Femi Kuti, the eldest son of Afrobeat legend and decorated Nigerian activist Fela Kuti, has spent a lifetime creating his own identity in the tall shadow of his father’s.
Shortly after Fela's death in 1997, Femi signed with MCA records and, flanked by his backing band the Positive Force, spent the next decade popularizing his distinct blend of jazz/funk-infused Afrobeat sonics that eventually garnered international acclaim.
From collaborations with socially inclined rap moguls like Mos Def and Common to touring with Jane’s Addiction, Femi has transcended his roots without abandoning them. Hell, he even made a vocal cameo as a radio DJ in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.
Ahead of his concert Friday at Cedar Cultural Center, Femi talked with City Pages about Afrobeat in modern America, the music scene in Lagos, and the recent spat of police shootings in America.
City Pages: What do you like about touring in the States?
Femi Kuti: It’s not just the States, I just love touring. I love taking my music everywhere.
CP: Do you follow much modern Western music? Do you recognize much Afrobeat influence in modern music?
FK: I don’t follow much, but yes. Definitely. Especially hip-hop. Ab-Soul, specifically. It is more noticeable now because people are saying they are inspired openly. They were inspired in the 1970s but they never said anything. Paul McCartney never said anything openly. Then a few years ago there was video online saying he cried when my father died. It wasn’t as big back then. Now Jay-Z talks about it. Alicia Keys talk about. These huge names are talking about it now.
CP: I’ve been reading about the scene in Lagos and the rising popularity of dancehall and electronic music in Nigeria. Do you get a chance to attend some of those shows when you’re in Lagos?
FK: No, but we’ve been going to the Shrine because we have a very big festival. A lot of the big pop stars attend it. I like most of the music. I still have my reservations because it is music for a certain kind of generation. They are just playing with computers. Very few of them play musical instruments or know anything about musical instruments. They talk about fame and fortune and wealth, and that is fine.
I don’t go out of my way to listen to new music. I don’t want anything to affect my music because I want my compositions to be very pure. If I listen to new music I hear it at a party but I will be like "OK it’s not bad," but I probably won’t know what it is unless someone tells me. In Lagos they are copying and recreating and it’s danceable, but a lot of it sounds very similar.
CP: Years ago you collaborated with MCs like Mos Def and Common. Do you have aspirations to work with hip-hop artists again in the near future?
FK: I keep an open mind. I never close my mind to any opportunity. It was a great opportunity that came in my career. If an opportunity like that comes again, I will not hesitate but I will not wait for that opportunity to come. If it comes, I will take advantage of it but I will not sit down and say, "Oh, I want to work with this such and such artist" … I want to focus on my own vision, I work better that way.
CP: Femi, in an interview a few years ago, when speaking in regard to the atrocities committed by Boko Haram and the country’s widespread corruption and poverty, you said you didn’t consider yourself a Nigerian. Do you still feel that way?
FK: Yes. I refuse to call myself a Nigerian. I am an African. I say African because I talk about the reunification of Africa. Africa still has to come up with its own name. African has to tell its story. Africa has to have its own identity. These are colonial names. This is colonial structure. Africa is moving so far away from unification.
There is war in Sudan, Congo is not better, neither is Nigeria … there’s nothing to bring people together, it’s just about corruption. The good thing is that young people want genuine change and we can talk about these issues. That is progress.
CP: Do you think a revolution is inevitable and possible?
FK: It is possible but I hope it doesn’t happen because it will only bring about more blood. So, it could erupt at any time. It could be something very minute that would spark it.
CP: I’m assuming you’ve kept up with this last week’s police shootings. What’s it been like observing this from your perspective? Do you see a lot of similarities?
FK: Well, I can understand the movement against police brutality. When you watch the news there is no justification for why these people are killed. How can you justify taking someone’s life?
This is the ultimate crime one could do as a human being. Government officials should have spoken out against this openly. Because police officers are human beings and because they have a license to carry guns doesn’t mean they have any right to kill people.
Especially with social media, everyone sees it. And it becomes scary. Now a country that allows its citizens to carry guns — of course, what would happen? That is the notion you give the citizens. Don’t trust the police. I believe it shouldn’t have gotten to this stage. The politicians should have done more to stop this.
America is setting such a poor example for the rest of the world. What do you think third-world countries are thinking? Police are supposed to be protecting citizens. The video I saw of [police shooting victim Alton] Sterling … they didn’t have to kill him. They could’ve shot his legs and his arms. Police are supposed to be educated and trained to disarm, not kill blatantly like that.
I believe America can solve this. America has to understand many people do not like America. America has to come together as one people and address this problem without pretense and give its citizens confidence. I believe America can and should work on this and will.
CP: What would you tell youth who might feel disenfranchised and hopeless in times like this?
FK: It would be very difficult to me to talk to the youth because they might not know me. The solution comes from Obama. What does it say to the black community, if you don’t give your citizens a way solve this problem? You cannot blame the black community for feeling this way. I feel like the police are guilty. The president must go there and the Justice Department must make sure justice is served in these cases.
CP: Do you have plans for another album soon?
FK: Yes. I actually lost my manager to cancer two months ago and I was miserable. He was negotiating deals and the album is completed, but now we are trying to figure out which route we will take to release it. We will probably do a double album because it’s my 10th album and I have many thoughts about it because it is such an important album.
I’m very proud of what we have done and I am very sure it is going to be my best work so far. I was doing a show in St. Louis yesterday and I was very happy to see the kind of audience that appears at shows. It’s music that brings people together. It’s not about black or white. I’m quite pleased my music isn’t limited to one sector in America. Maybe through the Afrobeat we can bring about peace.
With: ZULUZULUU, Worldwide Discotheque DJs
When: 7 p.m. Fri., July 14
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
Tickets: $50-$55; more info here