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Femi Kuti: "Real music lets you deal with the reality of life"
Nigerian superstar Femi Kuti is that rare son of a legend who’s been able to carve out a stellar career of his very own. Born Olufela Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti—first son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti—Femi has toured the world leading his own band (the Positive Force) since the late 1980s. Raised in Lagos, Femi’s social and political commitment to his homeland rivals his late father, evident on albums such as Shoki Shoki and the brand-new Africa for Africa, just released in November.
Femi Kuti met recently with Afrik-News for the following interview.
You say Africa for Africa. You think Africa is not for Africa at the moment?
Not enough. If BBC had not told us there was a war in Rwanda, Lagos would not have known. If CNN doesn’t tell us about the problems in Somalia or Darfur, there’s no African station that would tell us these problems. And the African stations that exist have to go to BBC and CNN to get the information. Where’s the solid African network that is sincerely for Africa... that will beam Africa’s problems to the western world? CNN beams America’s problems to the western world. BBC beams England’s problems to the rest of the world. Where is the African network that is sincerely beaming Africa to the rest of the world?
Africans are doing well, but the problems are the leaders
We need to be more concerned. We need to love Africa more. Africans in France need to care about Africa. Africans want to go to America, to England, to Paris. [They don’t] want to stay in Africa, to be successful in Africa, just to get out of Africa. Already we have lost the battle because our minds have been trained to look over to America and Europe.
When Africans get to Europe, they look down on Africa. We need to care, to love, to be concerned. The African has to feel for Africa, and not Europe or America.
Don’t you feel the problem is about poverty?
Why are we poor? The slave trade. They came, they took us as slaves. Now we ship ourselves into slavery. Africans come to Europe to clean hotel rooms, to sweep the streets. But if I told them to come and sweep the roads in Nigeria, they would not do it. Isn’t it better to stay and fight for your needs and rights where you have a voice? Here, you never have a voice.
I saw an interview with you where you said, “There is nothing to be happy about, the 50 independent years of Nigeria.” Why is it so difficult for African people to cope with these developments?
As Africans, why do we have a problem? Because we have not appreciated the story of Africa. Africa suffered 500 years of slavery. The Jews suffered six years of the war with Hitler. And when you watch the footage of the Jews, you have to be sympathetic to their story, because there are visuals, there is footage. There is no footage of 500 years of what happened to the African. You have a few pictures of black men and women being bought and hanged, but you have to go in search of it. [There is no] massive propaganda of African people saying, “This happened to Africa! This is the reason why Africa is like this!”
Let me give you another example. We call the colonial traders “colonial masters.” We call them our masters. So already we are psychologically defeated! How can you call the colonial traders who are dealing in slaves, trafficking human beings, masters? So even when they left, we looked at them as gods.
Even when independence was given to us, a lot of the fighters like Kwame Nkrumah, Lumumba, were stopped. Only the corrupt African leaders were supported by Europe and America, so they could do business with them. So all these are problems the African continent is still facing.
When we understand the history and appreciate 500 years of slavery, we can use that energy to change corruption. We can use that energy to be more successful, and develop Africa as a continent.
So for you the battle is, it’s about more communication? It’s about that really?
Yes. When you are in France, I can go by train anywhere in Europe. When I’m in Lagos, I can’t go anywhere. Why can’t I drive my car to South Africa? Because African leaders have not invested in Africa. African corporations have not developed Africa. You don’t even need visas to go [throughout] Europe anymore. But I need a visa to go from Lagos to any [other] African country. Why? It’s wrong.
Do you think that music is a good way to make things change?
Music is definitely a major part of it.
Music is love because it goes straight to the heart of the people. I think you should make love songs too. Why do you think it’s important to be militant when you sing?
Since I refuse to be violent, I sing about what touches me. I know that people are dying because they can’t afford health care. I’m not happy.
Do you think you can create poetry like Wole Soyinka one day?
Better than him by far, through music. The thing about Wole Soyinka is, I didn’t go to school, I don’t have that kind of education. So with due respect to Wole Soyinka, I don’t care about it, really. Why do I want to speak English better than an Englishman? I would love to speak Hausa, Ibo, many African languages. It is possible for the African to speak 10 African languages. Communication will be a major tool in part of our development.
On your albums, you sing in pidgin English.
I grew up in an English home. My mother is half-English. I would not want to communicate in Yoruba. I learned Yoruba in the streets. I’m not confident to sing in Yoruba. My father used pidgin English to break the barrier of language in Nigeria. And it was his music that unified Nigeria for the first time.
You are almost 50. What do you expect for Africa and your music?
We are still fighting, so I can only expect the best. I’m not going to relent. I’m not going to give up, to stop what I’m saying. I would love to sing love songs, but no money, no love. How do you take care of your children? How could my sons live better lives if this system doesn’t change?
But Africa needs joy too
I am not somebody who lives in a dreamland. If mosquitoes are going to bite me tonight, I’m going to sing about it. I’m not going to sing about, “Oooh, mosquitoes won’t bite me." [laughter] That is illusion. I’m a realist. And we need the poverty to end. We have to face the reality. If we don’t face reality, then we are going to grow up as if it doesn’t exist.
Real music lets you deal with the reality of life.