Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Femi Kuti has music and activism in his blood. The son of pioneering Afrobeat musician and dissident Fela Kuti, he forged his own path with a band in the 80’s, using music to push for change. He’s in D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Summit, promoting agriculture to end poverty. He also attended the premiere of a new documentary about his father’s life, “Finding Fela.” He joins us in studio to discuss his activism through music, his father’s legacy, and Africa’s future.
- Femi Kuti Grammy nominated musician; activist
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Advocacy Through Music
ONE, an organization focused on fighting extreme poverty and disease, particularly in Africa, brought together 19 of the best musicians from across Africa–including Femi Kuti–to record a song called “Cocoa na Chocolate.” It’s part of the Do Agric, It Pays Campaign, focused on supporting agriculture across Africa.
“Finding Fela” Comes To D.C.
“Finding Fela” is a new documentary by Alex Gibney about Nigerian activist and pioneering musician Fela Kuti. It opens Aug. 8 at the E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFemi Kuti has music and activism in his blood. His father was the pioneering creator of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti. Fela, as he was known, used music to push back against Nigeria's corrupt ruling regime, starting in the '60s until his death in the '90s. His eldest son, Femi, forged his own musical path. And he's been using music for social change ever since. Femi Kuti is here in the U.S. with a busy schedule.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's in Washington this week for the U.S.-African Leaders Summit. Along with other African artists, he's engaging youth and promoting agriculture in the fight against poverty. And he was in New York for the premiere of a new documentary about his father's life and legacy. Femi Kuti is Grammanated, nominated -- Grammy nominated musician and activist from Nigeria, son of acclaimed musical pioneer and political dissident, Fela Kuti. Femi Kuti joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. FEMI KUTIThank you very much, Kojo.
NNAMDII mentioned you were in New York last week for the opening of a new documentary about your father's life. Can you talk a little bit about "Finding Fela," and how you were involved?
KUTIWell, involved in -- I had -- I was filmed with -- I did some interviews that were -- you've seen the documentary.
NNAMDIYes, I have.
KUTIAnd given some bit of information. And what -- and the documentary is very inspiring. I think it's -- it tells the times, what my father went through. Very important, I think, historically, facts -- historical facts that will inspire everybody. I think very important for the American audience as well, so they can understand what was going on in Nigeria at that period and it's affecting all of us today.
NNAMDIYes. For those of you who have seen the Broadway production that toured the country of "Fela," this documentary gives a greater context.
NNAMDIThe film opened nationwide this past weekend. You can catch "Finding Fela" here in the District at the E Street Cinema, where it opens on August 8th and runs through August 14th. Your father, Fela, was both a musical phenomenon and a political radical. What was it like growing up and how did your father's activism and fame shape the person that you became?
KUTIGrowing up was quite difficult. It depends on what era of my life you're talking about.
NNAMDIYes. There were many.
KUTIAnd a lot of pressure on me. I mean, it was just this big figurehead. And loved everywhere in the streets. And it w -- really my problem was how would I live up to this big legacy, which everybody -- every -- all his fans were asking, "When are you going to play music? Are you not going to play music?" Blah, blah, blah, blah. So it was, I mean, I think that's why I failed a lot of my exams, worrying myself to death.
KUTIAnd I think it really shaped me because eventually, I think through my mother's will, I started to realize that fighting was fighting. Because, I mean, we were kids and we didn't really understand. We just knew every time he was in prison or he was being locked up for -- and it was a shame. If you're locked up -- your parents are locked up it was a big shame to go to school to say, oh, my father is in prison.
KUTISo I think this is where my mother did a very good job educating us that, no, he's not a criminal. He's fighting. His music is this and this is the government attacking your father. So that we had the courage to go back to school. And then we say to understand -- because in the school you had people -- teachers that he was against, for instance, who didn't like him because he was singing against them, supporting (unintelligible) Nigeria.
KUTIAnd then you had those that were pro my father. So it was always a big fight in school, as well. But this shaped me to understanding this fight. And I moved into his house and slowly, but surely, this is what has made (unintelligible).
