Femi Kuti hasn’t listened to music in 15 years or so. He’s been on a journey to capture the essence of his own voice, and the distractions of other artists’ music is too much of a liability for him. “I’m trying to find purity in my music,” the Nigerian musician tells Scene.
Being the son of 20th-century icon Fela Kuti, there’s a lot of talk about “legacy” that swirls around his career. With six solo albums and countless appearances on other compilations, Kuti has certainly built a dynamic catalog separate from his father. That meditative approach has allowed him to extend the realm of Afrobeat into this century.
Kuti’s latest album, No Place for My Dreams, lays a discourse on the impoverished of the world over polyrhythms and a lively cast of musical instruments.
“My vision was to speak truth and expose corruption, so that people will understand that poverty is global,” Kuti says. “I think it was a very global album, talking about not just the African problem.”
Tunes like “No Work No Job No Money” showcase what Kuti does best; it’s a tightly wound song that wraps its message in under six minutes. With a repeating melody dancing on the keyboard, it’s easy to see how Kuti and his band might enter something of a trance-like state, massaging the song in as many ways as possible while journeying deep into an improvisational comfort zone on the stage or in the studio. The lyrics, of course, keep Kuti’s message front and center.
“It’s right in my face in Nigeria, right outside my doorstep,” he says of the problems plaguing his home country. “I don’t think there’s anything more important than something I see. I don’t see what personal issues I have that are more important than people not being able to afford health or their families. I live it on a daily basis.”
For the Africans in need of hope and change, Kuti says: “Afrobeat will always be there for them.”
That’s the genre that Kuti’s father helped pioneer in the late 1960s and beyond. As a member of his band, Kuti watched his father develop a hybrid world of jazz, funk, traditional Nigerian music and so much more. (Kuti defines Afrobeat as “music from the perspective of an African.”)
It’s often quite complex, and many aspects of Afrobeat sound very different from how we typically conceptualize songwriting here in the West.
“If you have not been trained to accept — or if your mind has not been trained to that frequency — you’ll never understand jazz or classical music,” Kuti says. “Your mind has to be ready to absorb very intellectual or very complicated pieces like that. Young people, because their minds are not ready, will go for easier kinds of music. As you get older, you start to understand life. Many complications come into one’s life, and you want something probably more serious in life — or something that relates more to the truth of life.”
Enter Afrobeat, which, while certainly danceable, tends to deal with quite heavy issues.
And Kuti has used that genre as a tool to both honor his father and put some distance between the two of them. He’s come into his own at this point, leaving an indelible mark on contemporary pop music here in the U.S. and offering something wholly unique to fans of daring, honest songwriting. (Beyonce and Jay-Z, among many others, have notably begun incorporating Afrobeat traits into their music.)
For years now, Kuti has been achieving those goals by avoiding others’ music altogether. He says he used to listen to a lot of jazz, which worked its way into his own songwriting when he was starting out and when he was performing in Egypt 80, Fela’s band. But now he’s focused on the tranquility of confronting new melodies in his own head.
Kuti writes everything by himself — no interruptions — and, in fact, he often writes in his sleep. He dreams in melody, and he latches onto messages he receives as soon as he can. “I quickly try to wake up, because the melody is very strong,” he says. “If I do wake up and keep this melody in my head, I build on it like a puzzle. I try to remember where I was at, which takes a lot of concentration.”
His approach to writing melodies also comes from live performances. At The New Afrika Shrine in Nigeria, Kuti performs for about four hours. Two or three hours into that, he’ll start picking up on profound melodies coming through the ether of improvisation. With a book nearby, Kuti will write down the organic structures that come to him and stick with him.
Of course, Kuti has no plans to slow down. He says his next album is coming together now — and that with the world’s problems becoming more and more glaring, the need for his wisdom and creativity is stronger than ever.