Interview: Femi Kuti on the Closing of His Nightclub The Shrine, Nigerian Corruption, and Obama
Dutifully carrying on his father Fela Kuti's outsized and outspoken legacy, afrobeat's first son Femi Kuti has not only spent the last decade-plus touring the world, releasing albums (including last year's fine Day By Day), and collecting Grammy nominations (for 2003's Fight To Win), he's also been actively criticizing the Nigerian government and the corruption that pervades African governments in general. Although Femi hasn't had to endure beatings and jailings like his father (see the lyrics of Fela classics like "Coffin For Head Of State" and "Expensive Shit" for this chilling history), he too us a target of the government. On May 26, Nigerian authorities forcibly closed the New Afrika Shrine, Femi's Lagos nightclub-cum-community headquarters, a tribute to his father's legendary Shrine nightclub, itself razed by the government after Fela's death in 1997.
The news hit close to home for me: in 2006 I traveled with my afrobeat band Aphrodesia to Lagos, Nigeria to play at the New Afrika Shrine with Femi. The experience yielded not only firsthand knowledge of the chaos in Lagos (not to mention of the armed, bribe-seeking Nigerian soldiers and policemen whose improvised demands for 'fees' and 'taxes' at the border were enough to make us long for the DMV), but also a glimpse at the stability provided by the Shrine to many of that city's residents. A huge tin-walled barn, the community center serves as a serves as a crash pad for neighborhood homeless, a meeting place for local organizers, and a nightclub where Femi whips enormous crowds into a frenzy thrice-weekly (even rehearsals are open to the public).
The government's official reason for closing the Shrine-the nuisance created by peddlers on the street outside-was almost laughable. In a city where much of the population survives by selling food and trinkets on the side of the road, it seemed blatantly political-like if Bloomberg's police force were to arrest jaywalkers only in precincts that didn't vote for him-and indicative that Femi's politics still rankle the Nigerian leadership much as his father's did a generation ago. Although the government relented and allowed the Shrine to reopen a few days later, the incident was still firmly on Femi's mind when I talked to him by phone from Salt Lake City on one stop on his North American tour.
What's going on now at the Shrine?
It's been reopened now. We were given those flimsy excuses for why they had to close it. Because of those street traders. It had nothing to do with us.
What do you think the real reason was?
I believe people are envious of the place.
Envious of what?
I don't know. Maybe you need to go and ask the government, and ask them, "Why did you close this place? Why do you keep closing the place?" Because the excuses they give have nothing to do with us. To close the place because of the street traders-how do they expect us to go out and drive the people selling on the streets away? That is not our duty. They are on the federal government road, it's not our duty to go out there and start telling people not to stand outside and selling their products there. It has nothing to do with us.
Of course, people sell stuff on the street all over Lagos.
Ha, yes, all over Lagos. I mean, if they want to clear the streets, what does that have to do with us? We are not playing on the streets. The Shrine is not a...it's not in a residential area. It's an industrial area. So even noise pollution is out of the question. They can't complain about noise. They can't complain about parking because we have twenty security when we are playing, to control traffic.