NNAMDII am so glad you mentioned your mother. That was a question I had before we entered into this broadcast because I haven't read a great deal about her. But obviously given the public life your father lived, your mother had to have a great deal to do with shaping into the person you have become. You broke away from your father's band in the '80s and formed your own.2
NNAMDIDeveloping your own distinctive musical style.
NNAMDIAnd you talk a little bit about your musical journey?
KUTIYes. My musical journey started really from my father forcing me to listen to jazz, which I hated so much at the beginning because we were listening to all this great music coming from America in the '70s, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Diana Ross, Diana Summer. And this was what we were listening to on the radio and dancing to. And then my father says, "Look, if you want to play music you need to listen to jazz." So he introduces me to -- I think it was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
KUTIAnd I just hate this big time music. What is this? No way. He says, "Well, you got to be -- you have to listen to it." So luckily, my girlfriend wanted me to come see her in America. So I go to America. He says, "Since you're going to America, lover boy, make sure you buy this album, James -- "Moody's Mood," by James Moody.
KUTIAnd so I go to America, Miami, and I go to the record store. And I see "Moody's Love for All," James Moody, then the guy there says, "Oh, I have one by George Benson." I said, "Oh, let me see. I know George Benson. He plays great music." Oh, kind of funky. So I put George Benson's on. I say, "Oh, I love this. I'm going to take this back to my father, let him know that I found something better than James Moody."
KUTISo I go back, I play, I take the albums to him. He says, "What?" So I show him George Benson's one first. He says, "I didn't tell you to buy George Benson and James Moody. I said, 'Moody's Mood For Love,' by James Moody. What rubbish. What's this rubbish?" So I said, "But this sounds better." He says, "No. Take this rubbish away. Listen to this one, this one." So I go. He says he wanted me to listen to James Moody because I felt the other jazz was too complicated. So he wanted me to listen…
KUTI…to something more that my…
NNAMDIMore straight forward, yeah.
KUTIYeah, that my ears would probably accept. So I went -- forced myself to listen. And then I said to him, "Oh, not bad, not bad." Then I go back to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Coltrane. And they are going -- I say, "I am in dead trouble." I didn't believe human beings could play the musical instrument this fast. And I was like -- so I go to a crossroad in my life. I said, "Wow. Well, do I give up or do I continue?" So this is where -- and I was like, okay. I can never be Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. I need to find Femi Kuti.
KUTISo I use the same strategy with my father, playing in his band and everything. I just saw this big figure. I knew I would never be him. And so I start to develop my own sense of being, of belonging in this chaotic home. And this was how I radicalized myself and got out of all this.
NNAMDIAnd discovered that it's enough to Femi Kuti. He's a Grammy-nominated musician and activist from Nigeria. If you have or questions or comments for Femi Kuti, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. A lot of the issues that your father talked about, education, health care, infrastructure, are still burning issues today. And those are issues that you are focused on in your work. This week, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is on here in Washington.
NNAMDIYou are here, along with other artists from across Africa. How are you involved?
KUTIYes, I'm involved. I think the bottom line of the problem of Africa definitely is corruption. And I'm involved with ONE, and agriculture is a very important sector, and power and energy. And we feel -- I feel that musicians, as much as people like me protest, it's not enough. Because the administrative work to get things -- people moving on the road and things like this, who go talk to the minister and all this. We -- you need a very powerful administrative sector, which ONE is doing.
KUTIAnd so with ONE we're putting pressure on -- for transparency and making sure there was a decree signed by the African leaders that they will pay 10 percent -- put 10 percent of the budget for agriculture, to make sure they do this to account for this 10 percent. And African leaders keep making this promises, but they're not putting it into action. So it's to make sure they put this into action. And then to go further, get people aware of these policies that African leaders are making, and making them accountable for all the promises they keep making.
NNAMDIThe ONE you refer to is the ONE Campaign. As a part of the agriculture campaign, you are part of a group of artists who recorded a song that became a hit across Africa. Let's hear a bit of "Cocoa Na Chocolate."
