In Afrobeat Fight, Femi Kuti is No Friend of Government

Posted on July 10, 2009 by

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Femi Kuti cannot resist.

He is chatting in his dressing room about improvements needed to African infrastructure and, in the midst of describing his awe at America’s highway system, the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer can’t contain his bubbling over in boyish imitation of the sounds of combustion power.

“You have to be envious of the highways in America,” Femi says. “Ooh! Four lanes! Six lanes! Coming and going! Rrnrrmnrrr rrrrrngh ahhhh oooh! If we had this in Africa, who would crave to come to America?”

Forget that in this 21st century Americans are beside themselves figuring how to be rid of economic, environmental, military catastrophes brought, in part, by overdependence on automotive luxury. Femi is now in the throat a continental road trip through 26 North American cities — plus more than a dozen in Europe — between the first week in June and the first week in August. His excitement betrays, as much as his desire for transit equality, for leveling global imbalance, that spirit of being carried away, of losing oneself in the throes, that animated ecstasy, so central to Afrobeat’s movement.

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Onstage, Olufemi Anikulapo Kuti’s rush gets channeled into a frenzy of precise (if sometimes improvised) details. He hops from microphone to microphone, instrument to instrument; now saxophone, now keyboard, stationed now at the back among the brass section, ceding the floor to a guitarist; now in front slicing his open palm in directed punctuations as the bandleader he is, after the grand examples of Count Basie and Benny Goodman all the way through to his father, Afrobeat founder and agitator folk-hero Fela Kuti.

Links in this post:

Fela Kuti at Knitting Factory Records
The New Afrika Shrine
Art’s Own Kind
Marcus Garvey at PBS.org
Fela Kuti on YouTube
Nomadic Wax’s Democracy in Dakar
The FADER
“Beng Beng Beng” on YouTube
MOAD San Francisco

“Ah la la la!” Femi calls. He raises up arm to catch the crowd’s delirious response: “A-la-la la LAH!”

Femi’s trade is this liveliness, of course. But as I spoke with him 20 June, backstage at the Fillmore in San Francisco — without any ringing horns or highlife guitar running along like telephone wires, without any painted dancers swirling their arms and shaking their, mm, sashes — his enthusiasm moves more subtly. Like a train beginning to stir, or the weather.

He’s rolling forth in a rendition, for example, of his troubles early last month when Lagos police closed down his dance club there, The New Afrika Shrine. For a little more than a week authorities shuttered the venue, a revival of his father’s legendary establishment, for the putative reasons of too much noise and illegal street commerce.

According to Femi, the Shrine management can’t be responsible for children selling wares on the government-owned streets. Femi tells the history of the place in his father’s time, “A holy place, yes a place of worship … when he died we tried to buy that land off them. They refused … now we managed to get another land. Now it’s a social gathering. We intend to have a library there.”

Laying head back against the brown leather sofa, Femi tosses open his fingers across his knee to the beat of his words. He explains his belief that Nigeria’s government singles him out to discourage any memory of Fela Kuti’s struggles against political graft, censorship and other corruptions — when Femi comes suddenly unleashed again, his voice rises and carries him away:

“They find a reason to shut the place which has nothing to do with us! The churches make a lot of noise in Nigeria!” he says. “The mosque wake you up at four in the morning — in residential areas! Now the shrine is not in a residential area!”

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When the Shrine was closed, its website put up a defiant announcement, “The New Afrika Shrine, Nigeria’s last bastion of Liberty, has been closed by the authorities. Say NO to the shutdown of the New Afrika Shrine!” with a link to sign an online petition asking the Governor of Lagos and Nigerian Ministry of Justice to reopen the shrine and end all harassment.

Some news outlets reported the closure, though few in the Nigerian press did, but most of the work got done by blogs, including SPIN Earth and other African music, art or political web sites, and by chains of emails urging action. By 12 June, the Shrine was allowed to reopen.

“You see what’s going on in Iran today,” Femi says. “You see what’s going on worldwide, with the internet. The speed at which information is passed is so rapid that it’s totally out of control of the authorities to stop any information from getting round the world today.”

What interests me about Femi’s thought is the way he is impressed not merely with the internet’s rapid flow of information. To him it’s more than that; it becomes a tool for escaping the domain of government restriction on speech, an anarchy of speech where antiestablishment voices can live free and find any audience.

Not surprising, given the adversarial manners authorities have shown him and his family, Femi Kuti is the most outspoken public figure against government I have ever met. Even many radically experimental artists, or artists who are radical politically outside their creative projects, are less likely to talk freely on or off record about ideas so expressly insurgent.

