Just like his father Fela, Femi’s commitment to political and social causes is not in doubt. A towering talent in his own right, the son of the Afrobeat legend has been nominated for a Grammy Award three times in the world music category, in 2003, 2010 and 2012, but has never won. In this exclusive Interview with Sam Umukoro and Kolade Arogundade, Femi talks about his life, career, Fela and of course, you guessed right, political and social issues.
SUI: One important book in African studies is Walter Rodney’s book, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. Don’t you think it’s high time Africans began to look at how Africans underdeveloped Africa, instead of blaming Europe?
Femi Kuti: No, that is not the point. It is an escapist route. I hate that statement when many Africans say, get over it. Get over what, 500 years of slavery? Can you imagine if slavery did not happen?
Before slavery, Africa had a culture. We had medicine and our cure for malaria. Slavery brought diseases that we were not used to; slavery brought industry and people were criticizing industry way back as 2,000 years ago, that it was going to pollute the air, sea. Industry is not the way. We must deal with nature. It’s taken them 200 years to understand that they were wrong, 500 years to understand that slavery was wrong.
Now we have to understand that slavery would not have ended if it was left to the Africans alone, Now, Europe understood that what they were doing then was unjust, but imagine the propaganda from kings and queens of Europe to convince their people that we were cannibals, idol worshipers, horrible people, bastards, godless monkeys… you cannot imagine the pandemonium that was even going in their minds, because at that time in history, there were no footages to show what had happened, the footages we have are those of the Ku Klux Klan hanging people… But we need to appreciate that history, where is the blame for the African?
SUI: In essence, Africans need to understand their history?
Femi Kuti: Yes. You want to blame (President Goodluck) Jonathan for not knowing this history, was this history taught in his school? I won’t be surprised if it wasn’t.
I’m sure Jonathan does not appreciate Lumumba, know much about Kwame Nkrumah, or the significance of what Nkrumah did when he formed the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Let’s look at how he got into power. Did he intend to become president? He was the deputy governor of Bayelsa state until he was chosen as vice president to (late President Umaru) Yar’ Adua.
This is somebody that I’m sure has no understanding of the magnitude of this African history because if he did, he would have been going in that direction. Africans should be asking questions, like why does America and Russia have the right to veto our votes? These countries talk about democracy and yet are not democratic themselves.
Our leaders should start talking as leaders. They talk like puppets. It might take us another 100 years to come out of this phase of corruption and mismanagement. But the good thing is that we are more aware, and more Africans are talking about these things.
Also, Nigerians are freer today, unlike in the 70′s, because a man, my father, sacrificed himself for many years, before the Gani Fawehinmis, Femi Falanas, Dr. Beko Ransome Kutis. We have to appreciate this fact.
Fela stood alone and when he spoke then, many people, even his family, opposed him. When he said, change your name from Ransome to Anikulapo, because he felt it was a colonial and slave name, they could not understand where Fela was coming from. His family rejected it; his brothers carried the name till their death.
For Fela, it was about being yourself, loving one’s culture. But his family didn’t understand this. How long is it going to take us to understand that, for us, (bearing) ‘Chinyere’ is better than ‘Mary’, why should I want to be John instead of Lakunle? Why should I wear a coat and tie in this hot sun? Why can’t we love our own attire?
The deeper you look into this problem, you find people who cannot reason. When you even start this topic with them, they are not ready because of education and their family tradition or what their father told them, that Jesus is coming soon… we are too focused on religion… Do you know how much money churches and mosques make from the distortion of facts and history, just to enslave the human mind? Do you know how much money we put into Saudi Arabia or the Vatican City in the name of religion?
The good thing is that there are many of us who are becoming open minded. Why did Fela revolt? Fela’s father and grandfather were pastors, but Fela went to America, he read all these books and then he said ‘Aha! There’s too much discrepancy in the American life and this is Nigeria…’ He read books and went out of his way to do his own music. Just imagine if Fela had followed the path of his father. He would have been singing ‘O, Oluwa wa jesu ti wa ni’
SUI: Talking about slavery, one of the arguments put about Africa today by some people is that the continent is not so much better off than it was during the colonial era, especially with the numerous wars, conflicts and bad leadership…
Femi Kuti: Oh, that is an insult. Those people who said so should be slapped. Imagine the crimes that were committed here. We need to consider that.
