I was sitting on a rock, backstage at the FloydFest Music Festival deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, desperate for two crucial human needs: a little bit of shade from the beating sun, and just one bar to tell me I had cell service.
I’d been given a strong “maybe” to my request to interview African music legend Femi Kuti – Official (Femi Anikulapo – Kuti) in advance of his last American tour date before he headed home to Nigeria. But the only way it was going to happen is if I could contact someone from his organization to tell me the where and the when.
As has happened to us so many times in the past year, the universe opened and we stumbled upon a member of Femi’s band who kindly guided us to the man himself. I’ll tell more of that story in a coming article, but I had to share a little of our talk here, beset as it is by noise of the beautiful craziness that was happening all around the small backstage tent where we met. Because of that background noise, we’ve subtitled things so you can hear all of Femi’s story.
At 15, Femi joined his legendary father Fela Kuti’s band, Egypt 80—to play his father’s favored instrument, the saxophone, no less. Talk about stepping into some large shoes.
Often mentioned in the same world-music pantheon as Bob Marley, Fela Anikupalo-Kuti was and is one of the most famous and revered musicians in the world: inventor of Afrobeat, activist and political thorn in the side of decades of corrupt African governments, icon to millions.
In the decade prior to Fela’s death from complications from AIDS in 1997, Femi Kuti had split from his father to form his own tighter form of Afrobeat with his band Positive Force. In a wonderful conversation, we talked about his recent New York reunion with his younger brother Seun Anikulapo Kuti, who still fronts their father’s band. We talked of his legendary grandmother, one of the most important human rights activists in African history, who died from injuries she sustained when Nigerian military thugs threw her from a window in the infamous 1977 raid on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic compound.
Yes, the stories around this family are incredible.
And here we talked about why, through all the turmoil he’s seen in his life, he named his band “Positive Force.” Finally, Femi told me of the internal and external pressures of making that courageous jump away from his father—a jump particularly meaningful in an African tradition where so much is expected of sons, particularly famous ones. It was inspiring to hear how Femi has come out on the other side of those pressures—that “storm” as he calls it—to embrace his own destiny.
This is just a small glimpse of a life and story you should learn more about. Find out more about Femi, Seun, Fela, Funmilayo, and the whole Kuti family by watching the excellent documentary Finding Fela and listen to Femi’s most recent record, “No Place For My Dream.” It’s important and it’s incendiary and it will make you shake—body and soul.