Femi Kuti takes up the combat
Fela's 36-year-old, eldest son has just launched a political movement and released his third album, Shoki Shoki (Barclay/Polygram). A year and a half after the death of the legendary Afrobeat hero, Femi Kuti is trying to confirm his international reputation as Afrobeat's most worthy heir. He claims to be ready to follow in the footsteps of the man commonly referred to as the Black President.
You have just released a new album and launched the political movement MASS, "Movement Against Second Slavery". Are you trying to prove that you are Fela's heir?
I launched the MASS in Lagos last October at a huge concert celebrating Fela's sixtieth birthday. I had already released my album a short time before in Nigeria. It is true that I am determined to carry on my father's struggle. The MASS pays homage to him, but it is not a remake of his party, the Movement of the People, which he set up at the end of the Seventies. The MASS is not a political party. It aims to support and relay the population's demands to the authorities.
What is the "second slavery" you are fighting against?
Slavery is not over yet, it has taken new forms, that's all. France celebrated the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery this year, but it's a total hypocrisy! Over the last five centuries, Africa has never been given the chance to rule itself. During the independence era, Europe and the United States set up and supported the governments who respected their interests. The external attributes of slavery have gone: the capturing of slaves, their forced exile.... But Africans continue to work in offices for the West today. The American and European multinationals help themselves to our natural resources as and when it suits them. They pump our oil and enrich a handful of individuals who enslave their people. That's what I mean by second slavery.
Do you think you can change things?
i'm going to try. N'Krumah tried, Marcus Garvey, Malcom X, my father all tried. I am going to try too. Will I succeed? Who knows, but in any case I will try to! And my son will do the same. And his son too... Lots of people will keep on trying until the day when... and that day will end up coming.
Do you think about that day?
When I look at my son, I cannot help but think about it. I am fighting to change things for his generation, so that he receives a decent education that teaches him the history of the continent, that re-situates African cultures at the very centre of our lives, an education that will allow us to make our own technology, so that we don't just blindly copy Westerners and their mistakes, an education that will give us the means to defend our point of view and to interact as equals.
I am more familiar with European culture than my own as a result of the education I have received. It's not right! I think in English, I dream in English... African languages have to be re-evaluated as they are part of our cultures. I am fighting to encourage people to realize this, so that Africans can learn their languages first. It's too late for my generation, but it will be my son's generation's combat.
Nothing lasts forever. In the past, Africa was a powerful continent... Things will change. Where will today's powers, the United States, be in 100 or 200 years time?
What do you think of the recent political changes in your country? The new leader, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, has promised to hand power over to the civilians at the next presidential elections. Wole Soyinka has returned to the country...
I remain very suspicious of Nigeria's political class. Who are these politicians? They are the very ones who have driven the country into the present disastrous mess...
Have you found this energy to fight since Fela died?
I have always had the will to fight, but it has grown stronger with time. I feel like I am driven by a sense of continuity... My grandmother, who fought for independence and women's right to vote in Nigeria, and my father fought for the same goal: for the dignity and freedom of African people. It is my turn... I have inherited a mission. But that doesn't stop me from enjoying life, from having fun... I don't want my music to be too serious, to only speak about problems in my lyrics. That would be monotonous.
Is that also a way of distinguishing yourself from your father?
My father also wrote lighter songs. As he got older, they became more and more serious, as he saw that nothing had changed. He spent his life fighting for his people and he couldn't understand why things didn't change. For me, it's important to sing about all aspects of life: the problems, the funny things, the strange things...
What problems do you denounce in this album?
I refer to the water and electricity shortages. Certain districts of Lagos still don't have water, and the electricity works when it feels like it. Power cuts always happen unexpectedly. They really mess up the computer systems! You have to have a generator or you're done for... The roads are in a terrible state. People are still suffering. They work hard for peanuts. These problems go way back and they still continue today.
In what way is your style different from your father's Afrobeat legacy?
My songs are more groovy, more up-beat. I want my music to explode, I want everyone's feet to move when they hear it, even racist people's!
It hasn't always been easy to follow my own musical path in Nigeria. My father didn't forgive me for leaving his group in 1986. People in Nigeria didn't appreciate it either... It was very hard. I held out thanks to my mother who financed my group. Five years went by before Fela asked me to come back and play at the Shrine... My music was recognized in Europe before it was accepted at home... Today, I'm a big success in Europe, but I've also got Nigeria on my side!
What has become of the Shrine (the mythical club Fela opened in 1978)?
The Shrine ('the sanctuary' in Yoruba) is open at the moment, but still risks closing down. Nothing has been settled with the owner of the building yet. Either he'll agree to sell it to us, or else we will have to find a new place and rebuild the Shrine. At the moment, we are trying to keep it as my father left it. People go there to pay their respects to him, to learn something about his life. Many people saw Fela as a god. He is part of Africa's history forever. It's our duty to maintain what Fela built.
I play there with my group "the Positive Force" every Sunday afternoon for the "Sunday Jump"... On Fridays one of my younger brothers, Seun, plays there with Fela's group. He's only 15. Since my father's death, his entourage keeps pushing him to go faster than he ought to. He isn't ready, musically speaking. I try to make him understand, to advise him, but it's up to him. He hasn't had any musical education, he hasn't mastered the sax, nor the piano, nor singing and he wants to be Fela! But no one, not him nor I, can be Fela. In any case, I don't want to be Fela. I want to be Femi! You have to be yourself, find yourself, otherwise when the day comes, you won't be up to it!