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Nigeria Grammy Nominee Fights to Win for the Poor


LAGOS, Nigeria - Nigerian Afro-beat and jazz sensation Femi Kuti has a big fight on his hands with the forces that have laid his country and continent low. But he's determined to win.

"I'm singing about the African problem and the underprivileged in general," said the tall, athletic performer as he relaxed in a backroom of his New Afrika Shrine, the music club he runs with his sister in a seedy Lagos neighborhood.

"There is so much corruption in Africa right now, people are so poor," said the 40-year-old son of the late Fela Kuti, the renowned and pioneering founder of Afro-beat.

Femi's recently released fifth album, "Fight To Win," has been nominated for a Grammy award, in the Best World Music Album category, and he's coy about his chances of winning the coveted prize.

But if he does come out on top at the Feb. 23 ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York, he says it will contribute to a higher purpose.

"If the Grammy comes my way, it will be dedicated to my cause," he said.


In Femi's case, his "cause" seems to be the many afflictions suffered by Africa, among them the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which is ravaging the continent and claimed the life of Femi's famous father in 1997.

The musician cum social activist is prominent in Nigeria's AIDS awareness campaign.

Holding his trademark saxophone, his picture can be seen on huge road signs around the country that convey a simple message in pidgin English: "AIDS: No dey show for face."

Roughly translated into orthodox English, it means that you can't tell if someone has AIDS by looking at their face.

Femi is angry at the corruption and decay he sees eating away at African societies and is characteristically outspoken about it.

"If I sing 'Blackman Know Yourself'," he said, referring to the title of one of his tracks, "then I'm singing it for a reason."

"People don't want to face the problem of what is going on in this country and in Africa. Africans don't want to take their lives in their hands. Everyone wants to say 'God will provide."'

His homeland of Nigeria, the world's seventh biggest oil producer and Africa's most populous country with almost 130 million people, seems as good a place as any to sing about the continent's pressing problems.

Many of the oil dollars that have flowed into the country's coffers over the years have been squandered or wound up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

According to the World Bank, GNP per capita, at about $260 today, is below the level at independence 43 years ago and less than the $370 that it obtained in 1985.

It also says that about 66 percent of the population now falls below the World Bank poverty threshold of $1 a day compared to 43 percent in 1985.

"When you see all these kids in the streets, in 10 years these kids that are 10 will be 20, those that are 15 will be 25, those that are 5 will be 15," Femi said.

"What has this country put in store for these children if the robbers of today are 15? There is absolutely nothing in place for their development, their well being...No jobs. I'm afraid of what will happen five, 10 years from now in a country like Nigeria."

And he doesn't have much hope for the political process ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in April.

"(Nigerian President Olusegun) Obasanjo is rigging the elections...Nobody is going to do anything about it," he said with a shrug.


Later on stage, fronting a 20-piece band which includes traditional female dancers, Femi puts on a pulsating performance for hundreds of appreciative local fans.

He has long been wowing audiences, first shooting to world prominence in 1985 when he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, where he fronted his father's band while Fela was in jail for what are generally believed to have been trumped up fraud charges.

Despite the fame, he wants to be accessible on home turf.

At 250 naira -- the equivalent of about $2 -- the cover charge for the show is a bargain in a city where oil money has pushed the price of many goods far beyond the reach of the average Nigerian.

Beggars without the use of their legs mingle with the able-bodied on the cement dance floor in front of the huge stage.

"The money he's made he's taking and investing in this place...No one else is doing that for Nigeria," said Abdullahi Isah, the 28-year-old head of security at Femi's club. "He has 50 people working here."

And who's going to win the next Grammy? There's no doubt in anyone's mind here.

"He has a 100 percent chance of winning. His culture of music is enough for him to win that Grammy award," said one fan, wearing a T-shirt with Femi's face on the front.


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Information in this article was accurate in February 9, 2003. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.