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“It Sounds like I’m Blowing My Own Trumpet”: An Interview with Femi Kuti

The Nigerian bandleader discusses politics, activism and father Fela.
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Femi Kuti. Photograph by Alexander Macfarlane.

London, UK:

Femi Kuti is the spitting image of his father Fela, and one could easily mistake a recent photograph of Femi to be a matured Fela in later life. He also shares Fela Kuti’s adopted middle name, Anikulapo, meaning ‘he who carries death in his pouch’.

Everyone remembers Fela, the creator of afrobeat and a persistent thorn in the side of the Nigerian government, as an explosive ball of energy. He liked being shirtless, and usually flashed a goofy grin or raised a fist or two to the sky when he saw a camera watching. Femi, trumpet in hands and dressed in a well-worn dashiki with the collar up, has a relatively calm demeanour. He is due to play at London’s Back2Black Festival in a few hours. The only other person in the dressing room is a small boy who, for the moment at least, seems happily preoccupied with a box of chips.

What part does Femi play in the cross-generational Fela Kuti story?

“I think I’ve maintained the integrity of the struggle taken up by Fela… but I don’t really like talking about it in those respects”, he says.

Femi lowers his gaze to the trumpet. He fingers the valves thoughtfully and then raises it almost to his lips. For a second I think I’m about to be given a private rendition.

“In those respects it sounds like I’m blowing my own trumpet. We mustn’t forget that Fela paid a huge price for being a lone voice. He got regular beatings from police and soldiers, he lost his property, his house was burned down – he went through hell basically. All this was in the 70s before he gained support from human rights groups like Amnesty International. In the early 80s I was playing in his band and got arrested with him, so I witnessed first-hand how the Nigerian police reacted to Fela. There was nobody else as outspoken and vibrant as Fela in Nigeria back then. He set the tone in the 80s for human rights activists like me, and he sacrificed so much for so many Nigerians.”

How does your approach to activism differ from Fela’s?

My attitude towards fighting is totally different. I’ve always been more cautious. I’m just as determined to win the battle, but for me it’s more like a game of chess. My father was naturally confrontational and couldn’t resist going out without an army. I’ve built myself an army. I always make sure the press, not just in Nigeria but internationally, is on my case. I recently became an ambassador for Amnesty. I’m also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador; I like to think I’ve been smart in fighting the cause. I have been attacked by the Nigerian government in many ways, sometimes physically. The Shrine (Fela’s legendary nightclub) has been closed by troops many times. Last time the Shrine closed, fans all over the world sent messages of support.

Thanks to everything I’ve been doing to promote the Fela story there was a huge bombardment saying “Open the Shrine! Open the Shrine!” I’ve made getting signatures on a petition against the government so easy. I think the pressure comes more from outside than inside because the government is so keen to put out a positive image. If people like me say “No! You are wrong!” it becomes a big story. I’m very tactical, and I became tactical because I could learn from Fela’s – I wouldn’t be so harsh as to say mistakes – but his enthusiasm did backfire occasionally. I’ve definitely made some mistakes which my son will certainly learn from. Every politically-active musician improves from the previous generation.

Do you think the Nigerian government is beginning to look back at Fela’s life as something to be proud of as a nation?

The government has always been against the Fela story. If they identify with him, it shows that they are corrupt. The unfortunate fact remains that they are corrupt. Look at the most recent scandal, the petrol subsidy. The house of legislators and everybody involved in the $96 million kickback, when they identify with Fela, they are effectively saying Fela was right in his accusations. Many of the people in the government are sons of people my father fought against. How can they come forward and say Fela was right? The governor of Lagos did say he was trying to change that in one way: he wants to build a museum on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic (Fela’s communal compound that he declared independent from Nigeria).

If the governor does build the museum it would be a huge step. You can see how it is very hard for the government to identify with a name that labels them as wrong. Fela’s name has never been a problem for the people of Nigeria; it’s only been a problem for the government. The people still love afrobeat. We have over 3000 people at the Shrine on Fridays. It’s free, so we always accommodate for the poor. I’ve stood by this philosophy for the past 12 years. In attending the Shrine people show they understand the problems facing our country, and we in return show that we, like Fela, are firm believers in justice and equality.

The Kalakuta Republic, and even Fela’s old bedroom, is still intact. It’s ok to look around, but the governor of Lagos wants to do it up. There’s a big discussion going on between the Lagos government and my father’s estate. I want to be in a position where if I don’t like the governor’s policies, I can be consistently outspoken against his government. If I was to actively support him in the museum project I would be compromising the struggle on a larger scale. I leave it for the rest of the estate. If he decides to do it that’s great, but for this reason I won’t get too involved.

You have your own name to make as a musician as well.

No, I think the struggle is more important than that. Justice for the African continent is more important than my music. We want reliable electricity, we want healthcare, we want to be able to drive from Lagos to Johannesburg. I’m a strong believer that Africa should be the envy of the world, but if Africa doesn’t develop fast we will be left further behind. We are selling Africa to America and Europe, and now the Chinese are taking Africa. What’s going to be left for the African people? It’s true that Chinese built roads have done a lot of good, but it has come at price. Should we be selling our property because we want roads? I think there’s a better way to deal. We don’t have to over lease our land.

We shouldn’t forget that we have the resources, the brains and the man power, we just lack the technology. I’ll give you an example: if the government decides to build a new rail system, we’ll get trains from the Second World War. If I was in government, why would I want to bring in an embarrassment for my people? Why bring in an engine that goes jaga-jiggy-jaga-poop-poop? If I was in charge I’d only settle for the best. African governments have a habit of investing in the worst quality. We buy solar panels, they do not work. They do it just because someone is getting rich from the small print on the contract. It’s not done for the love of our people, or to show a positive side to culture and tradition; it’s just about extorting money and stealing. If the leaders continue to think in this way we’ll always have problems.

Fela’s back catalogue is so vast. Is there any track or album that is particularly special to you?

In a perfect world everybody would know about all his albums. Personally it depends on my mood, because every time I listen to one it takes me back to a different time. Either way back to the early-70s or the 80s when things were so difficult for him; they’re all very special in their own way.

The unique thing about my father’s catalogue is the way it follows the history of Nigeria. He was always translating the political attitudes of that time. ‘73 saw a couple of very important Fela albums, Afrodisiac and Gentleman, and shortly after came his first arrest. Politically, these two map out a prelude to the arrest. The track ‘Jeun Ko Ku’ was his first commercial success. That was the first time you could hear Fela Kuti playing from radios all over Nigeria. He was a phenomenon from that day onwards, so ‘Jeun Ko Ku’ will always have a special place in Nigeria’s history.

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