27th October, 2010
Femi Kuti speaks like one of his many saxophone solos â€” hands aflutter, voice risingÂ quickly before a steep fall and hitting disparate pitches.
“I already believe we are already in a state of anarchy. But … Nigerians are veryÂ resilient and are always praying and we want Jesus Christ to come down from heavenÂ and change Nigeria for us. We are ready to wait, wait, wait,” the Afrobeat musicianÂ told the Associated Press.
He adds: “It’s boiling, slowly but surely. And if the government doesn’t quicklyÂ change … violence could start at any time.”
The driving rhythms of Kuti’s message follow that of his famous father, FelaÂ Anikulapo-Kuti, who created the synthesis of pop and jazz fueling Afrobeat andÂ served as one of the staunchest critics of military rule in oil-rich Nigeria. NowÂ the focus of a Broadway musical, Fela’s mysticism and sexual exploits are reaching aÂ new audience.
But Femi Kuti, 48, learned from the excesses of his flawed rebel father. A two-timeÂ Grammy nominee, Kuti found his own voice amid the growing noise in a Nigeria whereÂ freedom of speech exists like never before in his lifetime â€” as well as a sustainedÂ commercial and worldwide following.
“I know when to be light; I know when to be hard,” he said in a recent interview.
The delicate balance of commercial success under the heading of world music helpsÂ Kuti and sister Yeni Kuti to keep open the New Afrika Shrine, a relocated version ofÂ the Shrine that their father lived and played in. The original Shrine, raidedÂ repeatedly by police and later the military during Fela’s life, burned to theÂ ground.
The new Shrine sits near the base of state government power in Lagos, Nigeria’sÂ sprawling and exhaust-smoked megacity of 14 million on the coast of the AtlanticÂ Ocean. There have been noise complaints over the years, but nothing like the furyÂ that followed Fela when he lambasted the businessmen and politicians looting theÂ OPEC-member nation.
“A handful of unnatural, unbalanced people are running the world,” Fela once said,Â quoted by biographer Carlos Moore. He recounted seeing a rebel leader board aÂ first-class flight from Berlin to Lagos in 1978, picked up by Mercedes Benz sedansÂ at the other end.
“The leaders of the African freedom struggle will always want the struggle toÂ continue. For them, it means traveling around on first-class tickets and being givenÂ VIP treatment wherever they go,” he said.
Much of that rage focused on Olusegun Obasanjo, then a military dictator and laterÂ an elected president who came from the same hometown as Fela’s family. After Fela’sÂ mother died following a beating by soldiers, Fela carried her casket to theÂ presidential estate in Lagos. It served a bold protest in a country cowed largelyÂ into silence by military rule.
“At the time of my father, there was nothing like human rights groups in Nigeria,”Â Femi Kuti recounted recently while backstage at the new Shrine. “He on his ownÂ solely fought the military dictators at that time and the civilians that they passedÂ power through in the ’70s and ’80s.”
But life wasn’t easy for Femi growing up, as he competed for his father’s attentionÂ in a chaotic commune with the performer’s more than 20 wives. When the militaryÂ arrested his father and sent him to prison before a 1984 U.S. tour, Femi took overÂ the band and displayed an innate business sense that kept the music alive, said SolaÂ Olorunyomi, a Fela biographer and professor at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
“All of this period, I think, came to shape Femi’s own disposition to chart his ownÂ course,” Olorunyomi said. “For outsiders, the Fela experience is fun. But forÂ (Femi), it’s real-life brutality, it’s real-life denial, it’s real-life sacrifice.”
Fela died in 1997 of complications brought on by AIDS, a disease that sapped hisÂ energy to perform in his last years and one he dismissed in song, calling protectedÂ sex “unnatural.” Today, a giant red placard at the Shrine warns concertgoers thatÂ “AIDS is real” and Femi Kuti has appeared in awareness advertising.
Kuti continues to bring a business mentality to his music. He acknowledges someÂ songs critical of the nation’s supposedly democratically elected government won’tÂ get airplay on Nigerian radio stations that are leery of losing their licenses, soÂ he fashions apolitical tracks as well. He even offered his voice as a DJ on a funkÂ radio station in the violent video game franchise “Grand Theft Auto IV.”
His songs offer a pop-like, frenetic pacing at times, such as the driving backbeatÂ of love story in “Bang Bang Bang.” But others, like “Shotan,” carry an angryÂ political message inside the pulsing rhythm: “Say the government of Obasanjo, goÂ carry all of us go for hell.”
The song made Kuti’s short playlist this October at “Felabration,” an annual eventÂ featuring Nigerian artists immortalizing his father. After the fireworks heraldedÂ his appearance on stage at 2:10 a.m., Kuti played the song, which includes theÂ Yoruba language demand for the crowd to “get crazy.”
The crowd obeyed his demand, many of them young men with blank eyes dulled byÂ smoking endless marijuana from loosely rolled cigarettes and drinking cheap gin.
“When you see all these young boys, dancing, jumping, you should be scared,” KutiÂ had said earlier backstage. “All these people, no work, all they want to do isÂ smoke.”
But by that point, the crowd already drifted out of the Shrine and into theÂ surrounding streets. A fight between 20 men broke out near the entrance, pushingÂ their way back into the street as security guards carrying wooden batons entered theÂ melee.
No one had time, or the ability, to listen over the fighting.