Award winning Femi Kuti, eldest son of legendary Afro beat pioneer Fela Kuti, has no doubt carved a niche for himself in the entertainment industry. Like his father, his career has shown a strong commitment to social and political causes. A household name in the entertainment scene, Femi needs no introduction.
Apart from dazzling his audience with his energetic performance, he plays the saxophone with great adroitness and finesse that give classic music a whole new meaning.
Late last year, he became part of the Nigerian Idol Judges despite his busy schedule and he says, “I have enjoyed my time so far, and in terms of talent, I am very impressed”. In this encounter with Esther Onyegbula, he talks about the lack of structures in the Nigeria entertainment industry, and shares his opinion on the Centenary celebration of the Nigerian nation.
In Nigeria, afrobeat music is gradually dying as young Nigerian artistes are not inclined to singing afro beat, what are you doing to address this situation?
Afro beat can never die, maybe in Nigeria, but in America, there are over forty to fifty bands; in New York alone there are over 20 bands; it exists in Japan, Australia, San Francisco and other parts of the world. So when you think that afro beat is dying in Nigeria, in other parts of the world, it is becoming bigger and more popular.
But it did not originate from those parts of the world?
It does not matter where it originated from, we are all from the same planet, and I am not going to get caught in the foolishness of being a Nigerian. I am not a Nigerian, I am an African. When you understand the history of Nigeria, Nigeria is a colonial structure set in motion by Lady Lugard. So Nigeria is not our name. When you understand the history of Africa, then you will not be foolish to fall into the category of calling yourself a Nigerian. I am an African, because you understand that Africa was divided 1885. When you look at it from that perspective, you will understand that people appreciate the talents that come out from this part of the world. If young Nigerian artistes are not playing afro beat and Americans are playing afro beat, then we need to ask ourselves the question why? Do you know what it takes to compose an afro beat number? Nigerian artiste won’t play afro beat because it is too difficult to play. The foundation of afro beat is based on emancipation of Africa, fighting against corruption and injustice; this is the uniqueness of afro beat, the truthfulness in the music, like what Bob Marley did with reggae. The difference is that Afro beat is deeper than reggae. So the die hard Fela fan want to see a replica of that. So for you to come out of that stereotype criticism, you will go through hell. I went through hell. Breaking out of my father nest was not easy. So I don’t expect, even for my son to break out of his grand father or my nest, he is going to do something extra ordinary. But then you will look at it from the critical point that shows the uniqueness of the music and you have to be so talented and gifted.
Anybody can do what is going on in the music scene. The biggest dullard can create a hit. All you need is a catching phase, it has become a hit, it is entertaining. When you now want to be critical of it, you will find that it is the kind of music you will laugh at and make fun of, it is not classical music or jazz.
Why has classical music lasted centuries? Because it goes note by note, each note is very important. The way you sit on the piano is all part of your training and it takes years. Abroad, they start playing the key board from the age of five.
What about classical music?
All the films you watch what are you hearing at the back ground are classical music. Do you take time out to ask yourself who composed or wrote the music? So the people making money, serious money in the entertainment industry music, you don’t hear their names. You only hear the names of Michael Jackson, but when you go into a Michael Jackson, you find out he doesn’t write his songs. How many people know Quincy Jones? He was the one that made Michael Jackson, he was the one that wrote the Thriller. So these are things that many people don’t know. So when I say we don’t have an industry, I know what I’m saying. We just want to eat the cherry of the industry. So there is so much that goes on and you have to go through years of training before you become a fantastic force to be reckoned with in classical music or jazz.
What are the things you learnt on the road?
In America you will find more than ten thousand bass, they can read, they can play any kind of bass with studio wizards, because the studio is a different world. There are several mistakes you cannot get away with unlike in live performance. Now, this is something I had to learn on the road because of my recording. I was signed with a big label and luckily for me, I grew up with my father. So, I had to adjust to that world. But really if I didn’t have my father’s experience, they would have discarded me when I got to Europe.
