Femi Kuti’s present is often his past, son of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti

SHARE Femi Kuti’s present is often his past, son of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti

Things haven’t changed much for the Kuti family, or for Nigeria.

Fela Kuti, the wildman trumpeter who contributed much to Afrobeat music, used his songs to rail against corruption and the military rule by the Nigerian government throughout the ’70s and ’80s. In 1977, the government retaliated against Kuti’s lyrical attacks by burning down the Kalakuta compound, which contained his recording studio, the Shrine nightclub and residences for his large family. Despite that and several arrests, Kuti continued defying the government through his music and by forming his own political party. He died in 1997 of AIDS-related complications.

The Shrine, however, lives on — in reality and in art. Fela’s survivors built the New Africa Shrine in a different part of Lagos, the country’s former capital. But it faces similar governmental harassment, says Fela’s son, Femi Kuti, who carries on his father’s musical and political legacy (albeit with a more diplomatic tone).

“They harass the patrons, they look for reasons to shut it down,” Femi Kuti said during our recent phone interview from his home in Lagos. “It’s nothing like what my father experienced, but the sentiments are the same. … This new democratic government is just the same rulers who’ve taken off their military uniforms.” (Just last week, Nigerian civilian president Goodluck Jonathan called out troops to quell protests and rioting after his re-election, which the opposition candidate insists was rigged.)

The original Shrine also has been recreated onstage. A musical, “Fela!,” features the nightclub as its chief setting and attempts to tell the story of Fela’s personal and political struggles while showcasing his inventive jazz- and funk-based music. The musical, produced by rapper Jay-Z and actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, opened on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony Awards.

Femi Kuti, 48, spoke with us on the eve of a new tour with his band, the Positive Force, supporting a new album, “Africa for Africa.”


with DJ Warp

9 p.m. April 30

Metro, 3730 N. Clark

Tickets, $25, (800) 514-ETIX; metrochicago.com

Question: You’re always discussed in relation to your father’s musical legacy. What does that mean to you? What was his musical legacy?

Femi Kuti: It’s one that started within our family, creating a music that was unique. Folks in Lagos and Africa can identify. It’s very homely for us. It’s like funk is to America, or rock. It’s a distillation of the native sounds made into something a wider audience can appreciate.

Q: Can the music be separated from the anti-totalitarian message your father infused it with?

FK: No, no. The music was the means to fight injustice and corruption. Everyone was growing up without an understanding of our history. The history being taught in the schools was not the history you found out by listening to my father. He enlightened so many of us. It goes back in our family. It’s what his parents, his father was fighting for.

Q: Is it a burden to carry your father’s legacy?

FK: No, because I understand what I am doing. I enjoy doing the music myself. People want to know about him and I’m obliged to answer. I love my father. Some people are not close to their parents, they grow up and don’t want to be identified with them. It’s not a problem for me.

Q: What’s your perspective on the revolutions occurring throughout North Africa?

FK: It’s an Arab problem, not an African problem. The Arabs in those countries are fighting against injustice and oppression, and I can understand where they are coming from. Nigerians can understand it. I just wish Nigerians could stand up to corruption here like that.

Q: How are the situations different?

FK: Well, your military is helping the rebels in Libya, for one. I wonder why they are doing that. Why are they not also in the Ivory Coast? Why did they not do the same in Iran when its government was killing its people? … In Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt, what’s different is they have electricity, health care, roads. All these things, we don’t have. As I speak to you right now, there’s no electricity where I am. It’s all because of corruption. It’s right in our face, but we don’t rise up. No one does anything.

Q: Is there music in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa that’s calling for that?

FK: It’s rap. In Somalia, there are rap musicians calling out against the brutality. In some of those Arabic countries, the protest music is rap in Arabic.

Q: What on “Africa for Africa” calls for the same action?

FK: I’m trying to be more optimistic. I want to educate the people without being as confrontational. We can lift people up by saying something positive.

Q: The song “Make We Remember,” in particular, seems to inspire by summing up the achievements of other African and African-American fighters.

FK: You have to appreciate that people die for their causes. Many people don’t know their names — Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela. Thousands of people died fighting for freedom. My father, Mandela, people like this — they went through hell. People must know this before they embark on their own struggle.

Q: Does the “Fela!” musical help accomplish this, too?

FK: Oh, yes. You see his life portrayed this way, with all the stories. You see it and say, “Wow, this man was incarcerated many times, his house was burnt.” You get addicted to the music and want to know more. This is what I saw. I was impressed, totally.

Q: So you’ve seen the show? I read earlier that you refused to see it until it played in Nigeria, which it’s now set to do later this month.

FK: I’ve seen it two times, on Broadway and in London. … I was not against the musical. I just wanted to say, you know, it’s 14 years since Fela died — why has Nigeria not produced anything about him? Why did it have to be Broadway? Where are the actors of Nigeria? How many of them and stood up and fought for what he was saying?

Q: How do you think it will be received in Nigeria?

FK: It depends on how people go watch it, whether they have a biased mind. If they go with an open mind, they will cry. I shed tears the first time. … I am enjoying the fact that my father is not forgotten.

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