Where are the Africans?

Non-Western musicians are cynical about Bob Geldof's fundraising effort
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The Independent Culture

It isn't always easy trying to do the right thing - especially in Africa. Just ask Femi Kuti. The Afrobeat superstar isn't impressed with Bob Geldof's 20th anniversary re-working of Band Aid's 1984 hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?", featuring The Darkness, Travis and Coldplay. Indeed, Kuti is downright sceptical of the project's aim to raise money for famine in Africa. "The NGOs and charities stay in nice hotels and have their expensive conferences. Meanwhile, the children are poor and will stay poor for a while longer." Kuti drags hard on his cigarette and exhales slowly. "What hypocrites," he states with conviction.

It isn't always easy trying to do the right thing - especially in Africa. Just ask Femi Kuti. The Afrobeat superstar isn't impressed with Bob Geldof's 20th anniversary re-working of Band Aid's 1984 hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?", featuring The Darkness, Travis and Coldplay. Indeed, Kuti is downright sceptical of the project's aim to raise money for famine in Africa. "The NGOs and charities stay in nice hotels and have their expensive conferences. Meanwhile, the children are poor and will stay poor for a while longer." Kuti drags hard on his cigarette and exhales slowly. "What hypocrites," he states with conviction.

Nevertheless, you can't fault Geldof's resolve. He recently chaired a local meeting of the Blair-sponsored Commission for Africa, which is drawing up a policy agenda for the UK to press when it takes the leadership of the Group of Eight and European Union next year. The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango, who sits on the French arm of the commission,said Band Aid's message did not reach Africans because it ignored their culture. Dibango, who recently performed at the Barbican in honour of Femi's father, Fela Kuti, added: "When you do Band Aid and there are only Britons, I'm sorry, but Africans do not feel concerned even if the money raised is for Africa." This criticism is echoed by Kuti, who declared that he wasn't impressed with ignorant Western charity: "People just feeling sorry for the children and giving their money to all these charities," he muses, "they don't try to understand the problems."

With Band Aid now focused on raising money for the crisis in Darfur - and the single topping the UK charts - Geldof dismisses what he sees as misguided criticism. "It's the usual stupid shit you get from these people," he says, denying that the title song and the all-British cast of Band Aid's fresher look betray the West's ignorance of Africa. "I'm selling pop records," said the singer. He explained that his primary focus was: "How do we keep people alive, how do we put it on the political agenda?" Geldof is an avowed pragmatist: more records sold means more money for Darfur. While Kuti is undoubtedly a successful African musician, his success is dwarfed by Western artists such as George Michael or Elton John- both of whom appear on the Live Aid DVD. "It's to do with the numbers," Geldof asserted.

Kuti's cynicism raises questions about his own contribution to the progress of Africa. While Geldof may have failed to solve all of Ethiopia's problems, what hope is there if all that Africa's cultural heroes have to give is such a negative, iconoclastic outlook?

Having set up Mass (The Movement Against Second Slavery) in 1998, an NGO concerned with people's rights in Nigeria, Kuti found out firsthand that goodwill can be corroded from within before it even applies itself to the outside world. When asked why Mass was recently disbanded, he said: "Because no one really believed in or worked hard enough towards the objective. I called a meeting with all the people in the organisation and this guy walks in with a big joint." Kuti admits that he didn't have a problem with marijuana per se, but stresses: "How can you let the government know you're serious or make them understand, if you're slack on your own standards?"

It is hard to find an African musician today who doesn't mould politics and music successfully. With a new album, African Shrine, and a recent performance at the Barbican in honour of his father, Kuti has established himself as the torchbearer for modern Afrobeat. Kuti is a musician who has always experimented - drawing on the influences of post-Afrobeat styles, particularly hip hop and electronic music - to create a unique Afrobeat recipe. Kuti's conviction that "music should play the role of truth" represents a ray of light in an industry fraught with superficial content and commercialism.

Perhaps this is the root of the Kuti-Geldof divide. Femi is adamant that music should be alien to compromise - whilst, for Geldof, the ends justify the means. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" describes Ethiopia as a land "where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow". Never mind that the country contains one of the sources of the river Nile. Instead, Ethiopia is depicted as a desolate, arid African backwater - while starving Ethiopians represent the perpetual African victims standing beside reindeers and Christmas decorations on the cover of thesingle. This is a misrepresentation, albeit one with good intentions, but one that chooses to negate Ethiopian history and culture to peddle to the West's charitable self-image. "That's why we must change these relations between us," said Manu Dibango, speaking on the subject of a longer-term Western engagement with Africa from an afro-centric perspective. "Things are decided here, but in general they do not take into account personalities in African culture." Justice Africa, an indigenous campaigning organisation, added that Band Aid was portraying the continent in a negative and patronising light.

As the son of the most prolific African musician and grandson to Nigeria's first female trade-union leader, it is understandable that Kuti has strong principles. How does he feel about his family legacy? Kuti smiles tersely. "Ah, my daddy, he made me suffer all my life! I picked up a saxophone and said, 'Teach me', and he said, 'Go and teach yourself.' " Self-sufficiency has been an integral part of Femi's development as a musician. He rose to prominence in 1985 when he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, fronting his father's 40-piece band, Egypt 80. Fela Kuti, having been detained by the Nigerian authorities at Lagos airport, had failed to make it on to the plane. Femi assumed his father's mantle and gave a performance that established him as an artist in his own right. But it also created a source of tension between him and his father. Was his father resentful? Kuti avoids the question directly. "When I look at my father's life, I know what he went through. It's very hard for me to hate him," he says.

Africa is a continent flooded with perplexities and in need of solutions from within. Decades of authoritarian governments have ensured that music remains one of the last vehicles that indigenous civil society possesses for political expression. Given this state of affairs, it would seem strange that Kuti cynically dismisses the West's renewed attention in helping to alleviate Africa's problems. What of Blair's Commission for Africa? "I don't believe it. That man has already lied to me. With all the lies I've heard in the past, why should I believe him now?"

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