Femi Kuti inherited more than musical gifts from his father, Afrobeat pioneer and political/human-rights activist Fela Kuti. After Fela Kuti died in 1997 in his homeland of Nigeria from complications of AIDS, Femi Kuti picked up his father’s torches, musically and politically.
Femi Kuti has been the force behind the Shrine, a nightclub and haven for fans of music in Lagos, Nigeria. On Friday, Kuti and the Positive Force will perform at Crossroads KC as part of the Roots & Heritage Festival. From his home in Lagos, Kuti spoke with The Star recently about life in Nigeria and his evolution as the torchbearer of Afrobeat.
Q: How are conditions in Nigeria these days? What do people in the United States need to know?
A: Things are very tough for the average person right now. The cost of living has gone up drastically. You have very bad electrical power supply. Education is not (available) to the poor.
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There is a lot of violence. There is a lot of crime, kidnapping. I hear lots of stories of people being robbed. You ride a bus and you think people on the bus are other passengers, but they are part of a gang. They beat you up, they take your credit card and ask for the PIN number. One of them drives the bus to the bank and draws money from your account. If there is no money, they could just kill you.
These stories are rampant. They rob you in your car, but they don’t even steal cars any more. They go straight for your credit card, they drive to the bank and withdraw money.
You hear many stories like this. And you hear a lot of police say they have caught many of the criminals, and they put them on TV, but you don’t know if it’s true or not. But even showing that kind of scene on TV is frightening because the (weapons) with all these boys and girls is alarming. I mean, AK-47s, shotguns.
Q: Are you hopeful for change?
A: There is so much corruption among the elites. There is fear the country might plunge into anarchy.
My father was once the lone voice of complaining. Now that we have social media, everybody complains. Because of this I have hope a generation will come that will just say, “Enough is enough.” But my fear is — I hope it doesn’t turn into violence and a war will start up.
There is dissatisfaction. Price of food, price of everything is skyrocketing. So it doesn’t look encouraging. I do fear that something very minute will cause a crack. We don’t need to go like the Arab Spring. I hope we don’t end up there. …
I hope they don’t take the law into their hands in a very negative fashion.
Q: You use music to help people get through their hardships. Talk about the Shrine and all the programs you have there.
A: A long time ago I knew that for the Shrine to survive we were going to have to make a lot of sacrifices. Because the government at that time tried everything to keep locking that place and using the police to harass us.
They tried to kill the shrine. So I had to come up with a strategy to encourage people to come and keep the Shrine alive and keep people’s (hopes) awake by playing political songs. … People start to think and ask questions. The Shrine survived because of this.
Many people wanted us to give (them) the disco. The disco is free, and the Shrine is bubbling and everyone loves the fact there is a place they can go and have a good night, and it’s free, basically. The drinks are very cheap. People respect what we do at the Shrine.
Q: Do authorities still harass the Shrine?
A: The last time we had a big issue was in 2008, and there was a big international outcry.
The Shrine runs practically 80 to 90 percent free but still have to pay all these taxes. Because they said we are a tourist attraction center, we had to pay this (large) amount. We wrote to them, “We already pay taxes on drinks, on TV, on land.” And now this. Where are we supposed to get this kind of money?
So the taxes are really trying to kill us. But the government is looking after funds to survive. It’s an issue we are trying to resolve. To survive in this atmosphere would be next to impossible.
Q: I’ve read that you have tried to evolve and develop your own creative voice in Afrobeat by listening to only the ideas that emerge in your mind. And the Shrine is part of that process. Talk about that.
A: I wanted to cease being influenced or inspired by people I admire or by listening to other tracks, so I had to shut off everything around me. Now when I hear a groove, I know it’s of my consciousness and not because I listened to (another track), which is probably how I had gone for many years, to let this track and this track influence me. I wanted my compositions to be very pure. …
I manage to develop and change my styles. I did not want to be monotonous. I did not want to be boring. I wanted new rhythms or new melodies and new things to show I wasn’t getting bored.
That’s another fact of how I managed to keep the Shrine alive, by having new compositions. My compositions are way ahead of the way I release albums. At the Shrine, people get to listen to my albums for five, six, seven years before they get released on CDs. … There are times when I am writing songs every two weeks, and these are very exciting moments for people who come to hear them. They hear them and they all talk about them and it goes around town.
Q: How difficult is it for you to tour and travel to places like Kansas City?
A: What’s difficult is my band is a big band. So we barely break even. You must really love playing music to do what I am doing and really love to make people happy playing this music.
But we all know that globally there is an economic crisis. People are out of work globally so it can be difficult to get some of your fans to come out. And you have to understand that people are not as happy as they were 15 years ago. …
The other issue is getting visas. Visas are a very tedious process we have to go through. Right now we are leaving on Monday and we still have not gotten our Canadian visas. I hope we get it before we leave, which seems very unlikely. It’s a tough business. If they refuse you or you don’t get your visas on time, there is no refund.
Getting a band like my band on the road is walking a tight rope. Nothing must go wrong. If anything goes wrong, you are in big trouble.
Q: What can people expect to hear and see at your show in Kansas City on Saturday?
A: Most important, people will see the beauty of Africa. Africa should be the envy of the world. With all the problems we face, we can still come up with this kind of music.
Imagine if we had in Africa those fast trains and people could move like they do from France to Belgium to Germany and Africans had the opportunity to travel and see their continent, their people. If all the corruption would stop, just imagine what Africa would be like. Imagine the cultural exchanges that would take place if Africa had the chance to express itself. All I see in that way is beauty and happiness.
So this is what I try to show.