I remember getting to a studio in Paris and I broke the microphone. If they did believe I had talent, they would say, see him, he is so clumsy. And I remember that day, they were shouting, do you know how much this microphone cost, we are never going to get this microphone, because everything is so expensive.
At present, ‘Fela on Broadway’ is on in America, what is your take in the scheme of things? Do you have any oversight function?
No, we don’t have any oversight function. The guy, Steve, already bought Fela catalogue. So, it was easy because they have right to his company and he is the one that is co producing this. When you look at that film, it is not making money, it is just that the people in it love Fela.
I will give you an insight into my career again, because I travel out and people think I must be a multi millionaire. How do you rate some someone a multi millionaire because he is traveling? I buy tickets for his band; I must pay salary, pay internal flight and transportation, now the venue there, you are not going to get more than a thousand people. It is not Nigeria where you charge people up to N25, 000 to watch a show; you cannot charge that outside the country. It is disgusting when you bring an American artiste from America and you are charging this kind of fee, because the maximum you will charge in America is thirty dollars. And if it is a big artiste, you put it in the stadium.
How would your rate this edition of Nigerian Idol; has it met your standard, in terms of talents discovery?
Even if it didn’t, will I be able to say it? Considering all our problems in Nigeria, I will say yes. I have enjoyed my time so far. And in terms of talents, I am very impressed. Saying we have great singers would be an understatement.
In future what changes would you like to see?
It is called the Nigerian Idol; I hope in the future, it will be more African in its presentation, focusing on African hit songs or Nigerian hits. So if we are singing Whitney’s songs as a hit, of what good is it to us as a people? But if we are singing our hit songs irrespective of the artiste in Africa, we would be promoting the artiste and our culture in Nigeria and Africa to the world, because Nigerian Idol is shown all over the world. Nigerian Idol should be more African than American.
What are you doing about this?
I have discussed it with my colleagues, the producers and everybody involved and we have all agreed that this is the route the talent show needs to take.
Do you think that this platform gives musical artiste added advantage, considering the fact that in your time these platforms were unavailable?
The contestants are very lucky, whether they like it or not, at least they have over two million viewers watching, I am not exaggerating, over two million viewers have known their face. I you have to start right from scratch like in our days, even being Fela’s son you had to start from the scratch. Being Fela’s son did not guarantee you followership, if you did not prove yourself. Now these ones have got the platform, it is what they now make of this that determines it all.
Do you think we have an entertainment industry readily available to absorb these talents?
The problem we have in Nigerian industry is that we don’t have an industry as such. In America, the nation building in America was built around entertainment, be it Hollywood or music. So if you have talent you know you will make it.
Unfortunately for us in Nigeria and even Africa, we want to go from point A to Z, and jump B to Y. In America, it is not like that, you must have a guide. But in Nigeria, there is no foundation, artiste want to have a hit song and find themselves in point Z.
We need to build solid foundation for generations to come, because what we are seeing in a country like Nigeria, with a hundred and eighty million people, we are going to have a big problem if these structures are not put in place.
What do you think can be done to make the show more African?
By insisting that Nigeria or Africa songs are part of it, because I think that contestant feel that if they don’t sing one of the America hit songs they will not win. For instance when sing Fela’s song, they think they have to sing it like Fela did, or demonstrate like Fela, so the attitude already is wrong. But if you can sing the song better than Fela Anikulapo Kuti sing it, if you can sing better than a bob Marley sing it. The judges are looking for the unique voice texture. The talent show is just three years in the making, I think by its fifth or sixth year, it will change and contestant will know that they have the ability of singing a Nigerian hit song and still qualify to any stage of the competition. People have to feel confident to sing African songs. I noticed this time around that many of the contestants were singing either P square or D banj it is just that majority still sing America. By the time we get to the final six or so, the contest say the contestant must sing an African song to qualify.