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07/05/2016
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Femi Kuti carries on his father’s powerful Afrobeat mission

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” The quote is attributed to early 20th-century feminist and radical Emma Goldman, but it could as easily have been uttered by Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti — or by his son Femi Kuti.

With his band, the Positive Force, the 54-year-old carries on his father’s legacy, emodying the genre’s potent mingling of rhythm and fiery political thought. Kuti and the Positive Force have been making music for three decades now, and they bring a massive, moving show. I reached him by phone in San Francisco, ahead of his July 8 KC show.

The Pitch: Why do you think Afrobeat appeals so broadly to so many disparate cultures?

Femi Kuti: Probably because of the enlightenment the world is facing now. I think people are very conscious, and the foundation of Afrobeat is very authentic. My father set a very honest standard, and when people understand the message behind the Afrobeat, and the dedication my father put into not compromising against corruption and injustice — and paid a very high price — I think people really appreciate this.

With myself, I have tried to take the Afrobeat into quarters where people would not know the Afrobeat, especially with my [1998] hit song, “Bang Bang Bang,” when I had probably very famous DJs do remixes in house music. We had top DJs, and it was played in all of the clubs, introducing Afrobeat to a whole new audience.

With tours, we play with people like the String Cheese Incident, Jane’s Addiction — I’ve opened many quarters where people would probably not be bothered about listening to the Afrobeat. Touring America for over two decades now, and with Fela! on Broadway — these have opened many doors. So, I think when people get to understand what the Afrobeat is all about, they are all interested because it addresses what conscious people are concerned about.

Do you see that work for social rights as a family legacy?

Yeah, you could say so, because my great-grandfather, my father, my grandfather, my grandmother — you could say that it’s something the family would do, because we could never support corruption. I think after colonization, it’s so rampant. My family has been so exposed to world affairs and understanding Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King — we have always been standing up against injustice. My family has never been known to tolerate injustice or corruption, so you could say so, but I just think it’s part of us, probably.

How do you approach protest music?

For me, I have to think of how to pass a bitter message to open people’s consciousness. It’s like having to take a bitter pill with a sweet drink. I use the music as a sweet drink, and the message is a bitter pill. Now, the people will not want to believe you are sick. No matter where you are, if you have to take a pill, you are disgusted: “No, I do not want it!” So, with a child, you have to be like, “I am going to give you Fanta or Coca-Cola, if you take this pill with it.” And then they are more likely to cooperate with you. So, it’s like using the music to hit on one’s subconscious, and then, eventually, “Oh, is this what this is about? Wow!” and then people get fascinated and they become part of things.

It’s also like awakening one’s consciousness. We are all involved, whether we like it or not, and it just takes something to open it. You cannot believe that, because you are having a good life and all is well with you. It’s like believing that, since you have nobody in your family that has died of cancer, to hell with people who have cancer. What kind of thinking is that? “Oh, I thought nobody in my family would ever die.” It’s an inevitability that one day we are all going to die, and if you pass through life believing that you are not going to die, then of course your consciousness is not awakened. I give you something to awaken your consciousness, so you do not take things for granted in your life.