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Femi Kuti and his James Brown-size band have always had one of the more powerful live shows on earth. But the music has never quite translated to the studio, until 2008’s Day By Day, the Nigerian’s first studio album in seven years. The eldest son of fiery Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti, Femi has often been dismissed (or embraced) as a smoother version of his late father’s post-funk with ambitions of hip-hop crossover. With Day By Day, however, he now seems at ease being his own Afrobeat thing: high-voiced yet throaty, a jazz everyman of uncommon melodic lightness, with punk-blunt lyrics and a sinewy sax/trumpet/organ attack. Speaking from Lagos on the eve of his North American tour, which stops Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl, Femi talked about his club, his father, and getting old.
Decider: Your club, The Shrine, has a storied history of police harassment. Why does the government care?
Femi Kuti: It’s a strategy to scare people away. Because what we are saying is very political. They don’t want people to hear it. The music is all about the corruption of the government. [A 2-year-old makes noise in the background.]
D: Who is that?
FK: He’s my second child.
D: A young singer?
FK: Something like that. [Laughs.] Maybe he’ll change the music scene completely.
D: How would you feel if one of your three children didn’t go into music?
FK: My first son was playing since he was 5—he’s been on tour, and played on Day By Day. I would love to see them all onstage, but if that doesn’t please them, I would understand.
D: Is your first son playing with you on this tour?
FK: No, he’s going on 14 now, and in school. We have about 40 dates, which is difficult because I’m not getting any younger. I’m not complaining. I really love getting old.
D: You were born in London and grew up in Nigeria. Was your father part of your life before he left Lagos for Los Angeles in 1969?
FK: He wasn’t that kind of conventional father. He would come back very late at night because he was always working. By the time I came back from school, he was out, and when he came back, I was asleep.
D: Why did you move in with him when you were a teenager?
FK: Because my father took me out of school to protest soldiers guarding it. Then I left school to start playing music in his band.
D: Those were tumultuous years to be living with him, when soldiers burned your house and fatally injured your grandmother, and then your father married 27 women.
FK: It was scary because you never knew when the police or soldiers would raid and beat everybody up again. It was very tough, because the wives [were] always fighting. He had all these people around him, so he’d say, “Hello, how are you? Have you practiced?” “Yes.” That’s about it, really. It wasn’t like a home.
D: You started performing in your father’s band when you were 16, and stepped in to lead the band six years later, at the Hollywood Bowl, when your father was detained in Lagos.
FK: That was probably one of the scariest parts of my life, because I could not imagine anything like that. But everyone around was like, “You can do it! You did it back in Lagos!” It turned out not too bad. But it was from there that I could picture the future, and say, “If anything happened to my father, how would I lead the band?” So that made me more determined to take music seriously.
D: Why did you decide to form your own band instead?
FK: Because my father’s brother took control of my father’s band, and was running his band and life, so to speak. And I did not want to be under my father’s brother, so I left.
D: Now Seun Kuti has taken over the band. Do you have a musical relationship with him?
FK: He comes around to The Shrine to say hello, but that’s about it. We’re from different eras. I’m old enough to be his father.
D: What did your father think of your first album?
FK: He didn’t think much of it. It was the second album where he kept talking about a track called “Mind Your Own Business.” He couldn’t believe I could make music like that. He was very impressed.
D: Was he hard to impress?
FK: Ha. Yes. [Laughs.]