I have English blood, but I’m not going to say because of my English blood, I’m going to run away from the fact of what happened in Africa. I have a British passport; I don’t need to be here. But we cannot run away from the truth. It will always vindicate one. It’s not my path to escape and find the easy way in life.
First of all, democracy is not a European way of government; it was practiced long ago before Jesus Christ, even in Africa where Africans elected their kings and chiefs to represent the communities. The chiefs were as powerful as the kings because when one committee says ‘no’, there could be war. So it was about unanimity. They all had to come to an agreement about issues.
And that meeting could go on for days, because when they come out in disagreement, war can erupt. So we were already practicing this system of democracy. Let us look at the system of democracy in practice in modern times, where is it really working, in Turkey, Cyprus, England, America? US President Obama wants to close Guantanamo Bay, but the legislators refused. He’s having sleepless nights. What favour have they (the West) done us?
Look at South Africa and the end of apartheid, for me, I think they just used Mandela as a figurehead because Europe and America wanted to do business with South Africa, and they used that as an excuse. They wanted trade because of the diamonds and all the resources they could get from South Africa, but they needed to do it openly. So they ended apartheid, with the belief that they will still have the power eventually. How really democratic are they in South Africa?
They don’t teach history in many schools in Nigeria today, it is a subject that nobody cares about anymore. We need to teach our children history, right from the primary school level, for them to better understand the issues. They don’t teach history in my son’s school.
SUI: Yes, History is a very important subject. But, don’t you think the quality of the followership also reflects on the quality of leadership we have today?
Femi Kuti: But of course, that’s what I’m saying, especially when your followers are not educated. The further you go into Nigeria, the more you will understand that they are not concerned, they don’t care. Was it not Nigerians who voted (former President Olusegun) Obasanjo into power? Obasanjo won that first election free and fair. It wasn’t rigged. But I don’t know about the second one o.
SUI: Do you have a problem with Obasanjo?
Femi Kuti: Fela is my man, how can I follow Obasanjo when Fela sang about N2.8 billion and things like that. And I witnessed Obasanjo’s government handing over to Shagari’s, how the NPN rigged the elections then. They found one million votes in our street (alone), and my father was like, ‘how many houses are here for them to have produced one million?’
That was Obasanjo handing over to Shagari. What did Shagari’s government do? Don’t forget when Buhari took over, he jailed some people 99 years, where are all those people… he released them. We have been making a mockery of our system for ages. We all know that this government is corrupt.
The last one Jonathan did was to give Alamieyeseigha – who was wanted in London, who dressed as a woman and escaped to Nigeria – a presidential pardon; someone who had over N100 million cash stashed in his house. Why didn’t Europe and America come out publicly to condemn the Nigerian government? Because they need the oil and this has been the trademark of this system of government. They manipulate power, put whoever they want in positions and have been controlling the African continent ever since.
What about the earthquake in Haiti? They made so much noise about it, saying donate your last one dollar. Today, nobody talks about Haiti, but that country is still suffering terribly.
SUI: But don’t you think that Africans also have a role in slavery?
Femi Kuti: I’m not denying the fact and I’m not saying we are not to be held accountable. What I’m saying is that we need to appreciate that past. If you don’t appreciate that past, you cannot understand why we are like this, why the churches and mosques are controlling our society, why Africans feel inferior. Why are our girls bleaching or make long hair? They all want to be white, Why are they not proud? Why are we not proud of names, of our clothes?
It is this history that has distorted our lives and complicated issues. The good thing is; whether we like it or not, a lot of us are still fighting. If there was no Nkrumah, there probably won’t have been a Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I appreciate the fact that he stood and risked his life. I am proud of his courage, but if you asked if he was a conventional father who did homework with me and taught me music, he did nothing of such.
Probably if he was the conventional father that I wanted, I will not be who I am today. God knows why we turn out the way we are, I’m happy I turned out the way I am. Probably if I did go to school and could read and write music, my music would have been very boring, maybe nobody will care about me, or I would have become a drunk, dope head or have been sad and wondering why nobody likes my music.
