he has everything he needs for the future. I'm not the kind of parent to say [mock officious impression]: 'Go to school, go to school'. I didn't go to school. I stopped school. So I will know how to understand his life. I know what teachers will teach him. Teachers teach a lot of crap. Why should my son speak English, without speaking his own language? Now they want us to speak French, before we have even learnt to speak English properly in Nigeria. We don't speak our own language so we are disorganised. I want my son to speak as many African languages as possible. Of course I would love him to learn Spanish and English as well, but if he doesn't it doesn't mean he's a useless boy.
AC: What do you think about Tony Blair's Commission for Africa?
FK: I don't believe it. That man has already lied to me. With all the lies I've heard in the past, why should I believe him now?
AC: NGO's, charities?
FK: I don't believe in them either. Remember all the aid money for Ethiopia when they sang We are the world? All that money, where is it? People feeling sorry for the children, giving money to all these charities. But the children have been poor for a while and will be poor for a while longer. Meanwhile they stay in nice hotels and have their conferences. They are hypocrites because they don't try and understand the problem.
AC: Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo made a speech in November 2004 where he said 'Nigerians should be prepared to die for their country'. Would you die for Nigeria?
FK: I would die for Africa; I can't die for Nigeria.
AC: Why is that?
FK: Because I don't understand the word Nigeria. It is a colonial name. But I don't need to die for Africa, because Africa is already dying for itself. I want to bring Africa to life unlike all these idiots. He [Obasanjo] is he prepared to die for Nigeria? He wants to sound like John F Kennedy, but Kennedy was actually ready to die for America and he did. Now, if he [Obasanjo] is ready to die for Nigeria why is the Nigerian community so important?
AC: Since return to civilian rule in 1999, ten thousand people have died. In 2004 Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka was quoted by the BBC as saying 'Nigeria is on the verge of a massive implosion and could make what is happening in Sudan look like child's play'.
FK: Wole Soyinka said that a generation ago. He said 'a wasted generation gives birth to a dustbin'.
AC: But do you think there is any substance in his latest claim?
FK: I've been saying that for the past five years, since my father died. 'Do not elect Obasanjo or there will be in anarchy in this country.' I said that at the time. My father had said it a long time ago as well. Democracy at all costs puts the devil in power. He [Soyinka] should have realised that before he started campaigning for democracy. Especially because of his status and the respect he commands at home and abroad. People listened to him and followed Obasanjo and now they want to remove him. Everybody can be a human rights activist but the situation will still gets worse.
AC: So you would agree with [Nigerian author] Chinua Achebe that the trouble with Nigeria is a problem of leadership?
FK: Yes, definitely.
AC: Would you ever consider being president of Nigeria?
AC: Why is that?
FK: Because I don't believe in democracy.
AC: What do you believe instead?
FK: I'm going to be a leader of myself. All I can do is just try to be a good human being and fight to eradicate bad vibes like jealousy and greed from my way of thinking. I want to be happy and make other people happy too. I have my path, others have theirs. No one can follow my path because they don't know my path. Let them follow their own path. Let them have their own lifestyle and identity. If someone wants to be president good luck to them. But I don't ever want to be president: sitting in a department, signing stupid documents and all that. Besides, they are never held to account. So, there is no honesty.
AC: If I can just interrupt, why did you disband MASS [Movement Against Second Slavery]?
FK: Because everyone was coming after me and my money and not the interests of MASS. If I came back with five or ten thousand dollars for the project everyone suddenly needed new money for everything - [mimicking] 'Give me money for a new website,' money for this, money for that, and ultimately no one really believed in, or worked hard enough, towards the objective.
I'll give you an example. I called a meeting with all the people in the organisation to discuss what we should do. And this guy walks in with a BIG joint. Not that I think there's anything wrong with it, but how can you let the government know you're serious - never mind make them understand - if you're slack on your own standards? Most of them are so naïve. You are trying to fight for your cause and then you walk in with a big spliff and it just doesn't help. He's not Fela. If Fela walked into a meeting with a big joint that's ok, but this guy wasn't Fela. And this guy just wanted my money, my money, my money.
But I will continue. You don't need an organisation to speak the truth. My music is already there.
AC: You obviously don't admire this man, you obviously admired your father, you said you admire Achebe and Soyinka. What other artists in Nigeria or in Africa do you admire?
FK: I can't answer that question for you. I find it very difficult to admire myself. It's not my objective or my culture to admire anybody. I don't look outwards too much in that way. I've solved my problems, so I don't need to make new issues with whether I like this or whether I like that. 'Admire'? It is not a matter of 'admiring'.
AC: Who do you respect then?
FK: These are very big word you are using. You are English right? 'Respect'... [he laughs].
AC: Give me a clue of a better word?
FK: I can't. Respect, it's a very big word.
AC: We were taught it when we were younger: 'Respect your elders.'
FK: It will guide you all your life, stress you all your life. Misrule comes from the home. Parents say, 'You can't change the world.' Children need to be protected and guided.
AC: That's interesting because your lifestyle is reported as being very different to your father's. Some say he was more extrovert. In what way would you say your music or lifestyle is different from your father's?
FK: I think we are different, but obviously there are a lot of similarities, he was my father, and all my life I have been listening to his music.
AC: Was it a conscious choice to be different from him?
FK: No. You won't believe what an evil man he was. I completed my whole life and he never taught me. Ah, my daddy, he made me suffer all my life! I picked up a saxophone said teach me and he said go and teach yourself. So it was my problem. But when I look at his life I know what he went through. It's very hard for me to hate him when I know what he did in his life time.
AC: Being his son and knowing so much about your father do you find it difficult to reconcile your view of him with the view that the world holds of him?
FK: That's right. He never taught me because he taught me to be individual, to do things my own way. Maybe life has more meaning, but the objective is to find peace. Be true to yourself. All I want now is peace and to be happy.
Femi Kuti on the web