Recognising Africa’s past, finding its future
Musician Femi Kuti discusses pan-Africanism, the state of African leadership and the need to understand history.
Femi Kuti was born in London in 1962, the second child and eldest son of a man who was then unknown to the world, but who would go on to become arguably the greatest African musician of all time, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Femi has followed in his father’s footsteps, and continued the mission of taking Afrobeat, the musical genre pioneered by Fela, to the world.
The first of my two interviews with him takes place early on a Thursday evening at the Shrine, an expansive complex in Ikeja, Lagos, where he holds court, as his father did decades ago (the Shrine used to be at a different venue then).
He will be performing later tonight (when he is in town he performs on Thursdays and Sundays), in a dimly-lit pavilion.
Dancers and band-members hang around, but Femi is seated by himself, backstage, clutching a trumpet. He is wary of me at first (I would later understand why), but as the interview proceeds he relaxes, and I end up taking far more of his time than I had promised.
He has been busy – judging Nigerian Idol, playing at the Shrine and preparing for two big international tours in 2013. And working on a new album: No place for my dream. I immediately assume the title refers to Nigeria.
“The album is focused on global politics, not just Nigeria,” Femi clarifies. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, the global recession – everything, he says, is covered.
“Poverty is affecting not only Africans these days.” And no, it is not a pessimistic album, he insists. “The music is very optimistic; it’s to get you thinking, not to discourage you.”
Femi understands the value of inspiration, especially against the often depressing backdrop provided by contemporary life in Africa.
It is in part why he has agreed to provide the theme song for Tutu’s Children, Al Jazeera’s documentary series focusing on the lives of a number of young Africans working passionately – under the tutelage of Archbishop Desmond Tutu – to bring change to their communities and countries.
“[This] generation needs those kinds of initiatives to encourage them. Young people will feel very disheartened if they don’t have people telling them it’s okay; they will end up taking drugs, becoming a nuisance. They need guidance.”
His father, he says, played that role in his life. “My father gave me courage.”
When, in the late 1970s, Nigeria’s military head of state Olusegun Obasanjo ordered soldiers onto secondary school grounds, Fela withdrew Femi from school in protest.
“You’re not going to go to a school where soldiers are going to flog you,” he recalls Fela saying.
Fela, he surmises, was given to experiments. And he, the eldest son, was the “guinea pig” for some of those. “[Fela] wouldn’t [experiment with] another person’s son, he’d use his own son.”
That marked the end of formal education for Femi. Life, since then, has been a self-taught one.
“I’m somebody who learns on the road,” Femi tells me. “I did a lot of reading when I left school. My father ensured I did. I found great interest in research, while reading.”
His nickname in Kalakuta, Fela’s self-proclaimed “republic”, was Professor. He read so much, he says, that he found that a Pharaoh Kuti once existed. His favourite writers and thinkers are Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, his grandmother (Fela’s mother) – who defied the colonial government to visit China in the 1950s, and is regarded as the first Nigerian woman to drive a car – and his mother.
And the books that have shaped him most significantly: Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa (1992), Yosef Ben-Jochannan’s Black Man of the Nile (1972), and George James’ Stolen Legacy (1954).
Expectedly, much of our conversation centres around Africa – Fela was a fervent pan-Africanist. My reference to Muammar Gaddafi’s pan-Africanist ambitions agitates Femi.
“Gaddafi was first an Arab, only when he needed Africa’s support did he become pan-African,” he says.
Like Fela he is not one to shy away from controversy.
Today’s North Africa, he insists, once belonged to “black Africa”. “Egypt was black Africa. It was wars by the Arabs that drove us from that land,” he says.
Femi says he is “one-hundred percent pan-Africanist”. But he has a caveat. “Pan-Africanism must not be reduced to the boundaries of racism, [the] black man, and narrow-minded prejudice. As much as we want to be Africans we don’t want to be racist in our approach.”
He has a lot to say about slavery and colonisation. When I suggest that Africans were as complicit in the slave trade as the invading merchants from Europe, he emphatically tells me: “You are very wrong.”
And then he sketches out a brief history of slavery, touching on the invasion of North America and the decimation of the original inhabitants, the trans-Saharan slave trade with its “religious” motivation, and then the trans-Atlantic trade.
“[The invaders] first came in as friends, with drinks. Before we knew it they came with ships and guns. In the beginning, Africa did not participate in the slave trade.”
During our second interview, which happens a few weeks later via skype (in between the two interviews Femi has discovered Twitter, and it is there that I track him down to schedule the skype follow-up), those invaders come up again. This time the focus is on them as purveyors of enslaving religion.
“[The colonialists] … gave us religion to keep us quiet. Nobody can teach us about [the] Almighty God. There’s no African culture that doesn’t teach us about the Creator. [But] we were called idol worshippers. They criticised our names, our state of being. They made us feel inferior.”
Christianity, he admits, is the only reservation he has about Archbishop Tutu.
“I like him. I just don’t like the fact that he’s a Christian … I have my reservations about the fact that he’s promoting a foreign religion.”
Again and again Femi makes the point that Africans need to “understand and appreciate” their history, in all its glory and horror, and that without that understanding there will be no way out of where the continent today finds itself.
“It is the duty of the government to let us understand this history.”
‘A voice in every home’
Femi does not think very much of contemporary African governments. Not even after I try to point out that we appear to be having it easier than Fela’s generation – who had to contend with Mobutu Sese Seko, Samuel Doe and Sani Abacha.
“I’m quite disappointed,” he says. Listing country after country, he thinks there is little to celebrate. And the North African Spring, which kicked off with much promise, now seems “so cloudy; we don’t know how it’s going to end. There’s no positive assurance that [things are] going to get better”.
