by Chi Ibe
Born on June 16, 1962, Femi Kuti, son of late Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and icon in his own right, turned 50 today, and – as usual – he held back no punches in this interview with Vanguard.
His candour is always refreshing (and the last few answers are priceless).
What does fifty years mean to you; people say as a golden jubilee, it is supposed to make a man wiser?
Nothing, but I believe I’m wiser and more experienced in age and life but I’m indifferent towards it. Pertaining to celebration, some people are making it look like a glorious day because they appreciate my works, but to me, its just another day that will pass.
Regarding your career, can we talk about the high points of it?
There are so many of it. My first hit was ‘’Wonder-Wonder’’ which won a lot of awards in Nigeria. I was the first Nigerian to win ‘’KORA Award, ‘’World-Music Award and some others. I believe I was the most appreciated Nigerian at the Grammy award even though I haven’t won any yet. I have been nominated for a good number of awards too. I’ve toured extensively all around the world. I’m definitely in ‘the fore front of Afro-beat. The period when ‘’Bang-Bang-Bang’’ became an international hit, it opened so many doors especially to the new generations who did not know my father; they were now able to relate me and my works to him.
Even regarding sales too?
Well, I can’t really say that about sales because it has dropped for everybody. One who used to have a sale of twenty million then should be happy and grateful if he can have a sale of two million now.
How about the low points?
That would include bad press, especially from some particular National newspapers. Once I was called and asked where I was in France, it was rumoured that I was running around the ‘’Eiffel Tower’’ naked. I didn’t bother to call them to clear the air; I think my sister (Funke) did. Also, my crashed marriage was as a result of the same bad press. I decided to keep quiet about it for the sake of my son but they fueled it by exaggerating the story.
The death of my sister would most likely be the lowest point of my life and my mother’s death too because on that day, I had to play at Okoya’s 60th birthday party. I was glad I was able to sail through but those two days were the worst days of my life.
How about the death of your father?
Not really, because my father was a celebrity. So it was more of celebration rather than a burial. The only sad thing is that he didn’t get to see his grandchildren and give them a piece of advice for their career but it was not as regretful as that of my sister. My father lived a rather fulfilled life with 27 wives, fame and fortune. He was nothing short of the biggest star Nigeria ever had. So his death was not a regret but a celebration.
Faced with the reality of your father’s death and as the first male of the family, how did things go for you?
His death was not something I was prepared for. Notwithstanding, he had been grooming me for a life after him so, I wasn’t shocked. But as the days went by, the burden of the legacy that had been passed on to me dawned on me because the African tradition emphasizes on the male son to take over everything but luckily for me, my sister was very helpful.
What were the initial challenges?
The initial challenge was trying to get the ‘’Shrine from the ‘’Burlington’s and when we could not get it, we immediately licensed his back-catalogue. If you remember then, a lot of his music was bootlegged because he was dead. We quickly convinced the family to give Universal Music the license because that was the only multinational organization that could sue and stop the bootleggers. They took a fast decisions so we would not loose licensing to back catalogue.
Convincing and keeping the family together became a major challenge because a lot of people wanted to separate the family, using Seun as an excuse to cause friction. I had to keep my band, tour and music career together as well. It wasn’t easy but I learn that nothing good comes easy in life.
Talking about your Music, how much would you say it has grown in the last five years?
I think my next album would be a dynamite. From the Grammy nominations, you can see that if I wasn’t progressing, I wouldn’t have been nominated for that award. If ‘’Bang-Bang” won the ‘World Music nomination in 2001, 2010 and 2012, it shows that it’s not the end of my career, I’m progressing and it is not just a flick. If it were to be that I had just one nomination, people would have said it was because I happened to be Fela’s son or that I featured American artistes, but it wasn’t so. I featured more of French artistes and had no American collaboration. The performances of the French artistes on my album was done in Lagos.
