Originally published in
Arise
,
July 2014
As the son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, it’s no surprise Femi Kuti also choose music as his tool for political dissent. And if his new album is anything to go by,he has no plans to give up fighting.
Two bamboo cages sway precariously from side to side. Inside each one, a brightly dressed woman vibrates her nyash (backside) in time to the music. The cages stand on stilts either side of the stage, where more dancers accompany The Positive Force as they play an undulating, hypnotic song – part jazz, part highlife, part soul, part sweat.
My father wanted me to be a street guy, a ruffian. He didn’t want his kids to go to school. I started smoking big joints – my eyes were red! He said ‘That’s my son.’
Andrew Esiebo

The club’s crumbling walls are covered in posters and paintings – of Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X – and slogans, too: United We Stand, Divided We Fall. On the floor in front of the stage, two men with no legs spin around on skateboards while another man puts his head against the speaker. Further back, couples sway and regulars congregate around plastic tables, sipping Star beer, pulling on cigarettes and tapping their feet. A cockroach runs over one of mine it’s the only living creature here in a hurry. And eventually, as midnight approaches, Femi Kuti walks up to the central microphone, swings his saxophone to his lips, and begins to play.

It’s Sunday night in Ikeja, Lagos, and we’re at The New Afrika Shrine. The original club was part of the Kalakuta Republic – the commune and recording studio established by Femi’s father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – and this latest incarnation remains the undisputed home of afrobeat, the infamous soundtrack to Nigerian dissidence and rebellion. It’s been in its current location for 10 years and is still causing the local authorities sleepless nights.

The government has tried to close the business so many times,” says Femi, shaking his head vehemently. “They’ve banned the Tokadas [motorbike drivers], street vendors and night travel. They are trying to stress us. It’s too sad, really too sad.

And yet people come in their droves every day of the week. I return on Thursday, just before Femi’s due to perform to a capacity crowd, to find him in a characteristically fiery mood. “The government has always made my family their problem. Every time my father said something, they’d be charging, arresting, jailing. But that just made him more popular. I can understand why we are a pain. If you are corrupt, you won’t like The Shrine.

Femi continues his polemic on his latest album, Africa For Africa. Song titles such as Politics In Africa, Bad Government, Can’t Buy Me and Obasanjo Don Play You Wayo speak for themselves and add up to one of his most outspoken releases to date. “It’s very political. The longest track is six minutes – it’s not commercial but it is very powerful. A lot of horns, rhythms, melodies,” he explains. “Africans need to love and care for ourselves. We can’t keep waiting for the West to tell us what we’re doing in Somalia, Niger, Rwanda. Our countries have been structured by colonialism and the slave trade – we need to use this history as part of our development. Let’s stop talking about ourselves as Ghanaians, Nigerians and speak as one voice. So Africa For Africa is one strong, uncompromising message.”

Family values

With the Nigerian elections looming, Femi is unimpressed with the country’s leadership, past and present. And unlike Fela (the ‘Black President’ twice stood for election), he is repulsed by the idea of going into politics. “Why would an honest person want to run for presidency in Nigeria? Ha! That would be a battle. We’ve been in this new democratic period for 12 years yet still have no electricity. We have no pavements, and they say we are a proud nation? Everybody is corrupt.

Yeni Kuti, who runs The Shrine, pops her head around the door to talk with her brother about tonight’s gig. Femi’s eldest son Made, a shy teenager, is in tow. Femi taught him to play the trumpet aged three, followed by saxophone, guitar and piano; now university beckons. Made’s upbringing has been a far cry from his father’s. Fela’s eldest son with first wife Remi, Femi was born in 1962 in London and grew up in Lagos.

Fela was many things – pioneer, activist, rebel, showman, megalomaniac, outlaw, 109chauvinist, polygamist, legend – all of which pushed parent further down the list. Fela’s background was relatively privileged but he preferred to keep his son more familiar with the gutter than the limelight.

