Interview: Femi Kuti on the Closing of His Nightclub The Shrine, Nigerian Corruption, and Obama
Dutifully carrying on his father Fela Kuti's outsized and outspoken legacy, afrobeat's first son Femi Kuti has not only spent the last decade-plus touring the world, releasing albums (including last year's fine Day By Day), and collecting Grammy nominations (for 2003's Fight To Win), he's also been actively criticizing the Nigerian government and the corruption that pervades African governments in general. Although Femi hasn't had to endure beatings and jailings like his father (see the lyrics of Fela classics like "Coffin For Head Of State" and "Expensive Shit" for this chilling history), he too us a target of the government. On May 26, Nigerian authorities forcibly closed the New Afrika Shrine, Femi's Lagos nightclub-cum-community headquarters, a tribute to his father's legendary Shrine nightclub, itself razed by the government after Fela's death in 1997.
The news hit close to home for me: in 2006 I traveled with my afrobeat band Aphrodesia to Lagos, Nigeria to play at the New Afrika Shrine with Femi. The experience yielded not only firsthand knowledge of the chaos in Lagos (not to mention of the armed, bribe-seeking Nigerian soldiers and policemen whose improvised demands for 'fees' and 'taxes' at the border were enough to make us long for the DMV), but also a glimpse at the stability provided by the Shrine to many of that city's residents. A huge tin-walled barn, the community center serves as a serves as a crash pad for neighborhood homeless, a meeting place for local organizers, and a nightclub where Femi whips enormous crowds into a frenzy thrice-weekly (even rehearsals are open to the public).
The government's official reason for closing the Shrine-the nuisance created by peddlers on the street outside-was almost laughable. In a city where much of the population survives by selling food and trinkets on the side of the road, it seemed blatantly political-like if Bloomberg's police force were to arrest jaywalkers only in precincts that didn't vote for him-and indicative that Femi's politics still rankle the Nigerian leadership much as his father's did a generation ago. Although the government relented and allowed the Shrine to reopen a few days later, the incident was still firmly on Femi's mind when I talked to him by phone from Salt Lake City on one stop on his North American tour.
What's going on now at the Shrine?
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It's been reopened now. We were given those flimsy excuses for why they had to close it. Because of those street traders. It had nothing to do with us.
What do you think the real reason was?
I believe people are envious of the place.
Envious of what?
I don't know. Maybe you need to go and ask the government, and ask them, "Why did you close this place? Why do you keep closing the place?" Because the excuses they give have nothing to do with us. To close the place because of the street traders-how do they expect us to go out and drive the people selling on the streets away? That is not our duty. They are on the federal government road, it's not our duty to go out there and start telling people not to stand outside and selling their products there. It has nothing to do with us.
Of course, people sell stuff on the street all over Lagos.
Ha, yes, all over Lagos. I mean, if they want to clear the streets, what does that have to do with us? We are not playing on the streets. The Shrine is not a...it's not in a residential area. It's an industrial area. So even noise pollution is out of the question. They can't complain about noise. They can't complain about parking because we have twenty security when we are playing, to control traffic.
Do you think it's political ?
To me, yes, I would say it is.
When I was there at the Shrine it really struck me how it was much more than a nightclub. How would you describe it to people here who haven't been there?
It's the Shrine! It's a shrine, it's a holy place. That's why we call it the Shrine. It's a place where we worship our ancestors, it's a traditional place. It's a social gathering, it's everything! Everything you could want. It's where we discuss social issues, political issues, cultural issues, everything. And then we play music.
When we were there with you and you said the government would not be happy that there was this American band playing there because it would get the Shrine more attention.
I think they don't want the message of the Shrine to go further. They would love people not to even talk about my father anymore. Because if the government is corrupt and they are not doing the things for the people, and the masses don't like the government-then my father, the Shrine, myself, makes it more...difficult. [The government] doesn't want this message to be on the streets. They definitely don't want this message to be international.
And what is that message?
About the corruption.
Because Nigeria is very rich.
Very, very rich.
I remember seeing limousines and Hummers and expensive cars driving down dirt alleyways there.
Yes. Nigeria has no excuse to be poor. They have no excuse not to train the teachers very well. They have no excuse not to give us a good health care system. They have no excuse for nothing.
Do you think it's different now than when your father was speaking out against a military dictatorship?
Yes, since we are in the democratic era they are not supposed to be acting like dictators. So why do they go and close the place? First of all, they come on Monday evening about four o'clock, put a letter on the floor, saying we have to answer all these questions. They come the next day, and say they will give us 48 hours to answer all these questions. They come on Tuesday morning, at eight o'clock, less than 24 hours and they just go and lock up the place. Now how do you give somebody 48 hours to respond and then close the place in less than 24 hours? That does not speak well of the government. They are acting like they own the country. Nigeria belongs to everybody, not just them.
Do you feel the situation in Nigeria has gotten any better since your father's time?
No, I would not say it's gotten any better. It's more sophisticated. A more sophisticated form of corruption. The other difference was my father was combating a military dictatorship that was very violent, that would beat him, burn his house, lock him up so many times. Now we are supposed to be in the democratic era, so it's probably more difficult for the government to approach this issue the way the soldiers approached it in my father's time. So it is more sophisticated, I would say.
Is your music received differently in Nigeria than when you play in America and Europe and all over the world?
No, I don't think so. I play what I play in Nigeria everywhere.
But do you think your lyrics are received differently in Nigeria than they are in America? Like when you talk about the politics of Nigeria and the corruption-this is something you want the whole rest of the world to understand.
Yes, because the rest of the world have played a very major role in bringing the downfall of Africa by supporting the corrupt governments over the years. So it's good for the people of America and Europe to know the participation of their governments over the years, the last 40, 50 years in some cases, instigating this corruption.
Do you think in Nigeria it's been because of the oil?
Yes, obviously. Because the world needs the oil so they will support any corrupt government to get the oil for next to nothing. They're businessmen, yes.
Do you feel any sense of progress or hope because of the election of President Obama?
Now, that's already a major step. Nobody was ready for a black man to be elected president. If you had said so in the '70s, '60s, '80s, or even '90s, it was an impossibility. That Americans are thinking beyond the boundaries of race says a lot for the age of which we are approaching now. We are approaching a very awareness age that's...corruption in Africa will soon find it very hard to succeed.
Day By Day came out this year. Are you going to record again soon?
Yes I hope so, I am going to record this year or maybe early next year.
Where, in Lagos?
No, we record in Paris.
Many African artists don't record in Africa. Why is that?
Ah, most likely because in Nigeria we don't have the kind of studio that could record my band. The sophistication of the technology is not as good, and so forth. Now, I would love to build a new studio in Nigeria. But then we are talking about electricity, and we don't have electricity, so...what's the point?
You had put posters up requesting that they restore electricity in your neighborhood before they closed the Shrine, right?
Yes, exactly. When Nigeria is the biggest importer of generators, and everybody is capitalizing on that, the government has no plans to give us electricity. The multinationals that are part of the producers of the generators do not want us to have electricity. So it's a big scam.
Your son, Made, is he in your band?
No, he is in school now, so we want him to spend more time in school now, it's getting more difficult. When he was younger it was easier. I don't want him to have the problems I had, being a dropout and people used that against me, so I want him to go to school and come out, then he can do what he wants after that. He has his whole life ahead of him, you know.
Will he have his own band someday? I want him to do whatever makes him happy. I don't want to force him into music and then he's going to be depressed. He has to say, 'This is what I want to do.' He has to be ready for the ups and downs of what life will bring him.
Femi Kuti headlines the Prospect Park Bandshell tonight for free.
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