By BENJAMIN NJOKU
The 2013 edition of Felabration,a week-long concert which celebrates the life and times of Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti commences from Monday, October 14 through 20 at the Afrikan Shrine, Ikeja, Lagos. In this interview, Femi Kuti, the eldest son of Fela went down memory lane, recounting the story of his late father, his music and ideologies. He also talks about what the fans of Afrobeat music will expect at this year’s Felabration among other issues.
We learnt that Rita Marley will be headlining this year’s Felabration. Why is she not here today?
She sent a message few days ago that she was not feeling fine, and might not make it to the event. However, she will be represented at the festival by the head of her foundation, Rita Marley Foundation.
What’s the financial implication of organising this festival?
We have no major sponsors at the moment. Fortunately, most of the artistes are performing for free. We have been very lucky that the likes of King Sunny Ade, D’banj, Wizkid, Pasuma, and many others, have been performing for free. This year, they will grace the stage again. But we usually pay a token to the up and coming artistes as a way of supporting them. However, Nigerian Breweries Plc has promised to come on board next year as a major sponsor of the event. We are hoping that as from next year, Felabration will not be talking about financial difficulties.
What’s new in this year’s Felabration?
I think what will always be new is the enthusiasm of the crowd. The festival runs from Monday through Sunday. It kicked off last Monday with school debate. Wuri Modern College won the competition last year. The Felabration usually kicks off with school debate because we are trying to introduce new things other than music. There will be symposium where the likes of Femi Falana, SAN, will be in attendance. The festival will kick off properly next week Tuesday. It will run till Saturday and closes on Sunday.
Is Bob Marley’s son still going to make it to the festival?
I think he’s having problem with obtaining visa. He has agreed to come and the contract has been finalized. We are waiting for him to obtain his visa. If he succeeds, fine. We are expecting a lot of Afrobeat bands from America, Ghana and other African countries. Our local artistes such as Tuface, Kwam 1, Davido, Wizkid, Eedris and other superstars including myself will be on duty.
Apart from finance, what other challenges are you encountering?
I think the major challenges are finance and security. We would love a situation where we would pay the artistes handsomely and dictate the pace for them. But now, they dictate the pace for us. The artistes decide when and when not to perform on stage. Felabration bends to everybody’s rules. The next thing is to get the museum working. Apparently, Lagos State government has purchased the piece of land beside the museum which we use as car park. But we are still looking for major sponsors that will drive the museum. We have big dreams that we want to put in place.
With this year’s Felabration coming up, would you say you have achieved the dream of setting up the festival?
Definitely. We are all Nigerians and we know what it means to run a festival at that level for 13 years. I think we have to be applauded. It’s a feat that hasn’t been achieved in Nigeria. All the great festivals we know in Nigeria are no longer functioning. We have never heard any security challenges in the past 13 years. With the crowd of over 10,000 people attending the festival, I think we have to be commended. Now, Felabration is observed across the world, especially in major cities of the world. The event my sister, Yeni started has grown big and stronger.
One would have thought that the Fela broadway show would have boosted the festival?
I’m sure you know what it cost them to be in Nigeria then. They are a cast of about 50 people. By the time you talk about their flight tickets, accommodation, and so on, you would know what I mean. I think it was the Lagos State government that sponsored their trip to the country. Eventually, what we are going to be focusing on is discovering new talents and more bands. I will like a situation where we do not have only hip-hop artistes on stage.
Aside Felabration, what is the family’s stand on Fela’s biopic being produced by an American company recently?
I don’t know about it. There are many things I don’t know about. I know that they have been working on the biopic for the past five years.
Andrew Dosumu, a British Nigerian director was chosen to direct the biopic and Nigerian international actor, Chiwenta Ejiofor is being touted to act Fela in the biopic?
It is the same biopic that we are talking about. This is a biopic that has been in the making for about five years now. I’m sure you know it is not the kind of film that you can produce overnight. They have to capture the burning of the house, the soldiers…If they are going to do a movie of that magnitude, it’s going to be a great movie. It is going to take time. They have been talking about this movie for ages now.
Does the family have any plan to do that?
No. We are only going to give them the license to do it. We have a legal team that deals with all of these things. My own duty as a member of the estate is to give the approval. I have signed the contract several years ago and I know, it will take another two to three years before this dream will materialize. I know that the first contract we signed for five years ought to be renewed if they have not completed the production of the film within the time frame.
They started talking about the film when my father died but eventually the contract expired. So, they had to renew a new contract. This is because there is no money in the music business. That’s why the family has been very lenient when discussing with all these people because we all know about piracy. Everybody is downloading Fela’s music, so you have to be very understandable. We have a good legal team that handles all these stuffs for the family. Of course, we have to protect the integrity of the family
Fela and his music
Looking at it holistically, do you feel comfortable that a Nigerian who has practically lived abroad all his life is playing the role of Fela?
