Femi Kuti needs no introduction. Son of the legendary Fela Kuti, he has released more than a dozen albums, spanning over two decades. Like his father, he cannot dissociate music from the message it conveys. He recently performed in Paris, in the middle of the afternoon. I met him after the show. He gave his impressions and shared his unconventional outlook on life, music and politics.
Nicolas Roux: Did you find enough energy to play at this rather unusual time?
Femi Kuti: It was difficult because normally we play at 10pm or midnight. And today we came straight from Lyon, driving 8 hours, and we went on stage right away. Yesterday’s show was also very energetic, I gave a lot. I thought I wouldn’t find the energy to play today and I was very worried but it came.
Nicolas: It definitely came and the crowd was very pleased I can assure you. You always seem to use the stage to convey messages. Do you see the stage as a tool of expression?
Femi: For me yes it is. It’s where I can express my life, my thoughts. The stage is my office.
Nicolas: After all these years, are you still angry against the system?
Femi: Yes very angry, but not in a violent way. Because I know that life can be peaceful, loveable and we can all be very happy. If people ceased to be greedy, corrupt and exploit society, life would be very easy. If the propaganda was positive, life would be good. But some people want to boss people around, to be rich, and to enslave. This is what is causing the problems. And when this is rampant in society, we have more crimes, drug and alcohol problems. Education is also problematic. You go to school, you come out of it and can’t get a job. Everything is wrong. If this mentality doesn’t change, life is going to become unlivable. And this makes me angry.
Nicolas: You’re from Nigeria, a country where resources have been exploited by international institutions and local politicians with very little redistribution. What do you think Nigerians and Africans in general need to do to turn things around?
Femi: It’s so simple. We need to stop being corrupt. We need to start thinking about our people and the future. We need to build for Africa. We need to make Africa the envy of the world. You see the Chinese are building China to make it the greatest nation. Americans built America to make it the greatest nation. Europeans have united because they want Europe to be the most powerful nation. It’s not working but that’s the objective. Africa must think the same way. It was Kwame Nkrumah’s idea: the unity of Africa. Africa must unite. We don’t have a road on which I can drive my car from Lagos to Johannesburg. Can you imagine a road from Lagos to Johannesburg? Can you imagine the beauty? Stopping in Nairobi, going through Zimbabwe. I can take my car and drive from France to Germany. The choice of scenery is so beautiful. I can stop here, eat there, park. I mean this is life. Life should be like this.
Nicolas: During the concert you urged people not to vote. Can you elaborate on that?
Femi: We need to send a very strong message to politicians. The message politicians send us is: if you don’t vote, it’s your fault for not using your power to change the government. But we have tried to change governments for over a hundred years and it doesn’t work. So their propaganda is a psychological one. But every time you vote, you thing the system is going to change, and every time you vote the system gets worse and more corrupt. So, why don’t we not vote and see what happens. Maybe if everybody doesn’t vote, politicians will have to become real. It is the only profession where you can get away with crime. If a doctor misuses his profession, he can’t practice. Nobody gets away with injustice except politicians and multinationals. And they always come up with excuses. They have been doing this for over a hundred years. Playing the big game always on the pretext of democracy, saying it’s a system for the people and by the people. But if it is really for the people and by the people, why are we all unhappy? If it was really for the people, then they should be making laws for the people and the people should be happy. It’s so obviously a hypocritical system so let us all not vote, let us just see what happens. Imaging how quiet it would be if nobody voted. We could be thinking of the real objective of the mankind: what we want of this life. I can tell you that we all want to be happy.
Nicolas: I’d really be curious to see that in my life time!
Femi: (Laughs) We can start! It might take time. I’ve never voted in my life. So when I see government mistreating people, I don’t feel bad about it. I can always say: I didn’t vote for you so get out of there! If you give them power, then it’s your fault for putting them there. Then you vote them out, and you vote for anther corrupt person who is even worse than the last one. We’ve been doing this since always. Look at the US: republicans, democrats, republicans, democrats and its just getting worse and worse. Look at England, Spain, etc. Tell me one country where it’s working. Nowhere. But I believe there can be a system of governance by the people, for the people.
Nicolas: Your father Fela Kuti faced a lot of repression. Do you see yourself and musicians in general as political targets?
Femi: There are not many musicians who speak. My father did it because he believed in it, I do it because of my upbringing but you cannot force musicians to do it. And from my experience, I don’t see a love story that is more important than the suffering I see. When I have a broken heart, so what? Is that more important than children that can’t buy food? Or people that die because they don’t have medicine? So I choose to sing about these issues.
Nicolas: Your father said that music was the weapon of tomorrow. Have you ever reflected on that and do you think music can have a significant impact?
Femi: Music is having a significant impact. If people come to my concerts, it’s because they like the music and the message. But I don’t believe music is the only way forward but it’s definitely part of it. This music is for the matured mind. When you’re young it’s hard to understand this powerful music because people are fantasizing, they want love. But then you get to a stage in you life where you’re confronted with no job. And if you don’t have a job, there’s no love. And this is when this music becomes relevant for the matured person. Because then you start to understand Rwanda, Somalia, Congo, Nigeria, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, politics in England, in America. Your mind becomes enlightened. Then fantasy loses its importance. Real issues in life become important. So yes this music is a weapon of the future.
Listen the full audio interview:
A segment of the concert:
Photo credit by Julien Mignot