Q+A: Femi Kuti

December 08, 2008

On the occasion of the release of his new album Day by Day, Femi Kuti spoke with The FADER about his past label troubles, appropriation of Afrobeat by American artists, his father's legacy and his son's place in the Kuti dynasty. If you haven't already, you can still stream the excellent Day by Day here and pick it up at iTunes or Amazon. Watch the above promo video of Femi recording and playing in Paris, and make the jump for the interview.

When did you start working on Day by Day?

I think all my life. I’m always working, and don’t forget, after Fight to Win, the recording company dropped me, so it was difficult finding someone else to release the album. So being in Lagos is very difficult for an African artist to be part of what is happening internationally. They said because of the terrorists of 9/11, nobody wants to hear Fight to Win. So it’s been a very difficult time for me since then. But I’ve always been trying to be where I’m at right now.

Have you noticed that difficulty with the music industry has gone hand and hand with bigger problems in Nigeria?

I think it is a group of problems, really. Africa is unique, and we always have problems, but now it’s a group of problems. I mean everybody’s downloading, nobody wants to go to the shop to buy anything anymore. It’s completely different, a new age, and I think it will be like this for a while, so the artist has to adjust to the situation. Some would not be good to adjust, some would be able to, but most likely the artists that will be able to survive will be those that are used to suffering.

Do you think you’re uniquely qualified to survive the current situation?

I’ve been suffering all my life, so I’ve never been scared to fight.

Do you plan to spend more time touring, then?

I don’t think I have a choice with this new album. We’re on tour right now, and the response of the tour is so positive, already we’re getting booked for summer and all that. We should be touring America in January, so I don’t really think the choice is mine.

Will the American tour be the full band?


All seventeen pieces?

No, fifteen, fourteen. When my son is there, fifteen.

Your son?

Well he won’t be there in America this time, maybe in summer.

And how old is he?

He’s thirteen now.

Thirteen, and what instrument does he play?

He plays basically everything.

Wow, and he’s toured with you before, right?

Yeah, he’s been touring since he’s been five.

That’s amazing. Well speaking of your son and your father, do you still feel like music, whether its in Africa or anywhere, do you think it still has the power to inspire real change in society like it did when your father was making music?

You have a black President in America because of the music. It is the music of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington that fought to enlighten people through music. The Blues in America. It was that music that fought for change at that time, that revolutionized music, that inspired people like my father, that inspired funk, that inspired people like Quincy Jones, that inspired people like Michael Jackson. It is that music, that era, that has brought us to where we are today, so music has played the major role in change.

How do you see young people in Nigeria responding to Afrobeat?

They love the propaganda with hip-hop, so they love the glamour and bling bling, and all that. There is so much propaganda about that. But they’ll grow out of it. I hope they don’t grow out of it too late.

When you play shows there, do you see a lot of young people?

It’s mixed — young, everybody comes.

I don’t know how familiar you are with newer American and European music, but recently there’s been this trend of bands sort of appropriating Afrobeat into their music, and they aren’t being very shy about it.

I would not expect them to be.

Do you have any feelings about that, positive or negative?

I think its pleasing.

In what way?

They listen to my father, and they like the style, and they want to be a part of the style, and that’s great. Even Paul McCartney, he said in the New York Times that he listened to Fela and he couldn’t stop crying. So he was inspired too, way back in the early 70’s. Now, a lot have been inspired but never spoke about it. James Brown confessing to be influenced by Fela. James Brown’s guitar work was sounding very Afrobeatish. His musicians said it. So many people have been influenced by Fela. In ’69, he was making great songs, and people were taking his music from Nigeria to America, and great musicians were listening to his music, and were inspired, and never said anything to the world, that they were inspired by Fela. Miles Davis said he listened to Fela. After listening to Fela, he started to play the organ on stage, and was trying to be bringing the Afrobeat sound with his own music. And in his book, he said Afrobeat was going to be one of the music of the future. So how many more people listened to Fela, and never said they did, or were inspired by his music? So even young people today are speaking the truth, and that’s great news. How many rock bands have been inspired by Fela and they never speak about it?

I think what’s happened here, a lot of these kids have heard reissues of older albums or compilations and they feel like its brand new music for them.

Yes, it is brand new music for them. Because now they are approaching it to listen, while they’re listening to it by the backdoor before, the open market. And like Jazz, people were inspired by Jazz in Nigeria, in Africa, we were inspired by Jazz and the music filtered through. People who would go to America would bring these albums back, through the back door, but we always said we were inspired by it. Fela was at the back door, but nobody said anything. Now he’s in the open market because of the release of all these albums, and I’m not surprised the youth love it.

In the U.S., there’s a sense that if someone has a famous father who made music and the child then wants to make music, he or she is always fighting against a legacy, but it doesn’t seem that you necessarily feel that way.

I think when a child has problems with the father, then he fights the legacy. If he doesn’t have problems, you just go about your life. And people always bring this question up because they expect problems, because they can’t understand a great father, he wants you to play music. They expect you to have problems, difficulties. Maybe the child was otherwise not thinking along this line, and then you are asked the question, and then you are forced to think along this line, but maybe its not part of your thoughts initially. But no matter, the child will always strive, and if the child moves in the right direction, the child will always excel. But I think a lot of people are even envious when the child starts to excel because they have not been able in their respect. If they have a great father, if you keep having to bow down to your father, many people find it very problematic. Now I don’t have any problem with that, I never did, I will never have a problem, and I doubt my son has that kind of problem. Now people might say “You have a great grandfather, your father too was a great musician, how are you going to cope with this for your future?” And he would be surprised, “What do you mean? I love my grandfather, I’m proud of my grandfather, and I really love my father.” Because he’s not thinking along those lines.

So are you in touch with Seun very often?

As much as possible, I mean he’s at the Shrine, he comes to see me when he’s around, no problem.

So you don’t foresee ever collaborating with him musically in the future?

I don’t know, I don’t know. But as of now, it’s not on my mind, but then you never know.

Posted: December 08, 2008
Q+A: Femi Kuti