Femi Kuti is the son of Fela and the righteous leader of his own Positive Force. He speaks now just days after the Nigerian government shut down the Shrine, the historic venue that was the birthplace of Afrobeat. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What’s the current status of the Shrine right now? The Nigerian government shut it down?
It was shut down for a week. They finally opened it today, about two or three hours ago. A lot of pressure has been coming on the state government to reopen it. We are going to start a very big international campaign. The excuses why they closed the place—that’s not our business. They said it was these people who are sitting on the streets in front of the Shrine. It is not our duty to clear the streets.
Did they wait until you left for tour to shut it down?
It looks like that. They say no, but I mean, I’m leaving for tour and then they close the place. And I can’t do anything—I can’t cancel the tour. So I have to go on tour. I think we’re going to direct people to sign a petition to make sure they never close the Shrine again. It has been going for so many years—it was my father’s thing.
Is it true that in addition to trying to suppress the music that you are making, the Nigerian government is actually funding musicians who make poor quality pro-government pop music?
Yeah. There is a lot of money pumped into that kind of music. These boys can’t afford it so somebody must be funding them.
Do you think any of that is ultimately coming from the American government?
I don’t think the American government would be involved. I don’t think your government is that kind of government. The Nigerian government is wise enough to know how to do this kind of campaign on their own.
What makes you so optimistic about the Obama administration?
I think he’s genuine. I mean, he’s definitely going to face a lot of difficulties, but I think he’s genuine about world peace, about rectifying America’s image and all those things. So I believe if he really has the opportunity to change many things, he will.
Does America seem different now as opposed to when you were here during the Bush administration?
A lot of people I’ve spoken to have complained about the recession, no jobs, things are slow. But this is not Obama’s fault. This started long before Obama became president. He’s already coming into pain. America, if you had given Bush four more years, you all would be dead probably! Obama can rectify the bad positions of a bad government, probably. Not probably—definitely. Toppling Saddam was not the issue, but the Bush administration could not see that. Even when the world kept saying he didn’t have chemical weapons. But America went into Iraq. The world could not understand that. A war like that… just pumping money, money, money into that war and it might be never ending. So Obama just took over in bad times. If he had come in in the Clinton era, things would probably be much easier for him. So I understand the times of which I am in America. Which is not just America, but the world probably. Even in Lagos, for somebody like me, in Lagos where we have had a difficult life… we have always had a hard life all our life. So when we come here and Americans complain that it is difficult, it is kind of funny. At least you still have electricity and hot water—running water. We don’t have electricity or running water. We have bad roads. It’s not too bad here—it’s not as bad as anywhere in Africa.
How do you feel when you meet musicians here that have never had to face the kinds of threats or struggles you’ve had to deal with? What are the conversations like when you’re talking about music?
It depends on the artist, really. Most of them just want to know what’s going on in Nigeria and I just let them know what is going on and that’s all, really. When I met people during my album Fight to Win, I was meeting with a lot of people and even if they didn’t start the conversation, I would let them know what was going on in Africa. They had to want to know what is going on in Africa because it is part of their heritage. And they were very interested. They wanted to know more and they were happy it was coming from me because knew a lot about my father and had heard about me, so we got along very well.
You’ve said a few times that music is the voice of truth. Is that connected to what we’re talking about here?
Yes—I think because music has a major role to play in anything. It moves you. Like if the Shrine was not opened immediately, I’m sure the outburst coming from the music world would put so much pressure on the Nigerian government to open the Shrine. Those people, those big artists… I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Stevie Wonder campaigned. He knew my father very much. If he got wind that my father’s shrine was closed, he would sign the petition as well. I mean, big artists like that would be signing the petition against the government. All my friends in the hip-hop world—Mos Def, Common, Alicia Keys—everybody would be signing this, and these are people who are very very well known in the Nigerian scene.
You said once that we have to take beauty seriously, and that’s how the human race will get better. What did you mean by that?
Because the artist sings from within. If someone like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday are taken seriously and people really followed the words of the songs, people would live those words. And if people lived those words, the world would become a better place. Even a lot of artists sing these words, but they don’t practice the words they sing. We sing but we don’t practice what we sing. If people did follow the words, the world would become a better place.
If a musician is a hypocrite, does that ruin their music?
What’s an example of that?
