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When I talked with Femi Kuti, who was in the UK headlining the recent African Soul Rebels tour, it was hard not to think of his father. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer and provocateur who died 10 years ago. Fela’s songs, a wildly popular brew of jazz and funk and politics, baited the Nigerian government and the military, lambasting their corruption and caricaturing them as zombies. Femi played in his father’s band before leaving to lead his own, a decision that led to a lengthy estrangement.
Femi’s music is far sharper and tighter. His collaborations with American rappers, he insisted, are part of the same tradition. “I can hear a lot of my father in hip-hop, even if they deny it. He was influenced by the Black Panthers, by Malcolm X. He wanted music to be more than love songs. He thought it would be welcomed with open arms.” Kuti smiles ruefully. “He was wrong.”
Fela lived in a communal compound, the Kalakuta Republic, which he declared an autonomous state. The Nigerian state disagreed; police and soldiers raided it and threw Fela’s mother out of a window. Fela was imprisoned and harassed through the courts, although when he died he was treated as a national hero.
Femi’s nostalgia for Kalakuta is decidedly muted. “It was a strange environment. There was an open policy: do anything you like except steal or fight.” Did it work? “It worked for its time. I wouldn’t do that. The New Africa Shrine” – Femi’s Lagos nightclub – “is open: people sleep there and go home the next morning, because there’s no public transport. But in my house, no way. People took advantage of my father.”
A week later, I watched wide-eyed as Femi and his band took the stage in Basingstoke like a 1970s soul revue, the brass section running a lap of honour and jogging on the spot. Kuti played angry, impressionistic saxophone, coaxed blurs of sound out of a Roland VK-7, and shook like a man possessed. The 13-piece band behind him, tight as a tourniquet, powered forward: by the time Kuti removed his jacket to perform his father’s “Water No Get Enemy” bare-chested, he was sweating like a punctured water main.
Kuti is more puritanical than his father (to be fair, so is Pete Doherty), but he still performed the salacious “Beng Beng Beng”, pausing for a brief lecture on premature ejaculation that elicited appreciative laughter from a few, while dancers gyrated in tassels and face-paint and little else.
But Kuti’s full fervour is political; the set seethed with furious denunciations of President Olusegun Obasanjo. On “Sorry Sorry” he laid into “politicians and soldiers” indiscriminately. “With these kinds of leaders/Africa no get well.”
In conversation, he had expanded on this pessimism. “I pray we will not end up like Yugoslavia. I don’t know if there will be a Nigeria in 10 years’ time. The rate we are going spells disaster.”
And Kuti is fatalistic. “I’m not seeking political office. Only a madman would want to rule Nigeria. A hundred million people, so many problems. The pressure on a man who is sincere and wants to solve these problems is huge.”
For all its bright attack, Kuti’s Afrobeat may be a Lagos version of Weimar cabaret, the sound of people dancing while their society spirals downwards.