Femi Kuti: 'We are in a state of anarchy'
Femi Kuti says he has cut down on interviews because they get him so worked up. But ask him to comment on Nigerian politics and there's instantly a venomous tirade, says Alex Hannaford
Friday 19 January 2007
The New Afrika Shrine lies off a dark back street in Ikeja, on the sprawling Lagos mainland. The harmattan winds that blow in from the Sahara may ease the temperatures 300 miles north of here, but they do little to relieve the humidity in this city: it's a seething mass of humanity: hot, humid, dirty and dangerous.
The original Shrine was built on the same spot by Fela Kuti - the controversial Nigerian musician and activist who pioneered Afrobeat (a heady fusion of jazz, funk and highlife) and who died in 1997. Fela played there for two decades and it became Africa's most famous club before it was destroyed by the military.
In 2000, Fela's son Femi rebuilt the Shrine and has played here three or four times a week ever since. A lot has happened to Femi Kuti in the past seven years. He has written a new album (his third), his wife has left him, and he's had an epiphany of sorts - managing to channel all the energy he once saved for vitriolic attacks on his country's government into devoting more time to his seven children.
Femi, 44, began playing saxophone in his father's band in 1979 and later formed his own, the Positive Force. Next month, he headlines the African Soul Rebels tour of the UK.
"It's been 12 years since my first solo album. I think my new album is more mature and richer than anything I've done before. But it's still as politically hot as ever." Politically hot it may be, but Femi insists that nothing is riling him personally at the moment - that he is at peace. A mere mention of the looming April presidential elections in his country, however, is enough to re-ignite that latent anger.
"I have been vindicated," he says. "Everybody has lambasted me over the past five years, saying I wasn't giving democracy a chance. They called me mad. My wife left me. All sorts of rumours were spread about me. But the politicians have disgraced themselves."
I ask what he thinks of Umaru Yar'Adua - the candidate riding on the People's Democratic Party platform and who is backed by the incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo.
"Please," he sighs. "Spare me. Who is going to clean up the mess? Even if there was a man who could do it, he would shy away from the problems because they're so complex. There's too much corruption." In 2001, Femi told me he couldn't understand why Obasanjo was so popular. "When he was a military leader [1976-1979] his soldiers were ruthless," he said. "They killed students, burned houses. Armed robbery and poverty are now worse and the naira has fallen in value. We have no light, no water, no decent roads, faulty telephone lines and poor healthcare ... the military man takes his uniform off and Europe and America think it's a genuine democracy. He is a chameleon." I wonder if, after six years, he has changed his mind.
"Things are worse. The poor man can still not get what he truly deserves. Ninety-nine per cent of people who have acquired wealth in Nigeria have done so by corrupt means. I've had enough. I don't want to dabble in politics any more. I've made my point. I'm not going to change my view.
"I avoid many interviews now because I get myself worked up. You must have witnessed the corruption. You've seen the difference between rich and poor. You've seen the filth: they can't even clean up the place because they're so busy stealing. They just want to put huge amounts in their accounts, buy houses in London and New York, and show off that they are rich. But how did they acquire their wealth?"
Femi says there is rarely any light where he lives in Akute, near Ikeja. The electricity is too temperamental. Nearby is Oshodi, a vast, dirty Lagos slum and home to one of the largest concentrations of human beings on the planet.
"I can't understand how these people can live like that and not complain," he says. "At night you can't imagine the amount of mosquitoes that are biting them. But the people who live in these slums have never known any different. All they have known is oppression."
Femi travelled extensively round the world to promote his first album, Shoki Shoki, in 1999. And every time he went back to his native Nigeria, he said the country was getting worse. "It was making me so angry," he says. "I couldn't understand why these leaders - who had the same privilege to travel that I did - didn't want the same thing I saw.
"I think there will be a civil war. Do you know how many boys are out of work? Thousands graduate from university in Nigeria every year and there are no jobs. At 8pm everybody is rushing home because of armed robbers. They all want to go to Europe and America.
"Nigerians think Europe and America are heaven. I asked my friend recently what he was going to do when he got there. He believes when he arrives at the airport he will be made. But America's not like that. You have to work. He's watched too many Hollywood movies. These people are living in a fool's paradise thanks to 30 years of Hollywood brainwashing. We are in a state of anarchy but we just don't realise it. Because we are such a resilient group of people and we are so peaceful, we don't want war. We would accept anything for peace. The only prayer I have is that I hope we don't end up like Rwanda."