NNAMDINineteen artists, ten languages. Can you tell us a little bit about the song and the message and how it all came together?
KUTII think the song is just to encourage young people to just see -- because young people believe that music -- there are a lot of opportunities in music, so it's to try to change the orientation and thinking of young people to let them see that it's not -- it's not disgusting to be a farmer. And to show, like, cocoa, cocoa -- the plant cocoa comes from, cocoa the chocolate and show all the ingredients that -- what farming does, clothes, farming's for medicine and it's very important for society and we need to farm.
KUTIAnd to show that there is great opportunities to make money. You can become a millionaire and then with this -- when the youth -- I think the final goal is when youth see the opportunity then government will see the interest. And then start to support poor people to go into farming, give them the tools, give them land, encourage young people. This creates jobs as well. Jobs for the youth. So this is really kind of a pressure outfit to make sure people get more involved in farming, to make sure the leaders go by the policies they have promised and things like this.
NNAMDIAnd this comes in the context of a continent in which more and more young people are heading towards the cities. And you are, at this point, emphasizing why agriculture is so important to Africa's future. Another of the issues you're looking at, at this U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, is that a number of activists and protestors are questioning why dictators and strongmen were included. Are you concerned that humanitarian issues are taking a backseat to economic and security concerns at this summit?
KUTIOf course I will be concerned. I mean, pressure has to come from all directions. I think the bottom line is all leaders, and African leaders, must understand that people are more engaged these days. And people are watching. And they must be held accountable for all the things they are -- the wrong they are doing. And the more organizations like this let people -- let leaders understand the fact that people are not going to just sit back and just let them misrule, the better for us.
KUTISo, I mean, people still have to campaign against human rights abuse and things like this, and accountability. And then one has to do their own -- we still -- so to be part of this sector, yes, I will be. And I will still continue my fight against corruption during my -- in my life. So all this has to go on. Yes, I'm concerned that it is taking a back seat, but that's why ONE is here campaigning at this summit to let it be front -- in front agenda.
KUTISo even if they are talking about -- if they're -- if they don't understand that all this is happening. I mean, pressure just has to come. You -- as you say, there are so many things that are wrong -- there's so many things that are wrong that it's impossible to just talk about everything right now on this program. But ONE is doing that.
NNAMDISpeaking of right now on this program, I forgot to mention that we're live-streaming this broadcast at kojoshow.org. And you can find it there. Your father had a very radical approach to dealing with politics. And you have continued the activism, maybe not quite as radical in your actions, but certainly it is reflected in your music. I'd like to play something by Femi Kuti, called "Truth Don't Die."
NNAMDIFemi Kuti, "Truth Don't Die." What's next for you?
KUTIMy next album. I'm working on my next album. And continue with the Shrine. We have this big festival that we always -- the times -- remember the times of my father, coming up in October in Lagos, which runs -- the festival that runs for one week. I'll continue touring, working with ONE and doing any other project that is positive towards a better life for everybody.
NNAMDIYour father dealt a lot with dictators. And some Nigerians, in their frustration of the current government's failure to stop the violence and control radical groups, in particular Boko Haram, even feel the country was better off under military dictatorship. What do you make of this notion that some are calling dictator nostalgia?
KUTIThis is very -- a very depressing…
NNAMDIYour father would turn over in his grave.
KUTIYes. When people are disappointed with the regime, everybody looks for a way out, to come out of this depressive state. And when civilians -- you see, with the military you can even understand. You cannot make them account because they're all wearing uniforms. With the civilians you have got your local counselor, you have got the House of rep, the senators.
KUTIThere are someone -- many stealing. And they're not being made to account for all these funds they are stealing. So it's -- really it's really in a big mess. But it's sad that people are now looking for the military to come back. I mean, we're going to take ourselves 50 years back again.
NNAMDIFemi Kuti, one of the things he's here for is to talk about corruption and the development of agriculture on the continent of Africa. He's a Grammy-nominated musician and activist, son of acclaimed musical pioneer and political dissident, Fela Kuti. Femi Kuti, thank you very much for joining us. Good luck to you.
KUTIThank you. I thank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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