Femi Kuti is the eldest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and took up the reins after his death. He continues his family's socially conscious message on his new collection of songs, One People One World, and brings in his band The Positive Force for a live set.
Images of Femi Kuti by Steven Dewall
Jason Bentley: Yes, Femi Kuti and The Positive Force, live on KCRW this morning. Hello, good morning, how are you?
Femi Kuti: I’m alright, thank you.
J: Yeah? Feeling good?
F: Yes, like you. [Both laugh] Making everything open, my body and the band.
J: Aw, it sounds great.
F: Thank you.
J: So, you’ve all just come from San Francisco, down the west coast, overnight.
J: How has the tour been going for you?
F: Fantastic, fantastic. Keeping it together, bringing lots of love.
J: As you do. You always have had a very socially-conscious message, a message of unity, a message of positivity. Has it become more difficult to be positive in the social and political climate today?
F: I wouldn’t say so. I don’t think it was different from Malcolm X’s time or Martin Luther King or [UNCLEAR] my father. Just different times. So I’m thinking we have to-- I think-- I think it’s even better this time, because more people speak out. They don’t have to be musicians. Talk to-- Everybody speaks out. Social media, I mean it’s erupting with everybody commenting. In those days, it was even-- Whatever people felt, they couldn’t express it in public. So it was left in the household or in your mind. Now people, when they have anything against anything, they just speak out, and then it follows and it erupts.
J: What keeps you positive? What keeps you hopeful? You know, maybe it’s this group, since they’re called The Positive Force. [Laughs] But what is a positive force in your life, day-to-day?
F: My band, my family, my children, hope. Many things. The music. I think I have to-- I have to always be-- I think these days I have to be optimistic for the future of the world, my continent, my people. If I was pessimistic, then what’s the point? What’s the point in-- Why did I have a family? So I tell my children, “Look, kill yourselves, or what?” So we have to find it when there is, when it seems so bleak, it looks like there’s nothing to believe in, kind of, I think we have to find that space. I think our duty is to find that space. And that will-- The space will come. And I do see positivity coming, in the future. Probably not in my lifetime, but then, do I surrender now? I have to keep on striving. I think that’s what makes us-- that’s life. Life is about that. Obstacles must come, problems must come in your life. And probably life will not be interesting if we didn’t have challenges. And it makes your spirit stronger. You have a challenge, and then you overcome it. And you-- Another will definitely come in your lifetime. You have to be strong and overcome it, too.
J: Well, this music has been your life’s work. You are how old now? You are 56?
F: 56, June 16th, Saturday 1 P.M. [Both laugh]
J: Now, you started playing with your father, Fela at 15 years old?
F: 15, 16, 16 going 17, something like that, yeah.
J: Obviously, so much has been made of the relationship with your father, and upholding the legacy of Fela. But you are also a father; you mention your children.
J: And your son plays with you now, although he’s not here in studio today.
F: Yeah, he plays with me sometimes, he plays with us sometimes. He played bass on the album, because we lost our bassist just before the recording. And, apparently, he was learning bass in college. I didn’t know about that. He said, “Daddy, I can take over!” I said, “What.” And then he comes and he just goes, “[fast bass noises].” I said, “Fantastic! Wow!” And then he join the band and he’s always been part of us. I mean, he would have come on this tour, but he just finished his exams, and he thought it wise for him to bond with his brothers and sisters at home. And I thought that was a good idea, because one day, I will not be around, and they have to keep the family together. So they better start getting used to each other. So I wanted them, I saw-- (said?) “Start looking in the future. Daddy won’t be around one day, and you are going to have to battle this life on your own. So start getting acquainted with each other.”
J: What do you tell him about the responsibilities of representing your family’s music, or the pressure of it? Having gone through it yourself, you know, standing up and being, you know, a positive force. But in light of your father’s legacy, have you ever spoken to him about, maybe, you know, “You don’t have to do music”? I mean, do you give him that--
F: Of course I do.
J: --that room to say, “You can do anything you want to do.”?
F: Yes, I-- He chose this long-- at 3. He picked up the trumpet on the tour bus one day. I said, “Play.” My sister says, “Look, get him a teacher.” We got him a teacher. At 5, he started playing the trumpet. And we gave him a piano teacher. Then I started to teach him the sax at 9. He joined my band at 9. He wanted to continue. I said, “Look, education is very important.” So I took him out of the band, made sure he finished his school, sent him to England. Went to college, he started to pick up the bass, to learn classical piano. He’s a great classical piano player. He started to go into composition. He finished his exams now. He’s got two upper-class. Fantastic. I mean, in the same college his grandfather went to. So he’s very enthusiastic about doing this. The rest of my children do play musical instruments, but I tell them, I let them know they don’t have to. One likes soccer a lot, so-- But I think every human being wants to play a musical instrument. And I think for your pastime, or whatever you decide to do, be you a doctor you always go back to the piano. Maybe you’re stressed off. Music lets you get that frustration out of your system. So I think it’s very important, as a father, to not let them have that regret that “Oh, Daddy did not teach me this musical instrument.” So I make sure they learn it then. Their future - they have to decide what they want to be.
