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Nigerian Star Femi Kuti Talks Politics And Music

Like his father Fela, Femi Kuti puts African politics front and center in his music.
Julien Mignot
Courtesy of the artist
Like his father Fela, Femi Kuti puts African politics front and center in his music.

If you were lucky enough to get to Broadway last year, you might have caught the acclaimed production FELA!, about the life and work of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. What you may not know is that his son Femi Kuti, while living a less outrageous life, is in some ways a bigger star, with a following far beyond the borders of his country.

Just as his father fascinated audiences with a blend of traditional African percussion, funk, jazz and hip-hop, Femi Kuti has created innovative, memorable and invigorating music. Songs like "Beng Beng Beng" have been credited with making Afrobeat accessible to broader audiences.

"It sounds arrogant, but it's true," Kuti tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "['Beng Beng Beng'] won many awards in Africa, many awards in the world, and a generation who didn't know my father got to know him through my music. It broke many boundaries at that time."

Kuti and his band The Positive Force have been touring North America promoting their new album, Africa for Africa. He says the title was inspired by what he sees as a lack of awareness about African current affairs, even within the continent itself.

"We have to wait for the West to tell us what's going on in other parts of Africa," Kuti says. "Take, for instance, the Rwanda case. If CNN or the BBC or any of the news houses did not inform us that there was a genocide going on there — in Lagos, in Nigeria, we didn't know. We didn't care. It wasn't important to us."

Kuti says that, in using music to educate the world about Africa, he is following his father's example.

"For a decade, [my father] challenged the dictators in Africa, the military," Kuti says. "And the military was a very wicked military. They beat him many times, they jailed him, burned his house. And singlehandedly he stood, never compromised — he spoke for the people. If my father did not do that, people like me would probably be naïve about the African predicament."

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