It would seem a daunting task to step out of the shadow of a man known to his fellow countrymen as “the black president.” But Femi Kuti, son of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, has managed to embrace his father’s legacy while rising to stardom in his own right. Combining his father’s funk- and jazz-infused African highlife music with elements of dance and the occasional house beat, Femi has helped bring Afrobeat into the 21st century — collaborating with the likes of Mos Def, Common and Macy Gray, among others. Ten years after his father’s death from AIDS, the 46-year-old singer/sax player continues to live and raise his family in Lagos, the Nigerian capital. He’s reopened his father’s legendary nightclub, the Shrine, which was shut down by the government in the 1980s, and plays free shows several nights a week.
Though politically active like his father, Femi has recently taken a Bob Dylan–like retreat from public life — eschewing overt political action in favor of spending time with his family and letting his music speak for him. This comes in the wake of years of public proclamations against democracy — a position no doubt birthed by the election of Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. A former Nigerian military dictator known for brutally squashing political dissent, Obasanjo routinely harassed and arrested Femi’s father for his political activity during the 1970s, and his soldiers were responsible for the murder of Femi’s grandmother.
Femi’s controversial take on democracy earned him no friends in Nigeria, even contributing to the failure of his marriage, but events in Nigeria seem to have upheld his position. After eight years of quasidemocratic rule under Obasanjo, and despite housing one of the largest oil reserves on the planet, nearly 60 percent of Nigeria’s 140 million people live in abject poverty, and government inaction has allowed AIDS to ravage the country — one in 25 are now infected. In May, Obasanjo was finally forced out of power after the Nigerian legislature refused to let him alter the constitution to run for a third term. But any pretense of democratic victory was short lived, as Obasanjo’s handpicked successor, Umaru Yar’Adua, subsequently took control of the presidency in what was widely considered the most fraudulent election in Nigeria’s history. Violence has since escalated as militants have taken up arms against the government, and kidnappings of foreigners have increased — including the recent taking of a 3-year-old British girl. With Nigeria simmering on the brink of collapse, Femi, in the days before his upcoming House of Blues show, spoke to the L.A. Weekly about his life, music and the fate of his fragile nation.
L.A. WEEKLY: Fela once said, “Music is the weapon of the future.” Do you feel the same?
FEMI KUTI: Absolutely. Music is a way of communicating with everyday people and getting across a message that relates to them, not to only leaders. Music is the voice of truth in the face of political dishonesty. It tells the people what they ultimately feel rather than what they are told by politicians.
Since your father’s death in 1997, has AIDS awareness become a part of his legacy in Nigeria?
Yes, it brought some awareness of the disease, but AIDS is not very public and is still a taboo subject. The messages are very mixed: Is there a cure? Is there not? And if there is, then it doesn’t matter — I can sleep with someone and get the disease and be cured. There is confusion that AIDS is a disease for homosexuals — so most of the population says, “I’m not gay. So, great — I can carry on as normal.” The church also squashes the issue of using condoms and makes it something that is wrong to do — so ignorance carries on. The church has got to start changing so that people will start listening and taking action. There should be posters and advertising everywhere making it clear that it is a disease that anybody can get.
What’s your take on Bono and concerts like Live 8 that campaign on behalf of Africa?
Bono doesn’t need to tell us that we are poor. We know we are poor. All these concerts come and go and nothing changes in Africa.
So then what’s the best way for concerned Americans to get involved with helping Africa?
Not to feel sorry for us but to be positive toward us. Do more business with us. Come and visit us. We, in turn, have to get stronger and not rely on leaders to do everything for us. We must take action ourselves. But Western democracies must also stop turning a blind eye to African corruption and start taking action — then we can start moving forward as a nation.
Do you get many foreign visitors to the Shrine?
Yes, all the time. My father and I are known internationally, so there are many people who want to pay respect to my father. Also, people just love Afrobeat, and it is the birthplace of it.
Many have called the recent elections the most corrupt in Nigeria’s history. Is the presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua widely perceived as illegitimate?
Well, Nigerians are used to being let down by their government. Our leaders are never held to account, so there is no honesty. People are poorer, things in the market are getting more expensive, life is getting more difficult by the day. And when these people get into power they never fulfill their promises. You see them with their big cars, they buy houses in England or America, they give their kids the best education, but the crop of the people, the masses themselves, they lose. Despite being Africa’s biggest oil exporter, the country has fallen far behind other developing countries. Most people blame corruption. Since independence from Britain in 1960, an estimated $400 billion of oil revenues have gone missing — presumed stolen, by our military and political elite. Two billion has been recovered, so our country is going in the right direction — at least now if you do steal you could get caught! But a whole culture change still needs to happen.
Have recent events made you reconsider becoming more active in Nigerian governmental affairs — in taking over your father’s mantle as “the black president”?
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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. 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.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t believe in democracy. What do you believe in?
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.
Femi Kuti plays House of Blues, Fri., July 20.