On January 26, 2013, Nigerian musician Femi Kuti gave his New York City fans a mixture of music and politics, asserting that Nigeria cannot afford the kind of public insurrection that began to sweep through several Arab nations two years ago.
It was two hours before the opening of his gig. Dressed in traditional Nigerian garb, Mr. Kuti paced the floor of the Webster Hall club in New York City. Tired and buffeted by cold during his latest US tour, he wore a long sleeve gray and black striped shirt underneath his African clothing with a thick black scarf wrapped around his neck. After a while, the Afrobeat star seemed at ease. During the show, he and the Positive Force band offered a musical-political dosage to an enthusiastic audience of Afrobeat fans. The band jammed to a packed crowd.
Throughout the show, Femi Kuti demonstrated his masterful skills by switching from one musical instrument to another – saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and the keyboard – while directing his band and dancing in a passionate, jerky style.
This US tour promoted Femi’s most recent album, “Africa For Africa,” along with many of his most celebrated songs. The band performed hits like ‘Dem Bobo“, “Beng Beng Beng,” and “You Better Ask Yourself.”
Shortly before the start of the concert, Mr. Kuti spoke to SaharaReporters in an interview that covered contemporary issues in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
“If Africa were to go the way of the Arab Spring, we are going to get in trouble,” he insisted.
“The minute we understand we must stop corruption and everybody must pay for being corrupt, we will not need a spring like that,” Femi said responding to the question of whether or not other African nations need an Arab-like revolt. Several North African and Middle Eastern countries have witnessed scenes of major civil uprisings. The revolts have led to the collapse of former entrenched regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, with a bloody war now sundering Syria and Egypt in the midst of renewed opposition to its Muslim Brotherhood-backed leader.
A year ago, in early 2012, Femi Kuti participated in Occupy Nigeria, an uprising that protested the removal of fuel subsidy in oil-rich Nigeria. Protesters marched in and outside Nigeria, insisting that the Goodluck Jonathan administration reverse its subsidy policy. The protesters pointed to the fact that the majority of Nigerians live on the equivalent of two dollars per day.
For one week in January of 2012, Nigeria was virtually shut down as citizens took to the streets. The protests ended only after the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) and the government struck a deal, albeit one that left many protesters disappointed.
Even if Sub-Saharan Africa does not need an Arab Spring, the continent’s inhabitants are screaming change.
Mr. Kuti acknowledged as much. “Most African youths are angry and want change. How to get that change? They don’t know because they must survive, they must work, they must build their families,” he said.
With corruption still prevalent, decades-long autocratic leadership, rising unemployment rates, theft of natural resources and extreme poverty, he agreed that something has to give. He added that, although a real revolution has not been staged in Sub-Sahara Africa, things are going in the right direction.
“In my father’s time everybody was running away from the struggle. Now in Nigeria, people talk about it. ‘I hate this government. This is bad,’” said Mr. Kuti. “The youths,” he said, “are more open and ready.”
Afrobeat will always recall us to the genius of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Femi’s father. But the younger Kuti has since come into reckoning as a serious musician in his own right. He has managed to carve out his considerable identity in the genre, continuing a legacy that combines scintillating music with a no-nonsense political message.