Afrobeat star Femi Kuti: ‘Will keep singing for change’

Reminiscent: Femi Kuti

Songs of change will remain unchanged: Femi Kuti

Afrobeat star Femi Kuti is a constant thorn in the side of Nigeria’s authorities. He uses his songs to criticize corruption and speak for the poor. In 2007, Kuti opened the New Afrika Shrine in honour of his legendary father, musician Fela Kuti, who died of an AIDS-related illness 10 years earlier.

It replaces the burnt-down original shrine where Fela Kuti invented Afrobeat – a blend of African rhythms, jazz and funk – that shaped African music on the world stage.

At the anti-establishment nightclub in the country’s commercial capital Lagos, smoking marijuana is encouraged and the audience gets a political education. Kuti spoke to dpa at his Lagos home about his political activism and keeping alive his father’s legacy through the Shrine while working on his next album.

dpa: Why is the New Afrika Shrine perceived as such a threat by the government?

Kuti: We had a lot of police raids and closures, mainly because of the political statements coming out of the Shrine.

During performances, we speak openly about the corruption in Nigeria, in a venue that holds 5,000 people at a time. That’s why the government sees us as a threat. They always wanted to kill my father’s name because the youth look up to him and to us, his family. Also, smoking [marijuana] has always been synonymous with my father. Lately, the situation has improved somewhat.

The Lagos state government has accepted the Shrine as a tourist attraction, after 10 years of us fighting for this dream.

dpa: Why the turnaround?

Kuti: It might be a new generation of politicians who understand my father’s cultural and tourism value. Or it might be the international pressure of Afrobeat musicians. When greats like Will Smith, Beyonce or Jay Z say Fela Kuti inspired them, our government cannot completely ignore that. The administration recently even built a Fela Kuti museum in Lagos.

dpa: The New Afrika Shrine is open 24/7. What happens inside around the clock?

Kuti: It’s a place of complete freedom, a refuge for people. Even if you have no money, you can come to hang out. We let homeless people in to wash and use the toilets. I play for free every Thursday, the disco is for free and the gate fee [for guest musicians’ performances] is only 500 naira (3 dollars).

I try out all my new songs in the Shrine, so the poor get to hear them first, for free. In that sense, I am very much my father’s son. I will always be part of his dream [to create a more equal society]. It’s the world that is going crazy, not us.

dpa: There is a shrine to honour your father inside the venue. Do you ever pray at it?

Kuti: Before I embark on anything, I say a little prayer to his spirit to protect me and my family. I strongly believe in life after death. I can feel his spirit. But the nightclub is a place of worship to all African people who contributed to the continent. It centres around my father, but is also a place for [Congolese independence leader Patrice] Lumumba, [Burkinabe pan-Africanist Thomas] Sankara and so on.

It’s very symbolic.

dpa: Like your father’s songs, your lyrics are political. Do you believe music has the power to change society?

Kuti: Look around you. There is corruption in government. The roads are bad. There is no electricity. I’ve said it all a million times, but nothing is changing. What more can I say in my songs? I’m not naive. I don’t think I will witness any great change in my lifetime.

But I hope there will be progressive change. And I will keep singing about it until there is.

dpa: You’re currently working on a new album. What can we expect?

Kuti: My next album, which I am planning to release within the next six months, is probably going to be more about international politics.

It will be about the recent crises in the Philippines, Syria, Haiti and some other forgotten issues. Maybe after that, I might become more of a dreamer.

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