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Femi Kuti's Lyrical Politics and the Musical Uprising in Wisconsin

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"No Revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression. If such a movement has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, fears, and hopes the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle. Until the movement is marked by the joyous , defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is the dogma of the few and not the faith of the multitude." -- James Connolly, 1907

Every day at 12 p.m., the "Solidarity Singalong" takes place at the Wisconsin Stage Capitol rotunda. A group of several dozen have met every weekday for an hour to sing songs of protest, struggle and freedom like "We Shall Overcome", "Bring Back Wisconsin to Me" (sung to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"), "Solidarity Forever", "This Land is Your Land", and others. The solidarity singers haven't missed a day since the 2011 Wisconsin uprising.

On July 16, the capitol police (colloquially referred to as "Walker's Palace Guard") warned the solidarity singalong that were they to reach 21 people or more, they would be declared an "unlawful assembly" and subject to arrest. I joined my voice with a group of at least 60 others, and we filled the marble halls of the capitol building with revolutionary song after revolutionary song. At 12:30, when the capitol police produced a megaphone, sounded a siren and warned us that we would be arrested if we didn't disperse, we sang even louder and drowned them out. By 1 p.m., after a last rousing chorus of "Solidarity Forever", several singers loudly chanted Article 1, Section 4 of the Wisconsin State Constitution, which states: "The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged."

Even though the capitol police ended the early 2011 occupation of the capitol and readily arrests spectators in the Assembly and Senate galleries for even showing a modicum of support or opposition to bills on the floor, free speech is still alive and well in Wisconsin. The movement for workers' rights and against crony capitalism that took the state by storm lives on through a daily ritual of singing. The state of Wisconsin saw these nonviolent singers as enough of a threat to intimidate with possible arrest. And through the power of music, the people stood strong and prevailed, their daily singalong undisturbed by the threat of incarceration.

At Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wis., dubbed by organizers as "The World's Largest Music Festival," Femi Kuti and his band, The Positive Force, strike up a song called "Politics Na Big Business" from Kuti's latest album called No Place For My Dream. Milwaukee is also where Governor Scott Walker, notoriously known as one of the leading pro-austerity politicians across America, launched his political career. Kuti's concert was on July 2, just a few days before Walker would sign a controversial budget into law that, among other things, paves the way for privatization of public schools. Lobbyists for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce business lobby, the Wisconsin affiliate of the equally notorious lobbyist for multinationals, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were quoted in Wisconsin newspapers as "very excited" with Walker's budget.

After the show, I contacted Femi Kuti on Twitter (@FemiAKuti) where he agreed to an interview. Kuti told me he wasn't aware of the timing and significance of him singing "Politics Na Big Business" in a state where the fusion of state and corporate power is more prevalent than ever before, let alone singing that song in the hometown of a controversial governor that prides himself on his collusion with corporate special interests.

"I wrote that song as a summary of politics in general," Kuti said. "This problem is worldwide, not confined to just one or two nations."

Femi Kuti and his late father, Fela Kuti, are known worldwide as masters of the Afrobeat genre. They fuse traditional African folk rhythms with vibrant horn sections, heavy percussion, a trio of extremely hard-working backup dancers and singers, and strong political undertones in the lyrics. Femi is only playing a handful of shows in the U.S. and Canada on his current tour, going from Milwaukee to Toronto, Michigan, Minneapolis and New York. However, he says he's very familiar with the tenuous political situation in the United States.

"If the U.S. continues down this same path, there will be an uprising. The people don't have jobs, and want the government to create jobs. If the government doesn't come up with an answer, there will be an uprising very soon."

One of Femi Kuti's songs from his self-titled 1995 album is called "Frustrations." The song depicts the struggle of a young man born into a capitalist system who strives for the quintessential Western dream of getting married, having a home, driving his own car, but being unable to do any of the above because of the oppressive nature of the capitalist system. Through these frustrations, the young man's aggressive tendencies are instead channeled toward crime instead of ambition. Kuti says that's a big reason for the rampant kidnapping and theft plaguing Nigeria right now.

"Young people are working all their life just to pay off the debt from the education they needed to get work, and they don't even get a retirement. Nobody in government is showing any real concern for future generations," Kuti says.

Another song from Femi Kuti's self-titled album, "Plenty Nonsense," talks about the poverty that pervaded the Nigeria in which he was raised. The lyrics describe how a free school built for poor children doesn't have windows, how firefighters don't have water to put out fires, and how police let armed robbers go free because of the meager salary they're paid, requiring them to panhandle on the street so they can feed their families. When I remarked that the crippling poverty felt across the globe and sparking revolutions was not as prevalent yet in the United States, Femi quickly corrected me.

"Poverty is poverty," he said. "There is no worse country in this respect, and there is no difference between poverty in America, Europe or Africa."

In some respect, Femi is right. In 2010, firefighters in Obion County, Tenn., stood and watched as a family's home burned to the ground. County residents are required to pay a $75 fee for fire protection. Since the homeowners didn't pay the $75 fee, they had to lose their home without any help from the fire department. And McDonalds' latest response to the wave of fast food worker strikes demanding $15 an hour was to publish a budgeting guide to help their minimum wage employees pay their bills. The guide told workers to get a second job, and their sample budget set aside $0 for heating costs.

"All around the world, there is a complete disconnect between leadership and everyone else's lives," Femi says. "Politicians know there are problems, but they just talk. Government is just an empty symbol, and young people everywhere are starting to realize that."

Even though he's only playing his revolutionary songs at a handful of shows in North America, Femi Kuti is very responsive on Twitter, regularly interacts with fans and posts updates on his own reflections of world events.

"Young people don't follow the mainstream media anymore. It doesn't give relevant information," Femi says. "But with social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, young people are getting informed up to the minute on what governments are doing all over the world."

Femi Kuti says what inspires him to keep making music is to inspire enough people to force necessary change through nonviolent action.

"I see global revolution happening anytime, because people no longer see their governments as legitimate. But we need to take immediate steps to stop bloodshed. I don't want people to get violent. But if governments do not respond to the people, we can do little to avoid it," Kuti says. "I hope, through my music, I can strike a chord and get people to see the urgency of what I'm talking about.