“I don’t like any corrupt government,” Femi says. “And any government that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do cannot be my friend.”

Although he most often specifies his criticisms this way, toward “corrupt” regimes, Femi, who studies closely Marcus Garvey, told me he hopes freedom of communication brought by channels like the worldwide web can lead to a time when government altogether is not necessary, when people can get along as free individuals.In this he is with his father Fela, who asked for a society organized by its people — “no Marxism, no capitalism; Africanism.”

For both of them, music is inseparable from efforts to remake society — and not abstractly. Fela Kuti protested political injustices through song, escaping not just embargoes against free press and demonstration but cultivating a lyrical language comprehensible to the common man (“Music is the weapon of the future.”). When I ask what ordinary Nigerians can do to improve their lot, Femi answers, “We can sing.” In so saying, Femi lifts music’s transformative potential above even the internet.

“Music has to play a political role because music influences people,” Femi says. “Now if music plays a political role it will speed anti-corruption, and pass any message very fast. I think it’s the fastest outlet to passing on information.”

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Whereas Fela Kuti absorbed traditional forms and combined them with styles emerging elsewhere to invent a new music, Femi has largely stayed with Afrobeat.

“I don’t listen to anybody anymore,” he says. “Nothing. I don’t even listen to myself.”

But significant political music of the kind wished by Fela appears all over West Africa in the form of rap, spoken as often as not now in tribal languages specifically by and for common folk. Femi told me he has heard about these developments but “we don’t get to hear many of that in Nigeria” (which must be partly true: tribal languages vary considerably; French dominates much of the region; Ghanaian hiplife is quite different from Nigerian hip hop, which is more influenced by American and British styles). Still, here is the internet, and one wonders what a Kuti might do to synthesize recursive recording elements with the ripe stagecraft of Afrobeat.

Then again, Afrobeat shows plenty of life. Femi mentions Afrobeat bands from Australia, France and the U.S. who have started to tour extensively, often visiting the Shrine in Nigeria on a kind of pilgrimage, and he reports growing support on his frequent tours to Europe and North America — Atlanta especially is a new stronghold. Day by Day, his record released in October last year, remains a top-5 seller among Nigerian artists on Amazon.com (Fela Kuti’s Expensive Shit is No. 1).

“It is like having a double barreled gun,” Femi says, “and if I take what my father has and what I have and shoot it to the audience, it’s more powerful.”

In his performance at the Fillmore, Femi delivered a grinning lecture on sexual stamina during an extended jam of his 1998 hit “Beng Beng Beng.” The lesson, issued across the swaying bellies and raised arms chanting all the while that percussive theme along with Femi’s three chorus girls under a haze of marijuana smoke, was that if after one year practice a lover can last 10 minutes, and after two years practice, 30 minutes … “then after 10 years you start at 10 pm and go till 4 in the morning.”

Femi’s dedication to Afrobeat pays off. Amid other projects, Femi performed and perfected the tracks that became Day by Day for nearly 10 years.

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Back in the dressing room, Femi told me he loves playing the Fillmore. The Fillmore is perhaps his favorite venue in Europe or America.

“It reminds me so much of the Shrine. The crowd, they are very open minded. They are down to earth. But you cannot fool them,” Femi says. “I’ve always felt very comfortable, for a spiritual reason. We have been coming here for years now. Santana comes sometimes, sends us roses.”

But so much that San Francisco offers natural sanctuary to an Afrobeat man — legacies of Miles Davis and Fillmore jazz, a Marcus Garvey bookstore, Museum of African Diaspora, history of countercultural resistance — Femi’s true desire insists Africa can develop as an attraction for worldwide talent just as does the great cities of Europe and America. His dream of highway driving is not just childish joy for engines, no kind of envy of wealth but a will for investment of resources — resources not again for wealth’s sake; rather for sustaining world-shaking music.

“Now I am impatient to see my highways, railroad lines, good airports,” Femi says. “You need music centers all over the world, where American bands can tour Africa like African bands tour in America. It’s one-sided right now. We are touring, and when you come to Africa it has to be some very big powerful politician, who has some money hidden behind an organization, with the government’s help. And big bands, with big fees which the masses can’t afford.

“We want to see it like when we come to America, where young bands can come — any kind of band can tour the ‘United States of Africa’ and just tour. Or right round Africa, all the way to South Africa” — and here Femi gets carried away a last time, indulging the oratory cadences of the African syllables — “Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Botswana, Angola … by the time you are back in the United States you have to be a changed person.

“Different cultures, different people, different languages. That band will be a changed band!”

Resistance is the shout. Afrobeat ecstasy bubbles over.


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