“I think we’re even in a worse off situation,” he says. The only thing that has changed, he concedes, is that “[Africans] are [now] more aware of their rights and more determined to fight for change. There’s [now] a voice in every home. Everybody complains openly now”.
This, he says, extends to diaspora Africans as well. “Africans outside the continent used to be nonchalant. Now they all want to come back home.”
I suggest that the increased confidence that citizens have to air contrary views might just be evidence that Africa’s leaders have, indeed, become more benevolent.
Femi disagrees. “See what it took to remove [Muammar] Gaddafi and [Hosni] Mubarak. See what [Goodluck] Jonathan did during the [January 2012] oil subsidy protests. He brought soldiers out. Have you gone to [northern Nigeria] to see what’s going on there? We in Lagos don’t know the magnitude of what’s going on in the north.”
He asks me if I am aware of the recent Human Rights Watch report accusing the Nigerian military of gross abuses in the fight against Boko Haram, the organisation that has waged a sustained violent campaign in the north of Nigeria since 2009.
“We in Lagos are blinded to what’s going on around Nigeria,” he rues.
Father, son and the silence
If there is a topic that animates Femi even more than pan-Africanist philosophy and the state of leadership on the continent, it is talk about his father. When I ask how it feels to be endlessly compared to Fela, his answer is instant, confident.
Clearly this is one question he is used to answering.
“I don’t have any problems with it, because I love him. People don’t understand how I can be in a nice competitive life with my father.”
He is not trying to indicate that the relationship was devoid of turmoil – their union was, in fact, a sustained cycle of falling-outs and reconciliations.
I mention that I heard they had one big falling out that lasted years, in the late 1980s. Femi confirms this. Father and son fell out in 1986, when Femi resigned from Egypt 80, Fela’s band, to found Positive Force, his own band.
Femi, bent on carving out his own path, away from the shadows of a legend of a father, pushed ahead with Positive Force. For years an angry Fela did not speak to his son.
It was not out of character for Fela to act like that; in 1978, displeased with the cover that his favourite artist Lemi Ghariokwu had designed for Sorrow, Tears & Blood, he cut the 23-year-old off. For the next nine years they did not speak to each other.
“We fought in 1986, made up in 1991,” Femi says. It was Fela who apologised. “It took him five years to see where I was coming from.” But his respect for Fela remains absolute. “Even where I’m not in agreement with my father, I can understand his time.”
Later, when we discuss Nigerian politicians and the praise-singing that often trails them, a disgusted Femi retorts: “If I have to sing anybody’s praise, it’ll be very objective. I could sing my father’s praise. I will not lie that he fell many times and made many mistakes.”
These are the words of a son who has spent time coming to terms with the complicated, multi-faceted legacy of his father. In the end, it seems, father and son have come to wholeheartedly accept each other.
Dictators and dictaphones
The 1991 reconciliation, Femi recalls, did not please many people, not least among them journalists. “‘Femi and father are friends’ – that didn’t sell [newspapers] very much,” he says.
It sounds like a joke, but he is not kidding.
If his father spent his life suffering at the hands of gun-wielding military dictators, who beat and jailed him repeatedly, and murdered his mother; much of Femi’s suffering, in a post-dictatorship Nigeria (democracy was restored in 1999, and has stayed, at least in name, since then), has come from wielders of pens and dictaphones.
Journalists, he laments, have “blackmailed me several times. They wrote stories that I was mad; wrote one-sided stories about my dissolved marriage. I never spoke about it”. It hurt him deeply.
“Do you know the emotional pain I went through all those years? Five years of negative press and just keeping quiet?” He adds: “There’s no excuse whatsoever for bad journalism. What if I’d committed suicide?”
I put it to him that his openness about his emotions is one thing that distinguishes him from Fela, who appeared to deliberately cultivate a ‘macho’ reputation – he openly confronted the military authorities, married 27 wives at one time in February 1978, loudly proclaimed his disbelief regarding the existence of HIV/AIDS, and his conviction that condoms were alien to African traditions.
Femi does not agree with me. “[Fela] cried when his mother died; publicly. [The media] didn’t report it, but he did.”
Femi too cried when his mother, Remi, Fela’s first wife, died in 2002. Years before then – actually in the same year Fela died, 1997 – Femi’s sister, Sola, had died. Annus horribilis.
The son presses on
A remarkable life it has been, thus far, for a man who turned 50 in 2012.
The albums, the world tours (US and Europe tours are planned for 2013), the acclaimed collaborations (from Mos Def to Common to Macy Gray to Alicia Keys), and the awards – Femi is a three-time Grammy nominee; no other Nigerian has earned that honour.
He will continue to have to face up to the legacy of Fela. But he seems ready for this.
“Afrobeat is just my starting point,” he told the New York Times in 1999.
Indeed it is. In album after album he has pushed the boundaries; taken from where his father paused. No doubt Femi has created his own sound; no one can mistake Femi for Fela.
The trademark anger, the frustration that drove Fela to record all those rousing denunciations of corruption, oppression and misguided religious fervour, all those remain, albeit transformed by Femi into mellower, shorter, but no less profound and moving compositions.
At 50, he tells me, he now has more time to “socialise”. Hence the enthusiastic tweeting. Before now, he was “too busy trying to improve myself as a musician”.
But no one should mistake that admission for a slackening of pace. There is still plenty of dreaming, and doing, to be done.
||Tutu’s Children can be seen from Thursday, January 10, at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2000; Friday: 1200; Saturday: 0100; Sunday: 0600; Monday: 2000; Tuesday: 1200; Wednesday: 0100; Thursday: 0600.
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