J: It’s happening naturally.
J: Have you ever imagined a different life for yourself? A different career, a different, you know, thinking back. Or has it always been music was they way?
F: It was always music, from when I remember. I saw pictures of myself about, maybe, 2, 3, drumming with my father. He had this double bass then. I can’t find these pictures he gave. I’m sure they’re somewhere. And every-- from when I think I can remember, I always wanted to be like him, play music. And then-- But I never had the opportunity like he had or I give my children. So I was just put into the wilderness to find my way. And this was very chaotic for me, ‘cause I can’t read. I mean, I can read, but I’m like a snail. It takes me-- probably take me five days to read a simple piece that would take a professional one second. Like, “(slowly) One...okay, that’s a quaver...Qua-ver! And that’s a semi-quaver…” I go like that. So I do know the music notes, but I wasn’t groomed. And so I’m like a street kid. And these melodies come, and I’m able to put them together. I think this is probably a gift, definitely, ‘cause I don’t know where it comes from. And then I have a great band. I always have some great people around me, who have stood behind me - my family, my elder sister, my mother - who always supported me, all my life. So I was able to weather this storm. But I think it was a very risky thing my father did with me. So I think, with my son and my children, I think I have to-- I understand I have to give them that foundation of a very great education. But then, luckily I have that street orientation in my life, so I’ll always let them understand what I went through, how I managed to overcome whatever I managed to overcome. This, I always tell them, everytime. I can use this not just for music, but in their education, in school, I say, “Ay, be cool with this person, because, you see, life is like this.” So I have quite a good understanding on how to deal with many issues in life.
J: Well, I would say you’ve done very well. Femi Kuti and The Positive Force, in studio. The last question I have for you is--
F: Last question! [both laugh]
J: --before you play a second set is: I’m just curious about your life home, in Africa, and what it’s like. Is it-- Is it a large, large family? Are people always around? I mean, what’s the lifestyle like?
F: Yes, it’s very difficult. It’s not-- I mean, I have a large family, but, again, I manage to understand. I used to live in the shrine, and everybody was just around me, 24 hours. This was like madness. And then--
J: This is the legendary shrine, the venue that your father performed in?
F: No. This is the one my elder sister, my mother built in his honor when he passed.
J: Ah, I see.
F: So, that one was taken away from us. So when we made all this money from his back catalog, our side of the money we decided to invest in the shrine. So this is how we managed. And this shrine is about five times, six times bigger than the old shrine. This shrine takes four-to- five thousand people, easily. And the other one took about 500 people. So it’s much bigger, larger, and we own it for the first time. So it was crazy there. Everybody finds friends, 24 hours. So now, I’ve been able-- then I start to have my kids, and I thought it was very important to have a stable family. So I moved back into my house, and in my house I have nobody around me except my children. And on this program I think it’s very important as well, because we have to talk about the issues in Africa - the Congo and, right now, Cameroon, the killings going on in Cameroon, which is what this music is about. Talking about these issues that people are too afraid to talk about. And yes, on Sunday, in the shrine-- on Friday night-- celebrating my father-- yesterday night. It was yesterday night. I got a text that the police came there and just said to shoot. And I think they’re doing this because I’m not around. And I got a message that they just said to shoot without reason. And so, how f-- Thank God my sister is there. So she’s taking it up with the authorities, because, I don’t know, they have started the trouble they used to do 8 years ago. And I don’t know if they’re doing this because I’m not around, or they’re just taking advantage of the large crowd coming. Because the shrine-- I mean, every Friday, you have a minimum of 2,000 come in there, just to have a good time. So it’s a crazy place right now. And we have the biggest festival in Africa, which is the Felabration, which my elder sister formed in honor of my father. So we have so many things going on there. And so my life is kind of chaotic, going on tour, keeping the band. We all have our individual responsibilities, and we have to keep together as a family, blah blah blah. [both chuckle]
J: Well, we appreciate you, and we wish you and your family well.
F: Thank you.
J: It’s a Femi-bration today, this morning in the studio, with The Positive Force. And, again, this show is tonight at the El Rey. We’re gonna have tickets to give away in a few minutes, following the second set. Live on KCRW: Femi Kuti and The Positive Force.