Afrobeat star Femi Kuti spoke to Ken Olende about his twin passions of radical politics and music
Nigerian musician Femi Kuti was recently in Britain as part of the third African Soul Rebels tour.
Femi burns with conviction that music can have a social impact. “What I do is communication,” he told Socialist Worker. “My music says the struggle is not over. Africa still has a very long way to go, but the fight is on.”
His father Fela Kuti was a seminal African musician and a powerful political focus in Nigeria in the 1970s.
Influenced by the Black Power movement in the US, Fela developed Afrobeat – a fusion of different styles of African music with jazz and funk.
A long series of albums denounced the state and led to continual raids from the Nigerian state, beatings and imprisonment. Fela died in 1997.
Femi’s music is smoother and less confrontational than his father’s – but it is still overtly political.
He is furious about the current state of Africa, and that the hope has drained away since the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
“I don’t think we can talk about independence,” said Femi. “Independence is when you don’t depend on anyone. No African country is truly independent. We are not independent if we are still begging, begging, begging.
“Every leader that tried to build the African dream was killed. The colonial masters said, ‘What? These monkeys still don’t understand we are in control of the world. Get rid of them!’
“They got rid of everybody. My father was attacked several times because the military governments at that time were friends of America and Europe. They burned his house down.
“The people in power are greedy. They can’t understand the plight of the average man. They don’t know what it means to be hungry. They have to remain the boss.”
Femi’s anger against poverty is directly linked to his anti-war stance. “Politicians don’t send their kids to the war,” he said. “It’s the poor people who go. This is different from when everyone had to fight.
“In the past the king would put on his battle armour and say, ‘Right, now it’s war’, and lead the charge himself. Perhaps then they thought more about what they were fighting over.”
Femi sees a repeated pattern of lies being told about conquest and conquered peoples.
“When Columbus first arrived in the West Indies he reported back to his queen that he had met cannibals.
“In Africa the British said, ‘These monkeys are vicious.’ It took them 400 years to realise we are humans.
“People are seeing now that the empires were built on lies. Look at their lies – it was them massacring people. They were spreading wars.
“I’m able to tour here because for hundreds of years people fought and died. If I don’t acknowledge those people then my existence today is totally meaningless.”
Femi argues that music can help people find out the truth about what is going on in Africa – but he is very suspicious of recent Western “charity concerts” for Africa.
“I didn’t want to do Live 8. I mean, how many concerts are they going to do?” he said.
“The issue is raised and then it disappears down the drain. They feel good about themselves and feel somehow they’ve contributed.
“But Bono can’t tell me Africa is suffering. We know we are suffering. They need to talk to their governments about why we are suffering.
“I don’t read the papers any more. When you talk to people on the street you hear what people hope for, what people want, what people feel.
“It’s not what the rich or the media are trying to push. I’m making my own news and hearing my own stories when I meet people.”
Femi is surprisingly modest about his own achievements. Asked what he thinks about his musical development in the light of his new retrospective album, he says ruefully, “I’m not impressed. I think I can do much better than that.
“I’m always looking forward to my next album coming out. At the end of my life, I hope someone will look back and say, ‘He kept improving. In the end, he really didn’t do too badly.’
“I listen to Billie Holiday to hear one of the greatest voices ever, but then see footage of her having to sneak in through the back door of venues because of the segregation.
“The history helps you understand the music, and the music helps you understand the history.
“Her life was so bad and she died on drugs – but we can see more than that. We can see the beauty. We have to take that seriously and that’s how the human race will get better.”
On stage Femi’s 14 piece band pumps out an infectious Afrobeat. The band has a five-piece horn section, two percussionists and three backing singers and dancers.
He is a commanding presence on stage, leaping about during numbers and joking with the audience.
He tells them he mustn’t talk too much about politics, “or you’ll want me to be your prime minister instead of that Tony Blair”.
To cheers he explains the policies he would follow – “Britain will pull troops out and help build things in Africa rather than destroying. Then you will find that the country will be loved.”
The new Femi Kuti retrospective, The Definitive Collection covers all of his solo albums. Throughout his career his music has produced a big, pulsing sound.
As well as singing, Femi plays saxophone, trumpet and keyboards, accompanied by percussionists, guitar, bass and a sizeable horn section.
The tracks range from the political “Traitors of Africa” to the purely sensual “Beng Beng Beng”. “Wonder Wonder” from his breakthrough album stands out.
Femi’s songs tend to be shorter than his father’s epic, hypnotic jams. He is more influenced by recent R&B, which shows in his choice of collaborators and producers.
The album also showcases his collaborations, notably in Ala Jalkoum – a duet with Rachid Taha – and the cover of his father’s track “Water No Get Enemy”, which boasts six collaborators including D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Nile Rodgers.
Femi’s father Fela Kuti produced a vast number of albums, often with huge bands – his group Africa 80 did actually have 80 musicians.
Among the best albums are I.T.T. (International Thief Thief), Original Sufferhead and Army Arrangement. There are several best of compilations available, including The King of Afrobeat.
Also worth finding is the Nu Afrobeat Experience compilation, including Tony Allen and Ayetoro.
Femi Kuti’s retrospective album The Definitive Collection is out now on Wrasse records. Go to www.wrasserecords.com for details.