MSNBC.com -- Born in London in 1962, Femi Kuti has long been considered a driving force in African music. Son of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat king Fela Kuti, he’s been touring the world since the late 1970s, inspiring audiences with both his smooth blend of soul, jazz and funk and his politically aware lyrics. Because of his strong opinions—as well as his father’s death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1997—Femi has become something of a spokesman for his continent. He recently took time out of his tour schedule to speak about the Western push for African awareness with NEWSWEEK’s Malcolm Beith before a concert at New York’s Central Park Summerstage. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How’s the political situation in Nigeria right now?
Femi Kuti: The basic things are not being given to the people yet. Everything is corrupt, so the youth are really angry.
Your music has always been pretty politically aware. Is there anything you’re focusing on right now?
Politics in Africa, mainly. Hopefully, in our time, Africa will get better. Hopefully we’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe we can organize Africa, make Africa a good continent.
This is the so-called Year of Africa, with the G8 and Live8 trying to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis and other issues on the continent. Do you think this sudden push is sincere?
I really don’t know. I’m not a judge. But when I go back to Lagos after five years, or even the next few months, and I don’t see any change, and the people are still writing about the corruption of the government or I’m watching CNN and it’s telling me that Nairobi is still blah blah blah, or Rwanda, Somalia or Ethiopia, and all these problems are still existing, then we will see. If somebody says he wants to organize awareness and tell the world there are problems in Africa, it’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Do you worry that this awareness is one big immediate push, but that people might forget about Africa just as quickly?
I’m an African, so I will not forget. I live in Lagos, I’ve spent my whole life there, so I will know the effect. Personally, I will always use my music to speak against AIDS. And I will continue my life until my death in this pursuit. And if I see things improving, then I will have more [things] to sing about—more love, more personal issues.
A lot of your lyrics are very sexual. Do you feel that contradicts current messages about AIDS?
We were born to have sex. There are many venereal diseases. Unfortunately there is AIDS. That doesn’t mean people should not have fun. I am not against sex in any way whatsoever. To be against sex is [going] against the Creator and the right to feel sexy. I can’t discriminate against sex. So in my music I have to have it. The Bible says, “Go forth and multiply.” According to the Bible, no matter how many babies we have, we will never overpopulate this world.
Are you a religious man?
So you just quote the Bible when you feel like it?
No, no, no. [Laughs.] Wherever you go there are so many discussions about which path to follow in your life. But at the end of the day, you are supposed to be happy. And man is supposed to find happiness. If you find happiness in your job, that’s important. Ninety percent of people have sexual feelings. In movies, magazines, they show a sexy girl—what is a young man going to feel? So you have to find a path in all this.
The Bush administration promotes abstinence. What’s your feeling about that?
I don’t believe that’s very good. Who isn’t going to have sex? What were they doing when they were young?
Bush and everybody. They never had sex in their 20s? How did they have their children? What were they doing at parties? They didn’t chase girls?
Would it be better if they suggested using condoms?
They can say whatever they want to say. I’m not a world leader. Anybody can listen to what they want to. Let them tell me why they are dealing with corrupt governments. Let them tell me why there is a war going on. Why are your people being made to go to war? Why is there a war? Why, in our time, does terrorism exist, after all these years? I don’t want to bring children into this world to go to war. I want to bring up my son to play music and be happy. Why is Africa so bad, after all these years, after slavery—why do we still have problems? Why don’t we have life? Why do some people have the best education? Why are there so many homeless children? Those are the things that are most important. If people are working for a drug for HIV, and there is a drug to sustain life, or health, why should it not be free? Is it not man that makes money? Why are you making money? I don’t listen to people like that, I’m sorry. I never have done in all my life.
Do you worry that other people listen to them?
That’s their business. I don’t even tell my son what to do.
What do you think of celebrity efforts to raise awareness of Africa?
They are doing Live8, concerts, and they are doing it to educate themselves—so why should I be annoyed? But they are not educating me. I’ve lived in poverty all my life. So you cannot tell me I’m suffering. And you cannot pull me out of my suffering, I’m living in it.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.