The work never ends for Femi Kuti
In the midst of an emotional discourse on the troubles plaguing his native Nigeria, a more pressing matter prompts Femi Kuti to ask for a minute.
“My daughter wants to watch cartoons,” he said with a laugh. “She’s very demanding.”
It’s a reminder that while Kuti is an international star and the son of afrobeat legend and activist Fela Kuti, to that little girl, he’s just dad. And to his countrymen and women, he’s one of them. So while many music stars would leave their home country after hitting the top, Kuti has never lost track of his roots.
“This was my upbringing,” he said. “I witnessed my father go through all this, and I know no other life. I did have a very good mother who was very down to Earth. So even with the popularity of my father, my mother was there to bring me back to the reality of life.”
That reality is what he writes and sings about, most recently on his 2013 album No Place for My Dream. It is often a picture that isn’t pretty, but the state of his nation is something he can’t turn his back on in pursuit of pretty love songs.
“After what my father did, it’s my duty to maintain that,” Kuti said. “There’s no love story of mine that can be more important than this. How can I be talking of love when right outside my door there is poverty? How can I talk about love when there’s no security? So when you’re talking about love without security, that’s complete foolishness.”
So Kuti keeps fighting the good fight, inspired by his father, as well as late Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It’s not an easy road to walk, but if change is to come, someone has to be brave and bold enough to walk it.
“The work of my father was to enlighten us that corruption was wrong,” he said. “And if you open the consciousness of a person, it’s one of the most important things one can do with their life. If there wasn’t Martin Luther King to let us understand that, Barack Obama wouldn’t be president today. He knew that even with the cost of his life, that one day the world would see the beauty of living together in harmony. It’s the same story — if you want your relationship to work, if one person just sat down and let the other partner do everything, it’s destined to crash. You have to get off your ass and make sure it works. You have to show commitment to your partner.”
Though still young at 54, Kuti says, “I don’t believe I will witness this beauty I talk about in my lifetime. But I do believe that if I continue what I’m doing, a lot of young people will be inspired.”
That inspiration starts close to home, at the grassroots level. Kuti doesn’t walk around with bodyguards, and he’s respected for that by his people. Perhaps more importantly, he makes an effort to ensure that they are respected as well.
“There is so much poverty, and someone that lives on less than three dollars will never have the opportunity to watch my band or go to a club like the (New Afrika) Shrine, sit down like somebody who should be very important in society, but the environment does not allow him or her to enjoy the riches the super rich enjoy,” he said. “So they can come to the Shrine, sit down, have a little bottle of beer and feel important and say I had a good time.”
At the New Afrika Shrine, Kuti and his band still play, and every Friday, it’s free for the locals. It allows him to be as normal as he can be, and the way he sees it, on nights like that, he’s just another working musician.
“I really like the simple ways,” he said. “I like to be very quiet, and I think there’s already too much noise in my life, so I love this opportunity to be who I really want to be. I didn’t go into music because of the fame. I went into music because I wanted to be a good musician. I love music. It’s your duty to make sure you touch people, and if I can do this, I think I would have a fulfilled life.”
Femi Kuti plays the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday, July 23. For more information, click here