Interview: Femi Kuti Talks to Knockdown Alley

Posted on Tuesday June 9th in

Femi Kuti has music in his blood. Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, the oldest son of Afrobeat pioneer and human rights activist Fela Kuti, he joined his father’s band, Egypt 80, as a saxophonist at just 15. Seeking to make his own sonic legacy, Femi began fronting his own group, the Positive Force, in 1986. In time they became known for expertly layering politicized lryics over African folk, jazz, and funk with Latin and Caribbean sounds. In other words: Yes, the message is important, but not at the expense of having a good time. Femi Kuti and the Positive Force kicked off a new tour last week, which brings them to Brooklyn tomorrow night (with Underground System and DJ Greg Caz) and Thursday night (alongside EMEFE and DJ Greg Caz). And ahead of his arrival, Femi checked in with us from the road.

Your most recent album, No Place for a Dream, came out in 2013. Are you working on anything new these days? And do you ever try to figure out new songs by playing them live before recording them? Yes, I’m working seriously on my next album with my producer, Sodi. I hope we’ll get it done soon. My band and I always perform at the Shrine, my club in Nigeria, which used to be my father’s. It’s a good way for us to perform the new songs live and see how the audiences react. It’s also a way to make sure that when the tour comes we are ready. It’s like a kind of huge rehearsal. Most likely we will perform two or three on this tour.

You’re known for a strong commitment to social and political causes, but as someone who brings his music across the world, do you ever find yourself immersed in what’s going on in the countries you visit? Did you hear much about what went on here, in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.? And was it surprising? I’m not really surprised as racism is still very strong everywhere. Obviously you can’t be hermetic to what’s going on in a place you visit, but I don’t get the information in the city, most likely before we get in town, while we are planning the tour. Yes I did follow the sad events in Baltimore and in Ferguson. I do understand the fight for justice is a lifetime commitment for all concerned.

With social media so big today, it seems it would be easier than ever for artists to be politically active, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Do you think there are specific reasons for that? And is it any different in Nigeria or across Africa than it is in the United States or Europe with regards to musicians being socially active? Most artists might be scared to be too openly speaking and involved politically because of the norms in the industry. It is always more convenient and safer to sing about love and a happy life, after all what do all artists want? Being air-played and radio-listened, sell records and live from your art. Sometimes you must have no opinion. In French they say you make no waves.

And how does performing in New York City—or specifically Brooklyn— compare to playing in other parts of the U.S. or the rest of world? New York is like Paris and other big cities for me and they groove pretty much the same. I love big cities. People are more open. Small cities are also charming, in small venues people often try to come speak with me after the show, in big ones it happens less, also because of the security I guess.

What music or song always makes you dance? My father’s oldies mainly, but some classical jazz theme can get me singing. I leave the dance part for my dancers. They are really good. —R. Zizmor | @Hand_Dog

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