Oh, I can’t give you an example. That would be wrong of me. When you want to capitalize… a lot of artists find that this is the fashion and they go into it because they want to make money or even a lot of people are going to sing politics because they believe it is the in thing now, but they don’t really believe what they’re saying. It’s just to cash in on it. Because one day you will be found out. The audience will find you out one day and then you will pay a very high price for it.
Do you think still want artists to be honest?
Definitely, yes. The world is always ready to bring the artist that is not sincere down quickly.
Would you say a song like “Tell Me” is a hopeful song?
Yes, because it’s really inspired people to understand where I’m coming from and it’s made people want to know more about issues. Like, why are they criticizing me? Don’t they see what I’m talking about? They are complaining about me. I’m not the problem. ‘Femi, what you mean?’ You don’t understand me. How can you not understand what I am talking about?
What do you most hope to do with your music?
I hope I can inspire a very energetic generation that will change things in the future.
Do you think you will see that in your lifetime? Is it coming?
Well, that is a very difficult question, but I know that I have influenced a lot of artists today and that is already a very major point. If people are not listening, then that would be sad. If I am even touring America today, it means people want to listen, people still love the music, so that is already a very major point. But it might take years. I believe sincerely if I live to my seventies or eighties, I will see that kind of change.
What exactly is a shoki shoki master?
It’s like a sex master. Is that a hard thing to become? It is, it is. It’s a subject of its own. If you are not educated properly about sex, you will not have a good sex life. You will never satisfy your partner. I think sex education has to be given, in a way. People need to understand what to do when they get married, when they meet their partner, what to do in bed. This was a discussion that the African culture had… it was always discussed. It’s only in this era that it has become taboo, that people are ashamed to discuss openly. America talks about a lot of other things, like HIV… Americans talk about that easily. I think it’s just the stage where we are. The world has passed through so many stages to get to where we are right now. Nobody believed that Obama could become president in America because everyone believed that America was full of a lot of racism. Now America seems to have overcome that. The majority of Americans, of young people, are not thinking along those lines. So that shows that America does have a bright future in that sense.
Do you think educating the young is the key to getting everything moving in the right direction?
Yes, because if I didn’t know about people like Malcolm X or my father, I would have a very stupid, uneducated life. We need to know history. We need to know about contributions, about how Columbus discovered America. And people need the truth. We need the truth to forge ahead.
I know you stopped school, but where do you think your best education came from?
From my father because he made me read a lot of books which opened my mind. I had to read books like Black Man of the Nile, Stolen Legacy, Malcolm X… I was reading books about the history of Africa and all these things. So that enlightened me. And then listening to his songs, listening to his lectures when he gave lectures, or his press conferences, I always wanted to hear what he had to say.
If someone just listened to his music and your music, would they be getting an accurate picture of what life is like?
Yes, definitely, definitely.
Do you think of yourself as a documentarian or journalist with the kind of music you’re making?
I know that definitely my father’s music is. I don’t want to sound too arrogant about myself. But if you listen to my father from his beginning to his end, you have a very very good picture of aspects of Nigerian politics, our way of life and Africa in general. And then the world too. You can picture your environments in the ’80s, what was going on in Nigeria at the time, with this music. And you can travel with this music in your mind.
Are there any American musicians who you think are doing the same thing?
I think all the great American jazz musicians did it. Stevie Wonder. I want to put so many names right now, but I can’t think of many names. A lot of them even listened to my father… James Brown, he was listening to my father as well. Miles Davis, definitely. It’s people like this who are doing it.
Out of all the books you read growing up, what is one you think everyone should read?
Wow, that is very difficult. I would probably choose two books. Stolen Legacy and Black Man of the Nile.
What’s one record everyone should listen to?
One record? My new album. It has everything for you. It has the ’70s, it has so much in it, it has a great future and gives you room to think about what it is going to do next.
FEMI KUTI AND THE POSITIVE FORCE WITH SANTIGOLD AND RAPHAEL SAADIQ ON SUN., JUNE 21, AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL, 2301 NORTH HIGHLAND AVE., HOLLYWOOD. 7PM / $10-$98 / ALL AGES. LAPHIL.COM. FEMI KUTI’S DAY BY DAY IS OUT NOW ON DOWNTOWN. VISIT FEMI KUTI AT SHRINETV.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/FEMIKUTI.