Afrobeat’s Femi Kuti talks about his vision and music

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20 — Charismatic singer-saxophonist Femi Kuti, a powerhouse of African music, is up for a Grammy under the World Music category this year.

The eldest son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, Femi continues to pay great respect to his father’s political-funk-for-the-people legacy, with his own dynamic band, The Positive Force.

In fact, his dad is the subject of a 2014 Sundance Film Festival documentary called Finding Fela, which opened last weekend. The Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, often tagged as the “Africa 70’s” firebrand leader, died in 1997. With African 70’s politically charged albums, Fela became a huge countercultural icon. With his music came messages about democracy over dictatorship, and it was like a voice was given to millions in Nigeria who were powerless in politics. He often ended in prison for his protest lyrics, states wikipedia.

The 51-year-old Femi continues the politically charged music which he has given his own dance-stomping rhythms and sax-driven jazz-funk sound as heard of the Grammy nominated No Place For My Dream. The music is edgy with biting lyrics, but his shows are visually arresting for the fantastic dancers he gathers up to perform.


One of 10 children, Femi took up the saxophone when aged 16 and soaked in his father’s “Afrobeat” fusion of American funk with yoruba rhythms, as he played with the band.

“I just knew I wanted to be a musician from as far back as I can remember. Maybe watching my father perform on stage contributed most to me as a child,” says Femi in an email interview.

“I saw him many times stand in front of the soldiers and say ‘shoot me, kill me’ and we all feared for his life many times, and I thought ‘wow, will I ever be this brave in my life?’ So I admired him,” Femi says in a CNN interview.

He started his own band, The Positive Force, in 1985, but he says watching his father stand up for himself gave him the strength to never compromise.

“From my father, I learn courage,” he says in the email.

“From Nelson Mandela, patience. I’ve learnt from many others to like Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah. What I have learnt is reflected in my music and songs and daily life.”

For Femi, a political message in his music is more important than singing about love.

“I couldn’t see myself possibly doing anything else — when I see poverty so blatant in front of me I don’t see myself, I don’t see the love story that could overwhelm my mind than singing about deprived people or children for instance,” he tells CNN.

“I see that in a country so rich as Nigeria people can’t afford a good education, we still have no electricity, the politicians keep giving us all their excuses,” he added. “We’re still fighting the same story that my father fought when I was 15.”

“I want them to think about what I’m saying — the importance of Africa, the future of Africa,” he said.

For Femi, his music is about “the sincerity and truthfulness in fighting for a better life for all,” he says in the email.

“I don’t want to be a politician. Music is the best way to express my displeasure or happiness.”

That said, Femi’s music runs from social themes like Blackman Know Yourself, to pure rhythms, making it accessible on all levels. It’s been remixed by DJs like Beng Beng Beng and sampled by hip-hop artistes like Lauryn Hill.

As to whom he would like to collaborate on an album, after 30 years in the industry and over 10 albums, Femi says: “To this I just keep an open mind. It is most important is for me to be able to continue to produce great albums on my own not just because I worked with anyone but to be able to create great music.

“If any opportunity to work with anyone comes, no problem.”

No Place For My Dream is Femi’s fourth Grammy nomination in the World Music category. The other nominees this year are Gipsy Kings with Savor Flamenco, Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Live: Singing For Peace Around The World, and Ravi Shankar’s The Living Room Sessions Part 2.

“I am very happy and pleased with my fourth nomination I feel like my work is being appreciated by the most powerful music body in the world. It’s a great feeling.”

** This article appeared in the Malay Mail and


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