By Eddie Jorgensen
Originally, this piece was supposed to have a comic angle, built around the discovery that Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti’s Facebook page mistakenly linked to a softcore Asian porn site. When I alerted his management and even Femi while trying to set up a Skype interview with the artist at his home in Lagos, Nigeria, the idea of providing a comical twist I never told them about seemingly fell on deaf ears (though the link did eventually get fixed).
The eldest son of iconic Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Femi’s already over 20-year career broke through on a global level in 1998 with the success of Shoki Shoki, an album that cross-pollinated Afrobeat with hip-hop, neo-soul, and house music. In the nearly two decades since, Femi has retained his cultural authenticity and reputation for explosive, marathon live shows.
Thankfully, the request for an interview – in the same email, no less – received a swift response from his management, as everyone, Femi included, responded in kind.
After a series of problems with my Dictaphone and my phone – yes, I interview the old school way and transcribe concurrently, then later go back to add what I missed – I got the quiet and reserved Kuti on the line.
He profusely apologized for the bad connection, as he has no electricity and Skype was his only option as he has no landline to speak of (or at least none that he mentioned). At that point, I stopped typing, sat back in my office chair, and cried quietly while I listened to one of my favorite world music artists speak honestly and candidly.
Here I was, a spoiled Caucasian writer on the other side of the world worrying about what I would buy my daughter and son for their upcoming birthdays, and the son of the late Fela Kuti was apologizing to me. What?
Needless to say, he got 110 percent of my attention. Rather than talking about his father’s legacy as has been extensively (and exhaustively) covered throughout his career, it seemed wholly proper to discuss current events and the economics of touring with such a large band.
“On tour, we will have a 12-piece band and have 20 people in the group when we play in Nigeria. We have many extra dancers and musicians here,” he said over the scratchy connection.
For a band that plays regular shows nearly every week or month at Kuti’s New Afrika Shrine, it seemed the prospect of getting to tour abroad must cause some dissension in the ranks.
“It’s quite a big band and I cannot afford to bring everyone, as I pay for everything. I barely break even on these tours, even with all these big shows,” Kuti explained.
Thankfully, the music is what keeps him focused on completing tours that always have the potential — however unlikely — to turn into a disaster financially.
When asked about current events, Kuti was rather terse, and for good reason.
“It’s easy with social media now, and you can just Google Nigeria if you want to know what’s going on here,” said Kuti. “I know you have a lot of problems there as well. I am not blind. I see the struggles and the homelessness on tour.”
Furthermore, he said the band members prefer to stay in their rooms and enjoy having the lights, TV and even air-conditioning on.
“I once stayed in a hotel for seven days straight just to see if the power would go off while on tour with my father,” said Kuti. “I could not believe it, since ours never stays on for long.”
As far as song selection goes, Kuti’s current tour will focus on his most recent effort, 2013’s No Place For My Dream.
“We’re going to play a lot of stuff from my latest. In Nigeria, I play for four hours and start at 7 p.m. If it is a really big show and the time is right, we go past 12 a.m.,” said Kuti. “It’s my club, so I can play as long as I want and nobody can tell me what to do. I really enjoy playing so many numbers.”
Kuti is one of the marquee acts performing at this year’s High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy from June 30-July3 (he performs on the closing day of the fest), but he and his Positive Force Band will also headline at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco on Wednesday, June 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.