February 20, 2011

My father taught me to protest with music – Femi Kuti

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti needs no introduction. First son of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Femi, who is turning out to be a splitting image of his late father, was a delightful person to interview.

Frank and to the point, he is as brash and impatient as his late father. There, with their mutual talent, is where the similarities lie. They both had their ways, their fights and the love of father and son that binds irrespective of different schools of thought.

Although, Femi had no formal education, he is as articulate and well read as any one who reached the zenith of academic pursuit. For one who was self-taught, Femi has done remarkably well. The KORA Award winner and Grammy Awards nominee, Femi, tells what these awards have done for his career and his painful journey to stardom and appreciation by the Nigerian public. Enjoy!

When your songs are played on air, is it with your permission?

Playing the song helps your music.When you go to big venues outside to play and you are known, when they hear your song, they will know it’s you. If radio stations don’t play your song, then you will suffer a lot. So, you need radio stations to play your songs so that when you come for a show and you are introduced to the stage, the crowd will be able to sing along with you when you are performing. It adds more feel to your performance and gives you joy as well. This also helps one’s band. If you can get half of the audience in the club, then you have done well. Since shows have gone political, I don’t play outside the shrine.

You never play outside the shrine?

I don’t; simply because they don’t call me. I am not going to beg for shows. Will I? They prefer to promote hip-hop and the rest that are not political. They are not stepping on anybody’s toe; the toes of multi-nationals or government. Me, I step on anybody’s toe.

So, you are following in your father’s step?

Not really; it’s just the way we were trained. If our people just want to sit down and accept their fate like that, I don’t accept mine like that. It is very evident that things are very bad in our country; politicians keep stealing money, we don’t have good roads, proper education, and potable water and so on. I can’t accept that. Majority of Nigerians are suffering. I don’t accept this and my father showed us a way to complain through music and that is what I am doing.

Your own music seems to be different. You did not follow Fela. Why is that?

Well, I managed to raise my kind of music. I wanted to find my way. I think that is the biggest challenge when you have a famous father. To copy and sound like my father, I don’t think it was a big deal. I did that at the beginning and if I were still doing that, I don’t think I would have created the respect I have today in the industry.

Even on the international stage, if you talk about Afrobeat music, I think I am one of the few people that have made a name in the music industry and it’s not because my father is famous but because I have proven myself as a musician.

Instances can be traced to the awards I have won such as CORA Award, World Music or being nominated for the prestigious Grammy Awards. Someone like my father was not concerned about awards. Even in Nigeria, when he was nominated for an award, he will never go because he does not care and that was how we grew up. Most often, people get carried away by the awards that they have won, feeling as if they have arrived and gotten to the peak in music.

Is Afrobeat the only kind of music you do or do you have plans to do hip-hop some time soon?

Hip-hop? For what? Why should I go to a branch of music that came out of what my father started? I have worked with hip-hop artistes in America. I might do that again. It’s most likely that someone might say do this with me and I will. I just did one with one American big star. So, they might say we should do something and I will oblige them; even with Nigerians.

But on my own, I will definitely not do or go into hip-hop and it’s not as if I have anything against hip-hop. I even love what some of them are doing but it’s not the kind of music I want to play.

What does the future hold for Afrobeat?

It will be there forever. There are so many bands now, even in America. There is a very big band called ‘Anti-Balance’ in America. There is one in Australia. There are many in France. There are Afrobeat bands now all over the world. So, it can only get bigger and bigger.

The thing about Afrobeat, when you say that you are an Afrobeat musician, you are automatically compared with Fela; because he set standard and if you are not strong, you will lose focus due to criticism. Fela’s critics are very strong, so they want you to do every thing like Fela for you to prove yourself and that is not true.

Did you have that problem when you started?

Of course I did. I started in 1986. I did not get popular until 1994 with “Wonder Wonder”. It took me nearly ten years before Nigerians accepted me and I was only accepted because of the track “Wonder Wonder”.

I had no choice because I had no other job to do, so I worked hard and put in my best. I worked every day. I practiced every day. I even became popular outside Nigeria first before my popularity back home. When your people don’t accept or recognize you at home, it does not make sense how popular you are outside the shores of your country. I was already touring outside Nigeria in 1988/89 but I was not popular in Nigeria; extensively in America and Europe. I did so well there.

Did you think that your father’s image was too large; that it over shadowed you at the beginning?

I did not look at it like that or from the perspective. Then, I did not understand it like that and why it was that way. Then, I was not in good terms with my father and I was angry with him.

In Africa, when you are fighting with your father people, don’t understand the reason or motive behind it and I did not care. I stuck to my belief. My friends always asked what kind of child I was; every time, I was fighting my father. They did not know what I was going through, they could not feel my pain.

They all went to school. I wasn’t allowed to go to school. My father did not teach me how to read and write music. I had my problems with him which I confronted him (about). He did not want to accept he was wrong and everybody took his side. I did not care that everybody was against me because I knew I was right.

So what did you do? Did you go back to school?

I did not go to school. I just continued playing music.

How did you learn to read and write?

I did not learn. I just became more practical. It was difficult for me to get to where I am today because I had to teach myself. I was my own teacher. It was just practice all the way; all the instruments I play now, I thought myself and it was very difficult.

