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20 Questions: Femi Kuti

The force behind one of 2011's most enthralling releases, Femi Kuti ruminates on music, politics, and his children's happiness.

Femi Kuti

Africa for Africa

Label: Knitting Factory
US Release Date: 2011-04-12

These days, the vehicle for revolution is a Hammond XK-2, especially when Femi Kuti stands behind the keys. Though Nigeria achieved its independence from the United Kingdom, in 1960, corruption continues to infiltrate the political system, a reality that's informed much of Kuti's nearly 25-year recording career. Africa for Africa, his latest album, takes on the hypocrisy of leaders in his home country who have failed to lead by example, while citing individuals from throughout history who have led and inspired positive change: Kwame Nkrumah, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and his father, Fela Kuti, among them. It's a brave and bold work that transmits some of the quotidian concerns of those living in Nigeria, especially Lagos (Kuti's home city). With the polyrhythms of the Positive Force, Kuti tirelessly pilots a set of 14 original songs and delivers one of the most enthralling releases of 2011.

Just 24 hours before Kuti was named "Best World Music Artist" by Songlines magazine, he arrived at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn for a stop on the North American leg of his Africa for Africa tour. Dressed in traditional attire stitched by tailors in Lagos, Kuti was a calm but commanding presence as he walked from his dressing room down a set of stairs into the Hall for sound check. He surveyed the stage, tested the microphones, and prepared his organ and saxophone for a full run through the horn-driven "E No Good", one of the highlights on Africa for Africa. Even without an audience present, Kuti and the Positive Force communicated more passion, virtuosity, and professionalism than most bands do with hundreds of cheering fans.

Needing only one song to complete the sound check, Kuti spoke with PopMatters backstage. For an audience of one, Kuti was thoughtful, engaging, and exhibited a quick sense of humor as he ruminated on music, politics, and his children's happiness in this edition of 20 Questions.

* * *

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

The book on [Patrice] Lumumba made me scared, very scared. Movies don't make me cry anymore. What movie made me cry? I can't remember the name of the movie but it was in '81 or '82 in England.

2. The fictional character most like you?

[Laughs] That's a very difficult question. Probably any character that fights against injustice. I could probably find my character in many characters--Spider-Man--things like this.

3. The greatest album ever?

The greatest album probably would be Sketches of Spain (1960) by Miles Davis. Greatest track would be "Things to Come", Dizzy Gillespie. There are 15 horn players on that track--five trombones, five tenor saxes, five trumpets--and they play like one. It was incredible. I couldn't believe it was possible to play a horn line so fast and so together. Every time I listen to it, I'm still overwhelmed.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I like both of them.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Practicing. Only when I practice, I tend to be able to think with a clear mind.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

The success of my children. Any time my children smile, or they're happy, I feel very accomplished.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?

Basically, everything I do is for the future of my kids. As a father, I want to be there to give them all of the advice they'll need. I don't care much about myself these days. I'm 50 next year, so success for me will be the success of my kids. If my kids become successful--it doesn't have to be material but that they're happy--then I think I could rest in peace in my grave.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

I have to say Lumumba, my father, Mandela. Mandela because he overcame racism, Martin Luther King, as well. Lumumba because he had no fear for death and he still stood his ground, my father as well, Malcolm X as well. They knew they were going to die but they stood their ground and never compromised the truth. I thought that was the greatest thing a man could do--to lose his life--and that made me think that there has to be more to life. Even if one is confronted with death, you must always stand by the truth. People like this, I've always had tremendous respect for them.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

The trumpet.

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?

If I told you, it wouldn't be hidden anymore [laughs].

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My father's advice: never to lie.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My Shrine, my club [in Lagos]. I think that is the greatest thing I've done in my life, building that Shrine.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?

I only wear these kind of traditional clothes. I feel it's very important for the tailors in my country to survive.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

My son.

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

I've heard so much about Hawaii. I would love to take my kids there on holiday one day. I don't think that will ever happen in my lifetime. I just want to see my kids happy, so probably one nice day I want to take them somewhere very peaceful, no stress.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

A spa vacation.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?

Coffee. I love the smell and I love the taste.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I love the country for peace of mind. I'm a very indifferent kind of person. I don't really care, as long as I have my space and I can practice. Country, because no one will disturb me from practicing. In the city I might make too much noise!

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Would he [President Goodluck Jonathan] listen? He has to end corruption very fast. The way to end corruption is to bring many people to justice, to show that nobody's above the law, and nobody will go scott free. It's not by just arresting people and the case is pending in court for years, and most of us will die by the time judgment comes. Quick judgment, doesn't even have to be very long term, but just to lay a solid foundation to let the youths know that they don't have to be corrupt to be successful. Now I think corruption is the biggest problem in a country like Nigeria because everybody believes that if you're not corrupt, you'll never have a house or buy a car. It's killed the nation. It should be a priority, as well as providing electricity. We have no electricity in Nigeria. I'd have to sit down and talk for hours with him. Basically: corruption, electricity, health care for the people. We need to do more for our people. Much, much more.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

I'm starting work on my next album. I think I'm on my third or fourth song. I hope to finish it before the end of the year, go into the studio early next year, because late next year I want the next album out. November 2012, the next album should be out.

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