‘I Want to be One of the Best’ Wonder Wonder? – Femi Kuti
When TELL met with Afrobeat superstar Femi Kuti at the bohemian New Africa Shrine, he was seated by a window that overlooked the huge arena, practising on his trumpet and once in a while looking around to survey his commune. Dressed in a black T-shirt and baggy Ankara trousers, the 50-year-old Kuti looked calm as two of his sons played around him in the dimly lit back room of the shrine. It is the place that has become a mecca of sorts for music lovers since it was founded a few years ago. Annually, the shrine hosts the ‘Felabration’, a celebration of the life and music of Femi’s larger than life father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Through his music and work, Femi continues the family’s tradition of speaking out against inept governance while proposing the idea of a borderless continent in his most recent Grammy-nominated album, Africa for Africa. It is an age-old idea that was first propounded by great African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Femi thinks that it is high time Africans began to think of themselves beyond borders and other limitations imposed by the colonialists. Many scholars have written so many accolades about Fela and his music, but Femi says his father was not perfect and he did not have it easy with the man with whom he fell out as a 16-year-old when he set out to form his band the Positive Force. Several years later, Femi has grown his own style of Afrobeat that is a little faster in tempo than the one done by his father. He has also gone round the world and made music with top stars in the soul and hip-hop communities. He already has three Grammy nominations, yet Femi tries to maintain some humility and keeps working harder everyday and practices to play the trumpet at least eight hours daily.
In this interview with Ololade Adewuyi, senior assistant editor, Femi talks about his plans for the future, his relationship with Seun, his younger brother, fatherhood and raising his children and the political situation in Nigeria. Excerpts:
You have been nominated for the Grammys three times; what does it mean for you, for your music and art?
It means everything. When you’re in the business and you’re nominated by one of the highest bodies of entertainment in the world, you have to be happy. First of all it means the people who nominated you appreciate and acknowledge what you are doing and they’re saying it is one of the favourite albums of the year. When you consider the number of songs that were released in America and your album was one of the five best, you’re pleased.
Let’s talk about Africa for Africa. You sang about having a borderless continent and you talked about corruption, how do you think this can be achieved?
It has always been the dream of great African leaders, from Marcus Garvey, to Martin Luther King Jnr., Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah, so it is not my dream, it is not my idea, it is something I believe in as well. That for Africa to prosper, for Africa to be the envy of the world, these are the challenges African leaders should meet, and any African leader that does not move in this direction is not an African leader and does not have the love of his people at heart. Why can I not drive my car from Lagos to Johannesburg? Where are the roads? You cannot even drive from Lagos to the East without too many potholes.
Have you ever had any threat, apart from when the shrine was shut down for a week or so?
Yes, many times. In 2000, I did about 150 posters and pasted them all over Lagos, “Obasanjo and Tinubu stop government stealing.” And this time I formed my political movement, MASS, and I put it all over Lagos. There was a bomb planted in my room and then the press descended on me, “Femi has gone mad,” Thisday, Punch, PM News at that time. And it was in the front page. I left the country for five months, January to May. And there was not one single good press in my name for about four to five years. And everything was negative, and I had to start reading lots of books about dissidents to understand how government works. Who controls these papers, who can manipulate most of the press? A lot of the press boys sold out, so it was easy for a press boy to just write, ‘Femi was seen in Ojuelegba holding a big joint of marijuana, walking stark naked’, and the Femi was sitting here practising.
Then people would wake up in the morning and say, “Ah, omo Fela ti ya were” [Fela’s son has gone mad] and they will believe the story and everybody will come to my house asking, “what are you doing in Ojuelegba smoking Igbo (Indian hemp)?” And I had to start asking them, even if I want to smoke Igbo why will I leave my house? And they say, they said they saw you walking stark naked, and I said did you meet me stark naked? And the people that were reading it, my personal close friends argued with me and they believed the story. But they came here and saw somebody talking fluently to them, they saw me trying to keep this place alive, they saw the work I was doing.
