Femi Kuti & African Corruption, Religion and Racism in the American Music Business
“If you go to Nigeria or you see its pain and suffering, you will not see a country,” says Nigerian afrobeat saxophonist Femi Kuti. “You will see chaos. Now if Jesse Jackson or any of your top politicians have been to Africa, or Nigeria especially, and come back and say it’s a developing country, [they] are liars. That’s not development. Africa is the richest continent on the face of this earth. There is nothing we don’t have. Why are the people so poor?”
Africa’s laundry list of crises is very real. Extreme hunger and a raging AIDS epidemic are the most pressing concerns. According to the World Food Programme, seven million people in southern Africa alone face imminent danger from famine, and that number is expected to double by the end of the year. Africa is home to over 28 million AIDS sufferers, 70 percent of the world’s total. Nigeria specifically is plagued by severe religious strife between the Muslim majority in the north and the Christians in the south. Since 1999, conservative estimates place the death toll from religious violence in Nigeria at over 6,000. Nigeria has more international respect and influence than perhaps any other African nation. With a continent torn by war, famine, disease, poverty and corruption, it’s hard to believe any African government could garner a semblance of respect. This paradox affords one a startlingly disturbing context to understand Femi’s music. Following almost two decades of military rule, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator, was elected president in 1999, although Femi reserves no love for the government that he views as a democracy in name only. “Our government is full of corruption and the people are suffering,” he explains. “Nothing is being done to uplift the morals of the people. We still have no light, water.”
Femi, an afrobeat superstar in his own right, has released two albums on MCA Records (Fight to Win, 2001; Shoki Shoki, 2000) and is the son of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian afrobeat legend. Fela, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 1997, suffered greatly, perhaps gravely, for the political nature of his music. “Obasanjo beat the hell out of my father because he was speaking the truth,” says Femi. “What’s the difference between [Zimbabwe’s current despotic President Robert] Mugabe and Obasanjo? There’s no difference.” Mugabe is one of the most horrific tyrants in not only Africa, but all of the world. In addition to violently rigging his country’s 2002 presidential election to ensure his continued regime, he has also ordered white-owned farms seized for redistribution to landless blacks. The move has left valuable farmland abandoned and crops untended in a country desperate for food. Mugabe also prevents the distribution of international food aid to regions that supported his opponent in the most recent election. Clearly, a comparison of Obasanjo to such a man should not be taken lightly.
Femi, who leads an ever-changing collective of musicians known as The Positive Force, refuses to stand on the sidelines of the political arena. Like his father, he is compelled with a drive to speak the truth. He champions political, economic and social reform through his music, striving to inspire the people to bring order to the mayhem that currently desecrates his African homeland. “Nobody can understand what kind of force music is,” he says. “It’s the only form of art that has so much power, and used positively, it’s a gift that nobody can understand. “If you are a stupid man,” he says, “you will like stupid music. If you are wise, you will like music that will inspire you positively, make you a better human being, make you think correctly.”
While he’s passionate about providing musical inspiration, Femi is realistic about his music’s impact and understands that his influence can only go so far. “Take a statement from [President John F.] Kennedy,” says Femi. “He says, It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ No matter what we individuals do, when the government does not bring that kind of inspiration to the people, it’s irrelevant because the individual will be frustrated. The individual will give up eventually, so there’s a limit to what an individual can do for his country when the government is totally corrupt and when the whole nation is corrupt.”
Femi urges international superpowers to not deal with the Nigerian government, but he understands why they do. Oil. Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of oil, and foreign governments enjoy access to cheap gasoline. It’s come to be expected in the United States. True, Nigeria enjoys some of the cheapest petrol in the world, but with approximately 45% of its citizens below the poverty line and an average income of just over a dollar a day, the luxury of cheaper bus fares will only take you so far. Femi is also fed up with America’s corporate presence in the region. “Chevron has been there for how many years now?” he asks. “What benefit have the people in that area got from Chevron? Nothing. They are so poor. You cannot imagine how poor these people are. You can not imagine how,” he says before taking a long pause. “You can not imagine the evil going on there.”
