Continuing the Afrobeat Tradition

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Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force perform during the 17th Annual East Coast International Blues and Roots Music Festival. James Green/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption James Green/Getty Images

As son of Nigeria's legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, Femi Kuti has some big shoes to fill. But Femi he has risen to his own star status, partly by mixing Afrobeat with modern soul and hip-hop. Kuti talks about his success, his father's legacy, and his enduring love for Africa.


Nigerian, Femi Kuti, can be considered the prince of Afrobeat. The son of legendary Fela Kuti, Femi joined his dad's band when he was just a boy. But since Fela's death a decade ago, Femi has carved out his own sound. He's done it in part by collaborating with modern soul and rap acts like Mos Def and Macy Gray. The result? Well, this definitely ain't his father's Afrofunk.

(Soundbite of "Do Your Best")

Mr. FEMI KUTI (Musician): (Singing) I hear you. She says she couldn't understand what are you then suffering for? She say, I hear you. No be today why politicians dey lie.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) That means today(ph).

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) The reason we say we don't care if we die.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) That means today(ph).

CHIDEYA: Femi Kuti has been a bandleader in his own right for more than 20 years. He's an Afrobeat rock star, who plays to sold-out crowds around the world. When I spoke with him recently, Femi Kuti was in the middle of a major North American tour. It's still going on. It's hard out here for a touring musician. And here's what he had to say about the grind.

Mr. KUTI: Well, it's tedious. But I'm loving it. I'm loving it as I get older. And I couldn't see myself doing anything else, and I've had to make a lot of sacrifices like not going out anymore, just being there for the music, you know, music, music, music, music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KUTI: It's a - it's kind of a boring life, really, for an outsider, but I found it's from - it comes from within.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) I look my front. I see my people, they cry.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) I look my back. I see them, they cry.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about the first time that you ever played with your father, Fela Kuti.

Mr. KUTI: I was very scared. The first time I performed was in the University of Ife in Nigeria, hundreds of students in front of me, I was shaking like a leaf. Oh, I will never forget.

CHIDEYA: How old were you at the time?

Mr. KUTI: I was about 16 - 16, 17, and we had just done a recording with Royes(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KUTI: And I was shaking, man. I was really - I was like, oh, man. And everybody was cheering me on. Yeah, Femi, Femi, Femi. When the girls started shouting my name, I was, oh, it was like, ah, I'm dead.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I can only imagine what it was like to have a father who was also a legend and who still remains a legend, although he's passed on. What were the good and bad things about working with your father and with the way that other people treated him?

Mr. KUTI: Well, I mean, growing up was quite - was difficult because he was fighting the establishments. So he wasn't a conventional kind of father who will take you to the park or cinema, and all those things, you want to play football with growing up. But today, understanding his fights and the fight for the African people, and you can easily forgive and move ahead quickly with your life and try and rectify those problems with your son or your children, and teach your children not to think - because my son thinks I'm such a perfect father. And I will say, no, you must - it's my own fault. No, daddy, I do, you know? So, I try to let him understand that I'm human, and I want him to find the faults. So when he has his own children, he'll be able to do the things that he wished his father did for him.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: 1997 was a year when your life changed, when…

Mr. KUTI: Completely, yes.

CHIDEYA: People who admired your father had to watch him pass away. And then, learned that he died of AIDS.

Mr. KUTI: Yeah. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: How did that year change your life, and how do you think it changed the lives of people who'd been following your father?

Mr. KUTI: Well, it was like taking on bigger role that I knew might come one day when I was younger many, many years ago. And then to realize that, oh, that time has come.

(Soundbite of song "Fight To Win")

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) The time don come for me to talk.

Then to really understand the political aspect of it, all those fans now depending, not depending, but looking - now, what's Femi going to - what's his next move? They're making the moves not realizing the strength of the government I was dealing with, and not knowing the secret service in my midst, and then losing my sister, and knowing how the quack doctors in Nigeria - I mean, so maybe people lose their lives because of the system we have. People don't care.

(Soundbite of song "Fight To Win")

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) We just toss(ph) them their life. They want to get money to survive.

So knowing all this and understanding - that why I said, understanding what my father stood for as a man when we were children, now realizing that, at 45, whoa, I could not even imagine what was going on in his mind, knowing he had so many people against him because he was fighting for the truth. I now realizing I'm in that kind of position myself.

(Soundbite of song "Fight To Win")

CHIDEYA: What did you learn from your father about Nigeria, and what do you want Nigeria to become in the future?

Mr. KUTI: I don't want just Nigeria, I want Africa. I want Africa to be like America, the United States of Africa, where its countries are responsible for its resources, taking care of any other country that hasn't got the resources to look after its people, free education, free health care system. We have the resources to give our people the best in the world. We have the brains worldwide. African government should be able to bring other black people and other people, who want to help us develop as a nation and as a people.

(Soundbite of song "Wonder Wonder")

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) What make you stop to think, what make you wonder? Will Africa ever unite? Wonder.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder.

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) Wonder.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Wonder, wonder, wonder, wonder.

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) Wonder.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Do you want to wonder why?

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) Will Africa ever unite?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Wonder.

CHIDEYA: Now, I have a question for you. And you can also…

Mr. KUTI: What will I do if you do insist?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: I know. This is a different kind of question. I see that you have -now first of all, you're color coordinated with your horn case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUTI: No. That just happened.

CHIDEYA: What is that? That just happened. Okay. I didn't know if that was just like a regular thing.

Mr. KUTI: No.

CHIDEYA: But since you've got your horn so close to you, is there any chance we could…

Mr. KUTI. No, definitely not. Not (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: You're not going to…

Mr. KUTI: No.

CHIDEYA: You just want to make sure no one takes it?

Mr. KUTI: No, it's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUTI: I'm trying to - because I picked up the trumpet five years ago now. And when I picked it up, it was like I never played. Now, I'm beginning to play, so I don't want to let it out of my sight so it like a kind of always reminding myself, that's your responsibility. You've got to play this horn. It's my - it was always my favorite instrument.

But my father moved from the trumpet to the sax, and being a kid at that time, you always want to do what your father is doing. So he moved from the trumpet to the sax, I moved from the trumpet to the sax. And I forgot all about the trumpet, but it was always my desire to always go back. So I found - I mean, when everything felt like the world was collapsing under me, and I went and said, okay, let me use this time to start to pick up the trumpet. So I went back to the trumpet now.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Before I let you go, imagine that it's the year 3000 and…

Mr. KUTI: That's, you know, that's 2000, 200 years, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: And a long succession of Kutis have processed(ph) into the world, do you think that your ancestors will still be playing - or your progenitors will still be playing music?

Mr. KUTI: Yes, definitely. I think it will always be in the forefront of entertainment and all that. I think it will be very different. Like I don't think my son will have to walk as hard as I had to walk, like I cannot be victimized like my father was. So my father made some sacrifice for me to enjoy today. I'll make some for my son. I think it will just get better for the family if we keep this positive path open for ourselves, yes?

CHIDEYA: Well, Femi, thank you so much.

Mr. KUTI: Farari(ph).

(Sounbite of laughter)


Mr. KUTI: Farai. You say that.

CHIDEYA: I know you were going to get me with that. People always joke about that. But for you, it's okay.

Mr. KUTI: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. KUTI: Yeah. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Nigerian Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti. He spoke at our NPR West studios.

To hear more of Femi Kuti's story and his music, go to our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. And thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site, No spaces, just To join the conversation, visit our blog at NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio consortium. Tomorrow, the "Simpsons" leaves Springfield for Kenya?

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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