/ 9 March 2007

Fela’s rising son

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti. But, in the run-up to the annual “Fela-bration” in Lagos, his eldest son and chief musical heir is in no mood to reminisce. “There’s so much in my father’s life,” says Femi Kuti. “Just his musical works you could listen to all year long. But I don’t want to be derailed. I have it at the back of my mind, and I just use it as a strength to keep me grounded.”

In the 1970s, Fela Kuti pioneered the exhilarating meld of horn-driven jazz, funk and West African highlife that took James Brown’s soul beat “back to Africa”. For more than 20 years he played to thousands in his famous Lagos club, the Shrine. But his politically inflected lyrics brought clashes with successive military regimes in Nigeria, including frequent beatings and jail. In one raid in 1977 on Fela’s walled compound — his self-declared “republic of Kalakuta” — his mother died of her injuries after being thrown from a window by soldiers.

Femi Kuti rebuilt the New Afrika Shrine in 2000, after it was closed down the previous year following harassment from the landlord, and he plays three free concerts there a week. He also founded, in 1998, the student-based Movement Against Second Slavery (Mass) to push for social change. Although he has been less confrontational with the government than his father, his appearance to many as Fela’s reincarnation has drawn attacks in the Nigerian press for “standing by my father’s legacy”.

In 2002 he was made a Unicef “goodwill ambassador” for campaigning on Aids, the illness that killed Fela at the age of 58. But “with or without Unicef”, Kuti says defiantly, “I’ll always be fighting for justice, which is what my father taught me.”

He, like his father before him, had a difficult musical apprenticeship. Born in London in 1962, he joined his father’s band Egypt 80 as a teenage saxophonist in 1979, fronting it at the Hollywood Bowl in 1985 when Fela was sentenced to five years on dubious currency-smuggling charges (he was freed after 20 months thanks to a campaign by Amnesty International). In 1987 he left to found his own band, the Positive Force — a “betrayal” for which his father didn’t speak to him for five years — and Femi spent almost a decade convincing both Fela and his fans of his own worth. His breakthrough was his 1995 album Wonder, Wonder, though some deemed it so good they thought Fela must have made it. His 1999 album Shoki Shoki and the dance hit Beng Beng Beng (banned by the state broadcaster in Nigeria for its sexually explicit lyrics) rocked clubs from Paris to Tokyo, earning Kuti a spate of awards. His 2004 album Live at the Shrine gave a flavour of his electrifying performances, when he plays to up to 10 000 people, sometimes appearing bare-chested in the manner of his father.

Kuti, now 44, is in the United Kingdom headlining this year’s African Soul Rebels tour (Ba Cissoko and Akli D complete the line-up). He is also launching a double-CD compilation drawn from his three of his albums as a singer-songwriter, saxophonist, trumpeter and keyboard player.

Over spaghetti bolognese in London, the inheritor of Afrobeat says he has been in Paris, recording his first studio album since Fight to Win in 2001. “I’m very proud of it, so far. It’s 10 times stronger than Shoki Shoki,” he says. The new recording, though, is not yet signed to a label.

His mood lightens when he talks about his young son Omrinmade (“Made”), the latest in the Kuti dynasty, who plays alto sax on the recording as well as being versed in trumpet and drums. “He’s 11 — he thinks I’m perfect,” he smiles. Kuti, who loves children, has adopted four in addition to his three. Kwame (18), Damilola and Ramatu (both 13) and Mohammed (11) were friends of Made’s whose parents sold sweets at the Shrine but were, he says, too poor to look after them. He took them in and sent them to “first-class schools like my son’s. I only provide for them because they can’t get that provision elsewhere. I wish they could be in their own homes, and that my son would have respect for them.” He has a message for Madonna: “She shouldn’t only adopt one child in Malawi. She has money — she should go and repair the village, build good schools and hospitals, so that father can keep their sons. Why should Africa be damned?”

Fela’s death in 1997 was the first the family knew for certain that he had Aids. But Kuti reveals that he contested the decision to go public. “We didn’t decide; we were forced into it by my uncle,” he says, blaming political forces for putting pressure on the family. “They were using Aids as a stigma against my father, forgetting all the beatings they gave him.”

Asked who “they” are, he says: “Politicians. But many of those who run the country [today] aren’t officially in power; the most dangerous people are always at the back. They prefer to steal and dictate — they manipulate the press.”

Yet he feels even international organisations, such as the United Nations, used the death for their own purposes, criticising a lifestyle that at one time saw Fela married to 27 of his backing singers. “They wanted to give my father a bad name once he couldn’t defend himself. I said, are you saying he’s to blame for the spread of Aids? They apologised. My fight was against the political game they were playing.” Later, Kuti signed up to an Aids campaign, stating in Unicef’s 2000 report that “failing to educate people about the disease is like signing their death sentence”. Now Doctors Without Borders uses the Afrika Shrine for education, and Kuti takes the message into songs such as Stop Aids (“If you must do sha! / You better cover your bamboo”).

Kuti says he stands by the protest politics of Mass, too, but that it fell into corrupt hands. “I put in all the money from my tours, and they took all of it.” As for the press attacks, he says: “When I was attacking the government, they said I’d gone mad from smoking grass. I was in the studio in Paris and they were saying I was in a mental institution in France.” Though he denies the claims — and says he gave up smoking “both tobacco and grass” last year — he regrets that his son Made is facing “problems I had when I was growing up, having to fight to defend my father because he smoked grass and wore pants” (Fela was known to perform in his underwear). Yet Kuti adds: “My upbringing made me see the bigger picture of what my father was fighting for. I can teach that to my son.”

Turning his mind to the run-up to Nigeria’s presidential elections in April, Kuti says: “I have no hope. I’m really sorry for us. The future is bitter, the economy is going to collapse. The masses will rise up. I just hope we don’t end up like Rwanda.”

As for the tendency of young Nigerians to prefer American-style rap to Afrobeat, Kuti says, “you’d definitely hear my father” in the new songs.

“I’m confident of what I’m doing,” he adds. “If everybody else is saying yes, let me be the last person to say no.”– Â