Femi Kuti: 'Live At The Shrine'

Producer Derek Rath talks with Afrobeat musician Femi Kuti about his new album and DVD, Live at the Shrine. The son of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti talks about the Los Angeles concert, politics and the power of music to unite a crowd and a continent.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FEMI KUTI: (Singing) Ah, ah, ah...

BRAND: Femi Kuti is a Nigerian Afrobeat musician who blends his native highlife with American jazz and funk. It's a style originated by his father, Fela Kuti. Femi inherited his father's controversial and visionary attitude about telling political stories with his music. Femi Kuti sings about Africans suffering from poverty, government corruption and international neglect. His new CD is "Live at the Shrine." Producer Derek Rath has more.

(Soundbite of music)

DEREK RATH reporting:

Like his father, Femi Kuti pulls no punches in his songs, the lyrics of which are an angry indictment of the injustices he sees suffered by the poor and disenfranchised at home and the apathy towards them abroad.

Mr. KUTI: Say you ask me, is the government of Nigeria good? I'll answer you straightforward: no. You tell me, do I like the American government? I'll be straightforward with you: no, because they have the power to solve the problem of the world today and they are not doing it. It causes problem for every other individual, even the artist, because then we cannot even go on to play good music. Life is killed. The joy of life is killed.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) ...of the truth of the matter is that ...(unintelligible) another way to continue their crooked ways. Oh, yeah, ...(unintelligible).

RATH: Femi's new album is a twin CD/DVD release titled "Live at the Shrine." The Shrine refers to the nightclub built in the then capital city of Lagos by his father, Fela Kuti.

Mr. KUTI: It was the name my father gave his club where he worshipped his ancestors, our ancestors.

RATH: The Shrine had become a target during the '70s and '80s, when authorities sought to punish Fela Kuti for his vocal attack on the corrupt politics of Nigeria.

Mr. KUTI: He never owned the land, so he always got kicked out of one club or the other, but still he named it the Shrine. The last place was where he believed he even bought the land, and then the argument started that it was just a rentage, and so he was in court for about 10 years. When he died, the landowners went back to court and lost the case.

RATH: Fela Kuti's political struggle cost him much more than the Shrine. In the mid-'70s, government vigilantes burnt down Fela's family compound, resulting in his mother's death. All this left a mark on the teen-age Femi Kuti, and he vowed to rebuild the Shrine as a permanent center for community activity and activism in Lagos. No longer just a nightclub, the Shrine has been reborn with a communal kitchen and will soon house a library.

Mr. KUTI: So this one is different in the sense that we own the land, and my sister and myself and most of the people involved in it believe in it, and we are all determined to make this work.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) I want to be free from all these, yeah, yeah, politics. I want to be free from all these, yeah, yeah, politicians. I want to be free from all of these corrupt monsters. We want to ...(unintelligible). Oh, all right....

So we have a minimum of 2,000 people every night. We play four times a week. We play two times free for the people where we have our rehearsal; it is almost like a concert because we maintain the standard of the band. The most expensive night is a dollar--nearly $2. It's where we understand the situation of the country, where it's not in one event or for the first time in Nigeria, the people--the poor man can walk into a place and feel important. They're singing about the situation. We have no light, no water. We are complaining with the songs. And we are all ready to do something about it.

RATH: Femi sees the new shrine as being just as needed today as it was in his father's time.

Mr. KUTI: All the things my father complained about in the '70s, when I was a teen-ager, 18 also. At 43, it's getting more ridiculous. It's terrible now, the situation. I mean--and when I think of my son at nine, what will happen to him at 10, at 20? Will we still have no light? The corruption will be worse because the children of all of these politicians that have taken over, they are buying cars, building houses. The security of the nation--everybody is afraid. I mean, you could go on all night complaining about Nigeria and Africa. So that's why my songs are more--probably more aggressive in this sense.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) Everywhere I go, I see angel's faces in the form of government and ...(unintelligible) policies. Marxism, socialism, call it what you want. ...(Unintelligible) celebration day. Injustice, misuse of power are their specialties, always pretending that they want to help the human race. One, two, three, four, ...(Unintelligible). Five, six, seven, eight...

RATH: Nigeria, home to 25 percent of Africa's population, serves as an example of today's global conflicts. It's oil-rich, but with little trickle-down benefit to a largely poverty-stricken population. A north-south collision of Muslim and Christian interests, as well as ethnic conflict among indigenous groups, contribute to a volatile social cocktail.

Mr. KUTI: There are so many hundreds of thousands of young boys in African now with no shoes, no clothes, no money. They don't eat. They live under the bridge. In Lagos, it's disgusting. And they are growing. In five years, these boys that are five will be 10; those that are 10 will be 15; 15 will be 20. So when you understand that kind of mathematics, it's really scary.

RATH: Femi hopes that the Internet and today's global communications networks can quickly spread awareness to the world. But, he says, the old established political order represented by the United States and Europe appears reluctant to effect change. And Femi is losing his patience with even well-intentioned awareness efforts of events like the recent Live 8 concert.

Mr. KUTI: Your questions, they annoy me because they are American questions, and Americans don't want to see it from the perspective of the African man. Like the World AIDS Concert--sorry--they cause that to bring awareness to who? It has to just be to the Americans and Europeans that don't or have not heard all these years the plight of the African man. But if you want to make me aware of my problem, I have no light. I mean, the government and the country's awful, stinking, dirty. And in two year or 10 years' time, we are going to be eradicated from the face of this Earth. I know the problem, so you cannot make me aware of it.

(Soundbite of music)

RATH: Despite his cynicism about Live 8, Femi Kuti believes that a sincere effort from Hollywood to put the spotlight on Africa could motivate Westerners to work for change on that continent. Until then, Femi strives to emulate other musicians of conscience who refuse to be silent in the face of injustice.

Mr. KUTI: You can't run away from the truth. You have to confront it. And that's the way I see it. And Bob Marley did it; Fela did it; many people--Miles did it; Coltrane did it in his way. Coltrane and Miles didn't even have to talk. They just played and people were conscious. So what I'm saying, interviews and things, maybe the stage of which we are at in life today, it's not about talking, really; it's action.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. KUTI: (Singing) One more time. All right-a.

RATH: For NPR News, this is Derek Rath in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Femi Kuti's new album is called "Live from the Shrine."

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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