And if I am not doing well, let’s be honest with ourselves, and the shrine is doing well, Felabration is doing well. I don’t get much airplay; it is in Europe and America that they are saying whoa! This guy is good. So I can win many awards in Europe and be nominated for the Grammys. And if you Google Femi Kuti, you will see there is not once that he has compromised his thoughts, accusations against the Nigerian government, compromised what his father has stood for. I am probably, I don’t want to boast, the most travelled band in this country for the past 10 years.
You’ll be 50 [in June 2012], apart from your few grey hairs... (cuts in)
I’m growing bald.
You’re still fashionable and you still have so much energy, just like your sister and even your late father. What is it in the Kuti gene that keeps you all looking trim and strong?
The determination to excel. When you know what failure is, you don’t want to fail. When you know what poverty is, you don’t want to be poor. When you’re ashamed to beg you don’t want to ever go to knock on any of your friends’ doors to say, “please help me feed my family.” So you’re going to put in everything you have got. And I believe I’m a very strong, I’m not a Christian or a Muslim, but I strongly believe in my ancestors and I believe there are angels and I believe in the Almighty God whom I don’t think is male or female.
You performed with Hugh Masekela at the opening ceremony of the World Cup, he performed with Fela, he was at the old shrine and I read his autobiography where he talked about his experiences with Fela. What was it like to perform with Masekela?
He’s like a father figure to me because I met him with my father. He has played at the shrine two times already. I’ve met him in many places on tour. When he sees me, he treats me like his son. He won’t come to Nigeria and not call me, and I won’t be in South Africa and not let him know I’m in town.
If you weren’t doing music or if you had to stop playing because you lost interest in everything tomorrow, couldn’t play the piano or the sax again, what would you rather be doing?
It won’t be possible. When I got bored of the sax was when I moved to the trumpet and keyboard. And I know this is going to take me for the rest of my life because I want to be one of the best and I know what it means to be one of the best. So I know I if I don’t get there I’ll die trying. I couldn’t do anything else.
What legacy are you looking to leave behind?
I don’t care, I don’t know, I don’t think of that o! I told you what I do, practice, practice, practice. That is arrogance, I don’t want to be arrogant and pompous but when you ask this kind of questions you force me to be. Even my work speaks volumes. Whether people like it or not, first Kora Award winner, my awards in Nigeria alone are uncountable. The first Nigerian to win the World Music Award now three times Grammy nominee, from Lagos, from the New Africa Shrine, not moved. Then if you want to count my tours outside this country, you can’t follow me. You will lose count. [In 2011] alone, I toured over 50 venues. I can’t tell you what I did [in 2010] or the year before that. I can’t tell you where I was 20 years ago. Before my father died my name was already out there with Wonder Wonder, it was a serious hit. When you have a father like Fela and you’re making waves, if your generation doesn’t acknowledge it, my case will be like my father’s where a generation will come and educate previous generations that “didn’t you know the man Femi Anikulapo-Kuti?” You know the case of Fela is that your generation cannot understand why he was never recognised by previous generations, why he was not respected, why he was not given his due. Some say because he smoked Igbo [hemp]? Your generation knows that many people are smoking this Igbo and they cannot jail everybody that smokes Igbo in this country.
Many of the big people are smoking Igbo and even if they don’t smoke Igbo, their children are smoking the Igbo, so why did they victimise Fela? Then your generation is wise enough to understand that it wasn’t because Fela was smoking Igbo, it was because of what Fela was saying and they were trying to silence him, so your generation now admires and respects him so his name can’t die.
Will you be having any of your children in the band anytime soon?
Made played with me between [ages] nine and 12. I’m sure these ones [Ayomide and Tunmise playing around] will play with me.
(This interview was conducted last year as part of preparations for Femi’s 50th birthday, which came up June 16.)