“Being an artist in Nigeria … is still part of the struggle,” the son of the late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti who is also a respected musician in his own right told AFP in an interview at his club, the New Africa Shrine.
“My songs are a fight against corrupt governments,” he added ahead of his performance, which saw him play into the early hours of the morning, his dancers gyrating in cages as he sang in pidgin English, widely spoken here.
Nigeria’s well-known struggles with corruption and poverty have deeply stained the reputation of Africa’s most populous country, which celebrates 50 years of independence on October 1.
But its politically engaged artists, writers and musicians have been a source of great pride, with their work and activism earning praise throughout the world.
The list includes writers like Chinua Achebe, author of what some call the great African novel, “Things Fall Apart,” as well as Wole Soyinka, the continent’s first Nobel laureate in literature.
Both have been outspoken critics of Nigerian political leaders, and Soyinka last week launched a political party ahead of elections early next year.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist in the oil-rich Niger Delta region executed by the government 15 years ago, was also a writer.
Young novelists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have won international recognition as well.
Femi Kuti’s father Fela harshly criticised the government in the oil-rich nation and even formed a commune, the Kalakuta Republic, that he declared independent from Nigeria.
“It’s because of this music that people are enlightened and children will be enlightened tomorrow, so there is great hope,” Femi Kuti said of his father’s work.
A new generation of artists appears to be emerging as well, with galleries in Lagos, a teeming city of some 15 million people, drawing increasing attention.
But while the country’s serious-minded artists and musicians garner much of the praise, popular culture in Nigeria has also become highly lucrative.
Its fast-growing African film industry, known as Nollywood, has become the third most important non-oil export sector and the second largest employer after agriculture, according to the World Bank.
“Nigeria can lead Africa … only if it were not for corruption,” said Ken Okoli, an arts and sculpture lecturer at Amadu Bello University in northern Nigeria.
Mahmud Ali Balogun, a filmmaker, said Nigerians seem to have a “boldness to express ourselves” that accounts for such success in film and music.
The sheer size and diversity of Nigeria — 150 million people from some 250 different ethnic groups — creates a mix that leads to art that provokes, some say.
“It’s the only country on this planet with this diverse kind of culture,” said flute player Tee-Mac Omatshola Iseli.