Femi Kuti carries his father’s – Fela Kuti – legacy of Afrobeat graciously and humbly. Developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Afrobeat blends elements of Yoruba music, jazz and funk rhythms with an instrumentation that emphasizes African percussion and vocal styles (New World Encyclopedia 2015). American musicians have come to appreciate the sounds of Afrobeat pioneered by Fela and expanded by Femi.
Throughout his 26-year career, Femi has toured with large rock and roll acts in the U.S., including Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and collaborated with Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright on a song for the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV (Ridgefield Press 2015).” As I interviewed Femi for the Music Historian in the lounge above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, minutes before his rehearsal, I asked him what it is about Afrobeat that artists from other genres admire.
“Understand,” Femi begins, “that it has always been there. In fact, in 1970s, when my father was making all of his hits, I think diplomats from Nigeria were taking records [of Fela’s music] to America. People like Miles Davis, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder were listening to him. So many great musicians were inspired, but his name was never mentioned. What probably happened was that someone had been listening to his record, and they said, “Wow, this is great. Who is this?” Someone else would respond, “It is this cat from Nigeria,” and they would say “Wow! Great music.”
“In 1977, when Nigeria hosted the Festac Festival, I know Americans came to the shrine and played with him [Fela], jammed with him, and loved his music. I would [also] say 50-60% of Hip Hop came from the Afrobeat. So, it would not be surprising to hear people say my father inspired them. Then there was a musical about him on Broadway. I think this is a just a manifestation, but he was never mainstream. He was always on the ground and inspired American arts, culture, and music.”
In Nigeria, Fela had a very strong fan base. Femi got his start in music by playing saxophone in his father’s band at the age of 15 (femiakuti.com 2015). The fan base often asked Femi when he was going to play music and be like his father. When Femi decided to leave his father’s band, this was a taboo.
“In Africa, you never fight your father, especially if he was Fela Kuti,” explained Femi. Further, the musician admits he had a stressful period of trying to convince people his music was his own, and not his father’s.
“People misinterpreted everything I did,” he said. “My father told so many journalists that he would never write a song for his kids, but they still thought that was not true. When I had my first hit in Nigeria, “Wonder Wonder,” I was not given credit; people thought my father wrote the song for me. Then I had my big hit, which became international, “Beng Beng Beng” and people said “No, no. It is [a hit] just because you are Fela’s son. When I got my first GRAMMY nomination, it was, “Oh it is because you are Fela’s son.
“I think the good thing about it is it never troubled me. We loved my father very much. I don’t think critics or anybody could destabilize my thoughts.”
Femi has released a total of eight albums in his career. His 1998 album Shoki Shoki broke many boundaries in Afrobeat music. The artist used technology and machines to drive the force of the music. His last three records, Day by Day (2010), Africa for Africa (2011), and No Place for My Dreams (2013), have been released by Label Maison Records. I wondered whether Femi, when making a new album always searched for a new experience or focused more on the process of making music rather than an end goal. He says:
“I feel the experience of the time is what contributes most to the making of the album. For instance, in Africa for Africa, I wanted people to experience what it was like to record a band like mine both live and in the studio in Nigeria. [For example] they were recording and the electricity goes off. Hopefully, they would feel the frustrations I felt trying to get the record done.
“No Place for My Dreams, the last one, reflects more of my childhood. I was trying to bring sounds from my father that touched me. Bringing that power – ‘I would love to play music, what kind of music do I want to play?’
“The next album I am working on is trying to go back to Shoki Shoki, which tried to use technology to enhance the creativity of Afrobeat. Most people [at the time] thought it was not very possible [to do] with the Afrobeat.”
Africa for Africa is one album that personally stood out to me the most. Femi, in a 2011 interview with NPR, said that one of the themes from this album reflects an ongoing concern among many African citizens, the lack of a unified central news network to inform people about what is going on in multiple regions across their content (NPR 2011). I asked Femi to tell me more about this theme. He elaborates:
“We have to wait for the BBC to tell us there is a war in the Congo; we have to wait for CNN to tell us what is going on in Ghana. Where is the African central network system to tell us our story, and then to tell all? It would be so powerful, that the BBC and CNN would have to get new [about Africa] from this network, not vice versa.
“Let’s take for example the crisis of Boko Haram. The BBC reports any crisis before any Nigerian network. The BBC or CNN will send journalists into this area to investigate. How come no Nigerian network sends a journalist to this war zone? Are they too scared? Not even videos or live footage. With the war in Iraq, you see BBC journalists will go there – this is journalism; there is no room to compromise nor argue with this. You have to appreciate the bravery of the journalist.
“There is so much. Don’t African nations see what is going on? Where is that kind of courage, where is that kind of attitude in journalism? If you were to focus really on Africa, Africa would probably not have time to listen to other news. There is too much going on there to deal with that. If we did have a serious network like the BBC – that was not corrupt, of course, not managed by interference or governments manipulating the system – then can you imagine how fantastic that network would be? For an individual journalist to be curious and go to find the truth of that news at any length because it is important? That’s what I would have loved for Africa.”
