Outspoken Nigerian dissident and afrobeat trailblazer Fela Kuti was beaten and arrested hundreds of times during his turbulent life, which came to an end in 1997 due to AIDS-related complications. Several years after his death, Femi and Yeni Kuti, his eldest son and daughter, opened a performance venue and cultural center in Lagos called the New Afrika Shrine, a living tribute to their father and his famous commune-nightclub-recording studio, which was burned down by the Nigerian army. Femi, who has since taken up the afrobeat torch, performs with his band Positive Force often at the New Afrika Shrine, which has become a refuge for politically active youths and a source for information in defense against the AIDS.
But last week, as Femi Kuti left the country for an extensive tour, authorities abruptly closed the Shrine. We spoke with him in New York yesterday, where he kicks off his tour at Irving Plaza tonight with his 14 piece band, in a concert that will emphasize music from his recent album "Day By Day." Then Femi will be back in town on June 25th to rock Prospect Park for Celebrate Brooklyn; in between he'll play headlining gigs across America, appearing as an opener for Dave Matthews Band, and making Bonnaroo decision-making even tougher with a set time that overlaps with Public Enemy, Phoenix, Phish, and Crystal Castles.
Right after you left Nigeria to begin your tour, the government closed down the New Afrika Shrine. What was the official reason given for that? The official reason was they were blaming us for the traders selling things outside in the streets. And saying there was noise pollution, and parking indiscriminately.
So, parking and noise pollution: I guess these are the urgent problems facing Nigeria today? First of all, there are about four other event centers on that street, and they're not going to close everybody down. We have about 20 security men who, when we are playing—which is after office hours—are controlling traffic. The other centers have no one controlling traffic. Now, the noise pollution they are talking about are the traders who bring their cassette players or CD players to play music in the streets, which has nothing to do with us. That area is an industrial area, so when we were buying the Shrine, it was one of the reasons it was good for us: because it was an industrial area. There's nobody that can complain about noise pollution. So the reasons, the excuses they have given have nothing to do with us at the Shrine. With the reasons they have given, they would have to close everybody down on that street, not just the Shrine.
So what do you think the real reasons are? We happen to be very political in our music there. They are just looking for an excuse.
And what is the situation now with the Shrine? Is it still closed? It was opened yesterday [Tuesday] about 2 o'clock in the afternoon.
So the closure was temporary? Well, they opened it yesterday.
And what was the reason giving for opening it? I mean, like I told you. They are—they went there yesterday and cleared all the traders off the streets. They don't even want the traders there. It's not our job, you see, as civilians, to do that. The federal government can do it; it's not my job. How can I? If they don't want the people there, then they should do it themselves.
It's just confusing because they close it and then they open it again and it all seems very arbitrary. Are they going to close it again? Do you have any sense on what the future holds for the place? That is especially why we want to call international attention to this, to let them know that it's not a place to close and open on a whim. It's a very important place and means a lot to many people. I have some big fans from all over the world, people who love my father, who listen to him, who are very angry around the world today.
And is it hard for you to focus on your tour now that this is happening; as soon as you leave, they do this? Well, we have always played on that pressure.
Your tour begins here [tonight] in New York. Do you notice any difference in the way New York audiences react to your music as opposed to audiences in Africa or other places? Not really. I mean New York, San Francisco, Washington, Milwaukee; these are favorite places of mine that I love.
Do you have any favorite places in New York or things you like to do when you're here? No, not really.
So you just come on tour and play the music and you don't really check out the cities you're playing in? No. [Laughs]
Is it because there's no time for that? No, it's because I want to spend more time practicing.
Ah, okay. And you're also playing the Bonnaroo festival this year. Have you played a rock festival like that before? No. But I have played with bands like String Cheese and Jane's Addiction.
You're also opening for the Dave Matthews Band. How did that come about? I think through my agent. I don't know if they got in touch with him and wanted me to support. But it's good because a new audience will be getting to hear my music for the first time, probably.
Are you familiar with the Dave Matthews Band's music? No.
How many band members do you have on this tour? Me, plus 14.
Do you have any thoughts on how the Internet has changed the way people experience music? Because on the one hand, music is available instantly now through the Internet, but it also takes money from some of the people who make it. Do you have any thoughts on that? Well, I've never made lots of money selling albums, so I wouldn't be one of those affected. And coming from Nigeria, we've always had a hard life, so if the life is too hard, I think we are kind of used to that already. If you are selling twenty million albums or you have to sell a trillion, you might have a problem.
It's been seven years since the release of your last album. Why were there so many years in between albums? Don't forget "Live at the Shrine" was there. So I was still writing music, I was still working, and still promoting the albums of my music and I was still playing at the Shrine. So maybe in seven years there will be another studio album here, but we are working in between, always doing other things.
You don't have any guest hip-hop stars on this one like on Fight To Win. Is there a reason for that? No, I wanted people to just see me for myself this time again. That was an opportunity that came and we embraced it, and then it was great for people like that and it was great for Africa as well, because it enabled many people to come to America and work with other producers and musicians. So it was a great opportunity, I think, to open that door.
Do you think the authorities in Nigeria have been as hard on you as they were on your father? I think it would be very difficult for the authorities to be as hard on me as they were on my father. I don't think the world would take it lightly. My father already made so many sacrifices for my generation, so we would probably have a better life.
He saw his music as a force for political change. What effect do you hope your music has on the world? The same kind of change. So we will give people the inspiration to change.
On your new album, there's a song about democracy making Africa crazy. Do you think democracy is just inappropriate for Nigeria right now? I think it's inappropriate for the world. Wherever there's democracy, it doesn't work. Every form of government that makes some people happy and other people unhappy is not a good form of government. Democracy was a system of government that was already practiced long before it was given the name democracy. In Africa we had our chiefs who represented different areas that were elected by their villages who would come to the king with problems. So we had a form of democracy. Democracy is a name for a system of government that Europe has over the years made sophisticated for the world today, but it was already practiced in Africa many, many ages ago and then it was given that name.
So what form of government do you think Nigeria needs right now? Africa needs a system of government where it will be a unanimous decision, not where the majority wins and we have to abide by that. The majority might be wrong, but one person might be right. So we have to find out the reasons why he wants to go left instead of right. So 99 out of a hundred have to convince him why they are right, while he has to convince us why he's right and why we have to listen.
What needs to happen for they're to be real change in Nigeria? For corruption to end. Total eradication of political corruption
Do you think it's more corrupt now than when your father was alive? Yes, because there are more people alive.