I’m sure if they do a movie, it will be great. Now, let us look at the broadway show. Critics say that it was too Americanised. They did not want to show Fela’s story from the Nigerian perspective. They wanted the American and the international market to understand the Fela story. See how Fela was misunderstood even when he went to the United States. It was after his death that people started evaluating his music. What he was doing? He married 27 wives in his lifetime, how dare he? This man was against feminism.? They gave him different kind of names. He was completely misunderstood because he wore pants, he smoked marijuana. He had issues. He had serious issues whether we liked it or not. At his death, people were celebrating him but in his lifetime, he was broke before he died.
What they did was to tell the Fela story for the average international market to watch and understand it. If you did watch them, you would notice that the dancers could not dance the Afrobeat music. For you, the man was speaking American English. But you would have every reason to believe that the Fela you know was not being acted but if you look at it from the neutral perspective like you didn’t know Fela, you would understand the story and even weep for him.
The day I watched it, I cried. I cried because I knew where they were coming from and I saw the audience. Probably, they have not heard about Fela, the Americans were saying, it made them want to listen to his music to know more about Africa. It opened their minds to so many issues. Now, they are studying Afrobeat in many of the schools and universities in America, Germany, France, Sweden, Australia, everywhere. There are over 20 American bands playing Afrobeat at the moment.
Over the years and given what is happening in the country today, will you say your father has been vindicated or misunderstood while he lived?
I will answer in the affirmative. He was grossly misunderstood for a purpose because he saw corruption and he knew what corruption was going to do to the country; those involved in corruption wanted to get away with dictatorship and corruption which was what he was against. And because he used his own unconventional way of protesting, it didn’t go down well with the authorities.
Then the authorities controlled the media up to a point until after Daily Times, when other media houses started springing up because we have to remember that it was only government newspapers and TVs that we had then. So, the story was told from the government’s perspective until The Punch, Vanguard and other magazines were established. Fela’s story could be seen from another point of view.
We have to understand where Fela was coming from in the 60s. Where did the problem start? What was the cause of his problem? And maybe, because he was already a stubborn character, he was going to make matters worse and that was his character and that is the character that people now love. What kind of man was he, that many people ran away from him, or even compromised him. But he didn’t have to go through all those beatings? So, I think, he was purposely misunderstood but yes, he has been vindicated.
But you are a different specie?
I would say, I am probably more diplomatic because I have learnt from what I saw of him. First, you have to understand the political climate which we live in. Let us remember who voted for Obasanjo? Except if we want to be dishonest with ourselves, Obasanjo won the first election, clean and clear. What would Fela have done if he was alive and this same Nigerians still went to vote for this same Obasanjo? Didn’t they hear Fela sing about this man?
Then, it is still these same Nigerians that were criticising this man and they know it. Let us look at our incumbent President. He was declared wanted by the EFCC when he was governor of Bayelsa State and you voted for him. That case was pending in court when Yar’ Adua made him his Vice. Opposition parties should have objected to his selection. But they didn’t. Again, his former boss late Yar ‘ Adua whom he served under had a seven point agenda. Where is it today? Jonathan promised that if anything happened to him that he would follow his footsteps. Has him followed his footsteps today?
There are many things you have to understand as Fela’s son. Did Nigerians not hear what Fela talked about? Are they not feeling the same pain that Fela felt when he was alive? Nigerians are still voting for the same corrupt politicians.
Are you worried that government has not been able to honour your father after his death?
Not at all. The people will always honour my father and he will always be celebrated worldwide. Even Lagos state has honoured him. Even if the family doesn’t celebrate him, Fela has gone beyond the shores of Nigeria. As we speak, New York, Paris, England, Japan, Australia, New Zealanmd, China, Malaysia, among others still celebrate him.
At over 50, some people say it seems you have become more sexually active?
That is not true, I am no more sexually active. When you see a beautiful woman, when you reach my age and you have responsibility like myself, you will know what I am talking about. Before now, as a young man, you would want to go after her. There are many nights I go and sleep alone not because I don’t have girlfriends or want a girlfriend, when I think of the responsibility I have in my life, I will immediately have a rethink.
The women in my life also have responsibilities. I can tell you that the mothers of my children, we stay together, we are very serious. You could say we are husband and wife but I don’t believe in marriage. I just don’t understand why one man will say I pronounce you man and wife, in that case. I pronounce myself man and wife. I am very different from my father but in a lot of ways like him.
Like I couldn’t understand why he married 27 wives. When he married them, he divorced them. I didn’t have a problem with my father’s wives but my mother did. When the problem started in Kalakuta, for us it was fun. Many things have changed. Of course I am very much sexually active but when I consider the problems my shoki has given me, it dies quickly.