Like his father, Femi also addressed corruption within his music, corruption that each African citizen faces daily. One song from No Place for My Dreams, “No Work, No Job, No Money,” includes a lyrical message that within a country filled with plenty of oil and other natural resources, there is no work for people to help them make money and feed themselves nor their families. Based on personal curiosity, I wondered how have people’s reaction to this same type of corruption changed from the 1970’s to present day.
“I think what has changed is that now people are most outspoken. In my father’s time, it was just his voice and his voice alone. Now, on social media, you will see young boys and girls express their discontent with anything they see; this was not happening in my father’s time.
“The young people communicate way too fast for the leaders. I don’t think world leaders can deal with this, especially when they [the government] is being dishonest. More people today complain, so the government is very uncomfortable. The government is being forced to be honest for the first time, but, I think they will try to be smarter, more sophisticated; they will try to hide.
“You see what is happening in Greece, Spain, and France? I now realize that Greece is facing the kind of problems Africa faces – they have no jobs, they can’t put food on the table. You see what is going on in Ukraine? The government is losing its invisible force. Europeans and Americans don’t fear government like Africa fears government. Africa too is changing very fast and African governments are losing that invisibility where they think they are untouchable,” says Femi.
Issues of joblessness, poverty and hunger exist in all countries. Femi also makes a valid point when he says U.S. or EU citizens don’t fear their governments as much as Africans fear theirs. While the musician mentions that young people in Africa speaking on social media regarding what is happening around them; neither he nor his father wanted to encourage the international community to get involved.
“Understand,” begins Femi, “African leaders want people to believe they are honest. If I can show the true picture, then you have a different view. You become intrigued; you want to find out more.” A listener might ask, ’Is Femi speaking the truth, or will I go to Africa?’ Femi continues with this figurative scenario, “You will say ‘Oh, there is no electricity.’ How come Nigeria, a big oil-producing country cannot provide healthcare? How come the education system in Nigeria does not even exist? You have all of these universities and no matter what degree you come out with; it is meaningless. [You then ask] ‘Is Femi telling the truth, or are the leaders telling the truth?’ Then you have to question – How come your leaders are negotiating or doing business with corrupt people? Are they part of this corruption?
“I feel, that the world, whether we like it or not, in a few years, the political arena will change drastically, for the positive I hope.”
Looking towards the future, I wondered what Femi expected from himself and his band, The Positive Force. Before I directly posed this within a question, I wondered whether his last album No Place for My Dreams had produced the results he wanted. Femi says:
“I think it has already done its full lap. We have toured already now for over a year and a half, promoting the album. People love it very much, and now, [they] go into the future, and talk about it later on. The later generation might pick it up one day like they picked up my father’s [albums]. I think what is important for me is to know how to look into the future. Always try to bring new sounds into our music – new conversations.”
Wherever these new conversations lead listeners, Femi will continue that passion for a genre that helps define Africa. Also to combining funk, jazz, and soul, Femi also defines Afrobeat as a genre filled with African culture and tradition, “the true roots.”
“Don’t forget,” he explains, “Africa had its melody before the west came, or before jazz. My father was lucky to grow up in a village that still kept its tradition and folk songs from ancestral times. I think my father was gifted enough to say, “Everybody is doing this in Africa, this what I have… and if we take it and just make it rich.” That just caught everybody’s attention. His grandfather was a musician and composer, and his father was a musician and a composer. His grandfather was the first composer from West Africa to record for the BBC. They composed a lot of hymns, many of them are still relevant in churches, or in traditional culture in Nigeria.
“My father grew up with all of this rich music. As he studied classical music, fell in love with jazz, tried to find his feet, he probably then remembered, “Wow. This is what my grandfather was doing.” This is what I was listening to in the streets… where I was born. [He said] “Oh, I can… put all of this richness together and bring about my kind of music.” Then everybody said “Whoa! What is he doing?” Everybody was moved by it.”
In July, between the 10th and the 18th Femi Kuti & The Positive Force will travel to Paris and the UK to perform on a short tour. Then, it is back to Nigeria to focus on the new album, which will revisit the stylistic creativity established within his previous work, Shoki Shoki.
“I think with my experience, age, and maturity, and if my calculation is right, in my mind, it should be ten times greater than the Shoki Shoki album,” explains the musician. “If I can arrive at that, then I can say that I have reached another milestone in my musical career.”
Afrobeat. (2012, August 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Afrobeat
Femi Kuti Official Website. (2013). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.femiakuti.com/#!about/c2414/
Femi Kuti & The Positive Force Bringing Afrobeat To Ridgefield | The Ridgefield Daily Voice. (2015, May 29). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://ridgefield.dailyvoice.com/events/femi-kuti-positive-force-bringing-afrobeat-ridgefield
Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music. (2011, April 27). Retrieved June 15, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2011/04/27/135770537/nigerian-artist-femi-kuti-talks-politics-and-music
All photos were published with permission