Less than two weeks prior, five Chevron oil facilities were forcibly occupied by a group of a few hundred Nigerian women. The protesters threatened to strip naked, a gesture of shame in Nigerian culture, unless Chevron agreed to improve living conditions in the surrounding communities. The ten-day siege ended when Chevron agreed to hire 25 locals over the next five years and improve the local infrastructure. In addition to electricity, water, schools and hospitals, the women also laid claim to a $150,000 microcredit program aimed at encouraging local village women to start their own businesses. “It’s sad that people have to do that themselves,” says Femi. “That’s the duty of the government. How can Chevron make so much money? Spoiling the area, pollution, and they don’t care about the people.” Unless international pressure for serious and immediate reform becomes a reality, Femi believes that Africa will be beyond repair within a matter of decades, rendering any and all humanitarian aid useless. His homeland, a human wasteland.
Femi’s anger doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t hesitate to criticize both Christianity and Islam for building churches and mosques while basic amenities such as food, light and water cannot be met. “It’s all brainwash,” he says. “I will never follow Christianity. Christianity has caused wars and wars, amongst themselves, in Europe and America, in the name of Christianity. Islam?” he asks with a loud sarcastic laugh. “Don’t make me laugh.” Actions speak louder than words, and in Femi’s eyes, neither faith can practice what it preaches. “Why is it all about guns, bombs, war, fighting?” he asks. “Why?”
A more personal source of frustration for Femi has been dealing with a music business that he views as exploitive and racist, and a record company that doesn’t treat him fairly. “I’ve been on the road for one month,” he says. “Not a single day’s break. And I’m still not getting anywhere.” Femi speculates that if he were American, English or even not quite as political, that his record label would be better able, or perhaps more willing, to aggressively market his music to the public.
Femi admits the concerts have been going well, but the extensive touring has worn him ragged. It’s a Catch-22 for Femi. While he’s sick of touring, he admits that onstage is the only place he can find happiness. “When I’m not onstage, I’m not happy,” he says. “It’s very difficult to find happiness offstage.” With only a couple of shows left on his current tour, even the vase of 13 long-stem white roses in his dressing room backstage at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium (a gift from Carlos Santana) struggle to bring a smile to his face. The thought of touring again has kept him from recording a new album. “They have tried to get me to the studio,” he says, “but I have refused. I don’t see the profit of going into the studio. To be going on the road again like this? For the next few years? It’s disgusting.” When asked if he’d ever record again, Femi says, “I might,” before pausing. “I will record,” he continues. “But I might do it myself.”
Femi is excited about returning to his home in Lagos, Nigeria. “I have a house but I have nothing in the house,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll make some money and I’ll furnish my house.” He also needs to repair the roof at The Shrine and replace the windows, so he plans to stay busy. “What else will I do?” he asks himself. “I’ll lock myself in my room and keep on practicing. The minimum I’ll do is five hours. And that’s [if] I’m very busy going to meetings,” he says. “And then, after that, I could go 12, 14, 15. It depends.”
Femi is a workhouse whose love of music doesn’t stop with playing. Femi continues to support the Nigerian music scene on a number of different levels to bring happiness to his people. In 2000, Femi reopened The Shrine, the nightclub once owned by Fela that had been shut down by the government that so commonly oppressed Femi’s father for speaking his mind. Today, The Shrine serves as a catalyst for musical freedom within Nigeria. Bands come to rehearse or perform live, and Femi plays there frequently. “It inspires people,” he says. “The feedback I get from the people is very positive. ” Given the political nature of Femi’s music, it should come as no surprise that the Obasanjo administration has put the stranglehold on Femi’s cultural experiment. “They don’t like it,” he says. “They tried to plant guns there once. They said it’s a den for bandits. They said it’s a den for dope addicts and things like that, so we have a lot of bad publicity.” Despite the setbacks, Femi remains hopeful for the future. “It’s impossible to stop music,” he says with confidence. “After me, there will be somebody else. There will always be somebody.”
This article is dedicated to the memory of Nanny Lee, 1918 2002.