My father wanted me to be a street guy, a ruffian. He didn’t want his kids to go to school. I started smoking big joints – my eyes were red! And he said, ‘That’s my son.’ And I was driving around in my father’s car aged 12. Vrrroom!” he laughs. “The only subjects I passed at school were English and Art. Everybody thought I’d die before I was 16. I had no control over my situation. Then one day, I said, ‘I can’t play music. Why don’t you teach me?’ He refused. So I picked up a trumpet and taught myself. Everybody laughed but I had to learn the hard way.”

 

He began by playing in Fela’s Egypt 80 (now fronted by Femi’s younger brother Seun) but when in 1986 he formed his own band, The Positive Force, father and son fell out. “We didn’t talk for years. Big fight. In Nigeria you don’t defy your parents like that.” Then Fela heard his first album, 1989’s No Cause For Alarm, invited him back to The Shrine and finally offered some fatherly advice. He told Femi to listen to jazz greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker – in doing so, Femi developed his own take on afrobeat, which was still as politically incendiary and musically complex but delivered in shorter, sharper shocks.

Femi reached international audiences in 1995 with his eponymous album on Motown offshoot Tabu. Fela died from an Aids-related illness in 1997, and Femi seized his mantle as oral agitator with his next album, Shoki Shoki. He toured globally and collaborated with Mos Def and Common on 2001’s Fight To Win. He then returned to Nigeria, performing almost exclusively at The Shrine for several years, until his last album, Day By Day, enticed him back on the road in 2008.

A life in music

The Shrine is the setting for FELA! the musical. Its off-Broadway debut was a runaway success in 2008, and it has since progressed to Broadway and London’s West End. It boasts Jay-Z and Will Smith among its executive producers and on the night I first saw it on Broadway, Madonna and her entourage took up almost an entire row in the stalls. Sahr Ngaujah stars, alongside a dizzying cast, deftly portraying Fela and his incandescent rage at Nigeria’s military dictatorships, as well as the carnal energy of The Shrine, and the revolutionary power of afrobeat.

The show won three Tony Awards and received rave reviews. But at first Femi would not endorse the production, telling the UK’s Independent newspaper last March, “I refuse to go until [the musical] comes back to Lagos. It has to come home if it’s going to be any part of the struggle for African emancipation.”

Then, when Femi was on tour in New York, the show’s originator-producer Stephen Hendel pleaded with him to see the show.Femi relented, on the proviso that it does, eventually, come back home. “It was good that

I went because the cast wanted to see my reaction. They thought I wasn’t for it but I just wanted it to be here. It felt like America was taking Fela’s story away from us. I knew it would be a good show but bring it to Lagos and it will impress me more. It will impress the world more.”

His hesitation to see the show also came from a reluctance to relive traumatic childhood memories, most notably the 1977 attack on the Kalakuta compound. A thousand soldiers burnt buildings, cracked Fela’s skull, beat and raped a number of women and threw his 82-year-old mother, early women’s rights activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, from an upstairs window. She later died from her injuries. “It took me down memory lane where I didn’t want to go,” Femi says. “It made me cry. It was emotional and painful. I was grieving for two hours – it was too much for me,” he sighs. “But I would recommend anyone to go see the play. You will be intrigued and want to know more about the history of Nigeria and the revolution in Fela’s music.

A few weeks after meeting Femi, I saw him braving the play for a second time, at the National Theatre in London. This time, Yeni was by his side, and after the cast had taken their bows, Ngaujah and the show’s director-choreographer, Bill T Jones, led the audience in a standing ovation for the Kutis.

Tonight though, it’s time for Femi to take to the stage at the real Shrine, where he truly belongs. Just as in his father’s day, the problems facing his beloved Africa are writ large; so he continues to fight the good fight. “This is the best place in the world for me,” he says, getting up. “We’ll be a full house for this century.

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