Femi Kuti Talks About Positive Energy, Sharing Through Music, and Addressing Political Issues

Posted on Friday July 15th in

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, the oldest son of Afrobeat pioneer and human rights activist Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti 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 return to Brooklyn Bowl on July 27th, and he talked to Knockdown Alley about not standing in his father’s shadow, being vocal with his music, and positive energy.

Music is in your blood, and you grew up playing in your dad’s band. But was there ever any chance you weren’t going to be a professional musician? Or did you always know that this was the life for you? I kind of knew. Was just a question of when really and how to overcome pressure from fans of my father who kept on asking, “Aren’t you going to play music?”

Pretty much anyone who makes Afrobeat music is standing in Fela’s considerable shadow. And since he’s your father, perhaps that’s even more the case for you. So how do you honor his legacy while continuing to make something new? That’s simple, by being myself. I see no shadow as I totally love and respect my father. People will always compare, knowing the world we live in, but that doesn’t bother me.

As someone who’s politically active, are you curious about what’s going on with the American presidential race? Or, like many of us, are you just waiting for it to be over? I follow what’s going on. It’s all over the news — one can’t avoid listening, observing.

Despite the fact that musicians have more access to fans than ever — or perhaps because of it — it seems like they’re far less politically active than in the past. I asked you about this last year, and you said, “Sometimes you must have no opinion.” But it didn’t seem like you were talking about yourself. Was making no waves ever an option for you? Or have being a global musician and a political activist always gone hand in hand? I am very vocal with my music and at the Shrine where I perform two times a week. I make one or two comments sometimes on my Twitter page, but as you must know, politicians pay people to support them and it gets out of hand and abusive. I see no point in arguing all day pointlessly. I stand firm against corruption, injustice. I don’t have the time to waste arguing on social media. I still make sure I do a minimum of six hours of practice every day.

You’re touring across North America in July. Do you notice if your music is received any differently in this country than it is elsewhere? Never really thought of that. I just always try to present the best of my music to make sure I give the audience a great time. And hopefully they will see the beauty of Africa and the world through music.

How is playing Afrobeat music different in Lagos vs. London vs. New York City? Or is the music always the same and it’s just a matter of how it’s perceived? Lagos is home. The Shrine is like the factory where I produce my music. People get to see me compose new tunes live. They get to see my music grow ’til it’s fully ready to flourish. They see every step. London, New York see the final process. As much as we try to have fun, we try to be very professional as we are bringing our music to the rest of the world. In Lagos there’s probably more room to relax, but most importantly, address political issues we face daily. Lots of people come to hear my weekly comments. I sometimes try to crack a few jokes while the band takes a break for 20 to 30 minutes. At the Shrine in Lagos, we perform for a minimum of three to four hours nonstop. We don’t do that anywhere else.

What are some of your highlights about playing Brooklyn Bowl in the past? And what are you most looking forward to about returning to Brooklyn? The audience is supergreat.

What can we expect at your show here in July? Will you be playing from your last couple of albums, or covering a cross section of your whole career? A great gig hopefully, as it’s our objective. Yes, I will touch on a few old songs — yes, a bit of my career and, of course, songs from my next album coming out before the end of the year.

And how would you best describe a Femi Kuti show to someone who’s never seen you before? Full of positive energy, great beat and rhythm, and powerful horn melodies.


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