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
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
"If I sing 'Blackman Know Yourself'," he said, referring to
the title of one of his tracks, "then I'm singing it for a
"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
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
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
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
Beggars without the use of their legs mingle with the
able-bodied on the cement dance floor in front of the huge
"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.