Unfortunately, although Femi is lauded in the West, the younger generation in Nigeria is eschewing the native rhythms of Afrobeat, Nigerian highlife, juju and fuji for "slicker" artists such as 2 Face (who won Best African Act at the 2005 MTV Europe music awards), Ruff Rugged and Raw, Styl Plus and Sunny Neji - all of whom churn out a poor appropriation of American rap married with a rather irritating overuse of the vocoder (think Cher on "Believe").
I ask whether Femi thinks this new breed of musician is filling Nigerian teenagers with aspiration for a vastly unrealistic goal of bling jewellery and designer clothes - when the average wage is about £30 a month.
"If they want to pretend there is light in Nigeria and that mosquitoes don't bite them in the night, that the roads are good - then let them. They will learn. My son Made [pronounced Mah-dey] listens to them. I won't turn it off but he will learn very fast. I won't criticise these people, but I will not support what they're doing. Maybe they're trying to make ends meet. But I will teach my son not to live in an elusive world."
Femi talks about his 11-year-old son a lot. He has six-month-old twins as well, plus four adopted children - two aged 13, one the same age as Made, and one who is 18. But you get the impression it is Made who Femi sees as carrying on his and Fela's legacy.
"He plays alto sax on my new record, he can play the trumpet, and he's doing very well at school," he says, flushed with pride. "In 10 years he will be one of the great musicians of his time."
When pushed, Femi will discuss Nigerian politics with the same venom he always has done. But only when pushed. You get the sense that he has calmed down a lot - that he has a new focus in life. It isn't that he's given up railing against injustice and the corruption he says has dogged his country since independence. It's just that he feels he can achieve far more through his music.
"It's pointless shouting," he says. "I saw my father do it all his whole life, and although people hear you, they're not actually listening. When they are with their white friends, they say: 'Fela this, Fela that. Fela, Fela, Fela.' But when [the military] were burning his house, where were these people then?"
Femi slouches in his chair wearing a fitted black African shirt-and-trouser set with white embroidered trim. The only signs of ageing are some greying hairs.
"I've not given up," he insists. "But I'm more tactful now, more composed. I was angry before because I saw the danger. I play two free nights at the Shrine every week. I help as many orphanages as I can with the small money I have. So I found other means of fighting. And I want to focus my attention on my children. If I can do that, in 20 years time they will be the new Africa. I love children and I want to have more, then when I'm dead they will play beautiful music so my spirit will be dancing in heaven."
He insists he won't re-marry. "I have my girlfriends and I'm content with them," he says.
"Them?" I ask.
He laughs. "What do you expect? My father had 27 wives. How he managed 27 only God knows. I am very traditional, not caught up in the Western way of life - not that I've got any objection to that."
Femi says his wife leaving caused him so much pain he wanted to die. It subsequently changed his whole outlook on life. "A lot of people get so locked into their work that they forget their children. I was caught up in all my music and the touring and I remember thinking - he's growing so fast. He is going to school, soon he'll be going to university and I will have missed it. And I'll be dead before I realise it. Suddenly I could understand my father's problem: he was so caught up in the social events of his life and his work that he didn't have time for his children. I don't blame him. I blame society. But I had to call my son to apologise. I could sense he needed his father. I could hear him from a distance and I wanted to be there to kiss him goodnight.
"Made gives me so much joy that I can overcome all my problems - just by the love he gives me. Just by being a father and being there for him, I became a content human being. If I was to leave right now for heaven - or wherever we go - I would be happy. I am at peace."
It is the tenth anniversary of Fela's death in October. To mark the event, Femi's sister is organising a huge event at the Afrika Shrine and there is even talk of a feature film. Femi will be there - as he is almost every week - still playing five- and six-hour shows with the boundless energy he inherited from his father. "I'm still trying to work out how I can do that at 44," he laughs. "I'm starting to feel the pain now of a five-hour performance. But it's like an addiction - I can't stop."
'Femi Kuti - The Definitive Collection' is out on February 12 on Wrasse Records
He is heading The African Soul Rebels tour is in the UK from 14 February
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
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