If I had gone to a university or school, probably it would have been easier but I am not complaining now. It is better it happened that way. Maybe, if I had gone to school, I would have been lazy, nonchalant; maybe, I would have just lived up my father’s name.

The bases of his argument with me were that you don’t really need education to become a successful person. He asked me: “Are you popular?” Yes. “Are you making money?” Yes. “So, what is your problem?”

In that sense, he won the argument but it was a big risk because I would have ended up maybe as a drug addict, miscreant or even committed suicide. When you are playing with the life of a child, you never know what might be going on in the head of that child. He had a lot of confidence in my abilities and I don’t know why; maybe because I am his son.

I was a frustrated, young man that had a lot of questions unanswered. I knew the only way someone like me could be successful at what I wanted to do was to practice and practice hard. I read a lot of books, including books on history. When I travel, I go to a bookshop and request for books on African history. I also read about prominent and great people in music, to understand how they managed to solve their own problems and over their challenges too.

You sound like a very determined young man?

Yes, if I say I am going to do something, I try as much as possible and work towards it and get it done.

Do you see the blood of your father in you?


Are you as stubborn and proud as he was?

Yes, I will say. In my case, it is better you leave me alone because if you look for my trouble, you would not like me.

I will even say that I am worse than my father. My father could forgive easily but I don’t easily forgive when someone hurts me. But, we are almost alike because if Fela says he is going to do something, he says it jokingly but he will do it. If I say I’m going to do something, I take it more seriously and I go on to do it. So, with that, I will say I am not lazy but he was very lazy.

He was?

Yes, he was. He even said it himself.

How did he create such a great name and be lazy at the same time?

He was gifted and talented. It was God’s gift to him. With what he did while he was alive, you can’t compare it to what any one is doing now or has done. His music is still making waves.

Did you have a lot of arguments with him?

Not that much.

Apart from your personal problem with him, did you have problems with the way he lived his life or are you going to live like he did when he was your age or younger?

I will not change because I have passed the age you are talking about. I will not question the way he lived his life. I like women but I will not marry twenty-seven wives. He did and he had his reasons for marrying that number of wives. I don’t believe in marriage.

But you are married?

Yes I am but I don’t believe in it.

So, why did you stop believing in marriage?

Even before I got married, I never believed in marriage.

But you went into it?

Yes, because I knew it was not going to work. I just believed that it was not going to work. I have watched so many films and read so many books and I have seen a lot of failed marriages. I could not see any woman accept me and my way or life. When you become popular, women throw themselves at you and you know that as a man you can’t keep saying no to all the women that come your way; especially when they are beautiful. If a woman is very beautiful and says to me “I love you”, ah! I know I won’t be faithful to my wife.

Whether you are married or not?

Before we got married, she knew that I will not be a faithful husband. I believe that as a popular person, when women are always around you, at some point, your wife will start feeling insecure. This will definitely bring problem if not properly treated. Both of us were now in the entertainment industry. I just knew that it was never going to work and when we broke up, I was not totally surprised.

Did you make an effort to make it work?

Of course, I did. I tried and tried all to no avail. After trying for many years, I got tired of trying and sat down in my house ‘jeje’.

I am that kind of person that knows that if something is not going to work at the end, I will not kill or over-labour myself. So, I decided to go home and leak my wounds. Forget about marriage. It is very difficult to keep a relationship in the entertainment industry.

Are you saying that you will not get married again?

I don’t think I will get married again but I can have girl friends and they all know themselves.

You are gradually branding towards Fela…

No oh! I would not marry twenty-seven wives. My children are my priority now.

How many children do you have?

I have four children now.

How many girls?

Three girls and a boy. Most likely, I might have two more children. I love children and I love all my children and they take first place in my life.

When a woman has a child for me, I don’t joke with that child. If the woman is seeing someone else, I would not kill myself because of her. I will do whatever to make my child have the best life. There are complications when it comes to issues surrounding a man and a woman, so I don’t kill myself.

The way you have turned out is dependent on your up-bringing?

Yes. Not from Fela though, but from my mother. I have a lot of my mother in me. My mother was very nice and she trained us to be nice children. It’s so difficult. I don’t like talking about these issues now. Maybe, in the next two or three years, I will be more obliged to talk about them. It’s something I don’t derive joy talking about.

Going back to music, what do you think about the earnings in our local music industry?

They are making money. Is that not good?

What about the language, content and message that come with it?

Who are you blaming? Is it the producer or the consumer? Anybody can sing what they like, if the consumer does not like it, they will not even dance to it let alone buy it.

In a country where there is no good health care system, good road, electricity (and so on), the only comfort the people can find is to dance, and because they don’t want to dance to serious music, they want to forget that mosquitoes will bite them or they can’t afford hospital bill, so the best music for them is the type that they always want to dance to; that takes their minds completely off the stress.

You can’t say that it’s wrong. If these artistes become criminals or drug addicts or peddlers, what will you say? These are young people that are trying to make ends meats. Whether it’s Nollywood or the music industry that they are going into, we should be happy, knowing very well that they are entertaining us and Nigerians are happy.