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In an interview with the eldest son of Fela Kuti, the founding father of Afrobeat music, Culture Trip gets a front row seat at Felabration and discusses life, music and the future of the Kuti legacy.
In Ikeja, Lagos, the entrance to the New Afrika Shrine is a terracotta-coloured edifice with those same words sprawled above the doorway. An embossed map of Africa hangs between them and on the dark brown gate. People mill about eating, drinking and laughing as they await the night’s performance. To the right-hand side of the Shrine are stalls from which hang t-shirts of various colours, all of which have one thing in common: the emblazoned images of the Afrobeat singer and human rights activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Inside Femi Kuti’s dressing room in the Shrine the walls are adorned with pictures of past performances and family photos. The focus of the day is Felabration, a week-long, annual music, dance and culture festival that celebrates the life of Femi’s legendary activist father.
The Kuti family has been a force to be reckoned with throughout Nigeria’s history. Fela’s activist mother, Funmilayo had helped to broker Nigeria’s independence from Britain. His brothers, Beko, a doctor, and Olikoye, a one-time Minister of Health had been more reserved in their contributions towards Nigerian society in comparison. His children Yeni, Seun and Femi have done an impressive job of upholding their father’s legacy: maintaining the Shrine along with the rest of their father’s estate, as well as organising concerts in the country and abroad. Spearheaded by his daughter, Yeni, his children are also the pioneers of Felabration, which falls on his birthday.
Using music as a tool to fight social injustice, Femi – who is a British citizen – has never considered relocating to England or anywhere else. He says of his decision to stay in Nigeria: “It’s because of my upbringing – to live in Nigeria and die here. We have our problems but nobody can tell me, ‘Get out!’ Yes I have citizenship, but I’d have to combat racism. Our problems are different but they [the British] have their own problems too. My life has been about the fight for a better life for the common man. How can I be singing about problems and not experiencing them myself? I’d sound very stupid.”
The plight of the people is an overriding theme in Femi Kuti’s music. His performances are delivered with an energy that springs from his shiny trumpet; through the frenzied steps of his perspiring dancers to the captivated crowd. You can feel the pain through his passionate singing, especially when his voice dips slightly, so reminiscent of his father’s.
The beauty of his concerts lies in the fact that they are an equaliser: a working class man visiting the New Afrika Shrine can experience the same quality of concert for next to nothing, just as the diplomat who sits in the front row of one of Femi’s concert in New York. “I play for free because I want everybody to have a good time; not just a chosen few. I play for the carpenter and the plumber to have a good life. That’s what my music is all about.”
The most recent Felabration was held from October 15 – 21 at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos. Every year festivities include a concert, a symposium, an exhibition, and a themed debate. This year’s debate was entitled ‘African Leadership in the Millennium.’
The Kuti family has big plans for the future of Felabration. “It will always get bigger and bigger,” says Femi. “It will live after us, because the foundation my elder sister has put in place along with those of us that are helping to plan Felabration has been done in such a way that it will grow and move from strength to strength.”
As for plans to groom the next generation of Kutis to carry on the family tradition? Femi’s eldest son plays with his own band, but his father says his future is his choice. So if we’re lucky then yes, maybe.