There was no technological enhancement. It was live from the studio. That shows that people appreciate what I’m doing and it is not easy to be nominated for awards. Femi Kuti has taken the Broadway to a different level and here, where it started, nothing much is happening but in Europe. My fear is that we would soon have a situation whereby they may not have services of the original owners of the music…
We should understand that Afro-Beat has become a global thing; it doesn’t belong to just Nigeria anymore. The world appreciates the fact that it is Fela’s creation and nobody runs away from that fact. So it can only keep growing. It is now going to have a new dimension and more branches.
The Afro-beat I play now is quite different from what Fela played and when my son (Made) who is being trained, makes his own album, whatever he plays is going to be different from what we both play but, he would still have the influence of his father and grandfather. As the years go by, it is not going to be done by Nigerians alone, other people would emerge.
I’m talking about the originators, nobody would be there to take over?
That’s not true. I’ve seen a couple of bands that play Afro-beat. I cant remember their names but I know a good number play the same.
They may not be as known as myself and Seun but they do exist. It is just because the critics are over-critical, insisting that you must be like Fela. I once had a problem with these critics due to the fact that Seun acted more like Fela but I refused to act like him and it took me years; that is over a decade to convince Nigerians that you don’t have to be like Fela to play Afro-beat. It was ‘Bang-Bang-Bang’ that opened their eyes to the fact that you can do something else with the Afro-beat and it has opened a whole new market that people are capitalizing on now.
You seem to have come back to where you started from, was that an experiment?
No, its all part of the going. When I did the work with most of those Hip-hop artistes in America, an opportunity came and I seized it. If another one comes by and I have to work with classical musicians, I would not hesitate. It is all part of growth and development of music.
What are those basic things in Afro-beat that makes it distinct from other genres of music, particularly when you do a collaboration with a Hip-hop artiste?
First, you must remember that Hip-hop came out of Afro-beat, so there are a lot of similarities between the two and merging is not a difficult task. The difference between Afro-beat and the rest is finding melodies for your rhythm and being political and sincere with your lyrics.
Is it really compulsory?
No it’s not. ‘Bang-Bang-Bang’ showed it is not compulsory but that should be the major factor. If you want to hear a love song, people want the sincerity of that music kept in place, so when I play ‘’Sorry-Sorry’’, people want to hear the frustrations of a young man regarding bad government.
You are looking very good, honestly, I’m quite impressed
Well, thank you. I try as much as possible not to stress myself at my age. Notwithstanding that I’ve been through so much, I have tried to live and stay healthy in the toil surrounding my life.
How has it been keeping a band together?
I’ve had to start up a new band for over five times now because of indiscipline among my band members. Sometimes, they refuse to understand the political message behind my music; building and maintaining the ‘’Shrine’’ also. In all these cases, if you don’t try to comport yourself, you might lose your head (laughing).
Lets talk about romance, is it dead?
No. You can see one of my beautiful girlfriends over there.
I mean ‘wife’, not ‘girlfriend’…
I don’t have to be married to be happy and I’m not getting married again. I can actually say I’m married and I don’t necessarily have to call a Pastor to serve as a witness to it. I even consider that a low point on my integrity.
If I live together with a woman who has a child for me, in the African tradition, she is already my wife-that’s common sense. I can say I’m married only that it is not documented which is preferable because if we start a fight, we don’t have to go to a court; we can settle it amicably or just walk away from the relationship. I just got off the phone with Funke before you walked in. We talk about our son and other issues like we are still married but not legally married anymore.
But why is she not here?
She does not have to be here. She stays at her own house.
Asking as a friend now, do you sometimes miss her?
Like I said, I have no regrets and we are no longer married. But sometimes, I miss her. I’m the kind of person that gets up and picks his life back after a problem or else, it will kill you; not physically but mentally or psychologically. There were times we tried to come back together but it just didn’t work. There were stronger forces against our coming back and I did not have the energy to keep on pleading for understanding. A lot of things changed but it is something nobody is bitter about now. We talk about the past but nobody accepts responsibility for the mistakes, so we just let it die down.
If she comes to you for sexual pleasure now, would you succumb?
Most likely not. (laughing)
What is your perception of the talent hunt show,’Next Afro-beat Star’?
I think it would be wonderful and fantastic if it is focused.
Happy 50th, sir!