Who knows why I had to go through what I had to go through to produce the kind of music I produce today, to be one of the greatest Africans playing music, who knows? So, we may want some things, but I don’t regret anything.
Whenever I’m faced with an issue, I deal with it squarely, even if I was going to fail, I try to learn from my mistakes. So if we appreciate our past, then we can understand where we are at presently.
SUI: You have done collaboration with some young artistes in recent times. Doesn’t it worry you that some critics say the current crop of Nigerian young artistes are not politically conscious and are more interested in singing about women?
Femi Kuti: I disagree with you. Though they might not sing about it, but they are conscious of it. They also discuss things like corruption. I know Tuface, Asa, Omawunmi, D’Banj are very conscious.
SUI: But we are talking about using music as a tool of social engineering…
Femi Kuti: I think everybody can choose his/her own path. I can’t choose for anybody. I chose this probably because of the way I was brought up and I don’t really truly see any love stories in my heart or have had a broken heart.
It would feel strange for me to sing about a girl leaving me; when the thoughts come, I say ‘Aha, NEPA (PHCN) has just taken light, and I want to start singing that this girl broke my heart?’ I don’t even have money to take her to dinner. Omo, my problems are bigger than a broken heart.
When my wife left me, my life was in turmoil, I have had problems, but for me to sing, ‘oh, my wife left me, oh baby, come back…’ Come back? I will even help pack your luggage (general laughter). I would have even aggravated the issue. So, it’s better to keep my mouth shut and continue fighting the government with my music. But don’t say they are not conscious. Beyond the Nigerian market, Nigerian artistes are now dominating the African continent. From D’banj, Tuface, Wizkid…
People are not ready to fight for themselves; they are looking for a scapegoat to fight for them, at this time of our lives? It is not for me to be critical of a young person who is not a drug addict. Every artiste has his own way of expressing his art form. How do you criticize a work of art that is spiritual? Is the music good? Is it danceable? Yes, people are dancing and they love it. Take Wizkid’s lyrics for example, must he sing that Jonathan is a thief before I appreciate his song? No, there are many ways… Okay, what will you say about ‘bang, bang, bang? (Laughing)
SUI: Your attempt at singing a love song (General laughter).
Femi Kuti: You see, if I went that way, I won’t sing ‘baby don’t go’ …baby don’t go? Baby go o, I will even pack your bag for you.
SUI: You earlier talked about spirituality. What does spirituality mean to you?
Femi Kuti: Spirituality is when we can’t explain everything in life, totally. So, we have a spiritual meaning for it; we really don’t know why we are here.
SUI: Do you believe in God?
Femi Kuti: I believe in the Creator.
SUI: Did your father, Fela, believe in God, since he always talked about ‘Olodumare’ and ‘Osiris’?
Femi Kuti: Oludumare or Osiris is not God. God is English. Let’s assume I could not speak English and you say what is God and I reply in Yoruba asking; I don’t understand, who is God? I don’t understand God. But to simplify that, I will say I believe in creation. They say God is the Supreme Being. I don’t believe so. I don’t believe God created us in his image. I believe we are too small to totally understand the cosmic wonder of the universe. First, there were 12 planets, now they have found more planets or galaxies. They have found three or four universes now. Everybody had thought it was just one universe. This world is beyond human comprehension for me.
So I think part of our faults as humans is that we are very arrogant and I think we have taken many things for granted, because of the way European have treated us. Now they come with climate change… How does God fit into all these?
I don’t think it’s really about the way Christianity and Islam have made it to be. Looking deeper into the African way of life, (you realise) it wasn’t religious; it was spiritual. Spiritualism will teach you about virtues, how to be patient, humble and kind.
SUI: We spoke to Lemi Ghariokwu recently and one of the things he said was that your father was a genius in everything, do you agree with him?
Femi Kuti: I will just say he was a genius. In everything? That’s taking it too far.
SUI: He said he could have been in anything?
Femi Kuti: Well, Fela said if he were an armed robber, they would never have caught him (general laughter). Could it have been everything? On a serious note, he won’t have been a great footballer, because he couldn’t play football. He probably wouldn’t have made a good doctor. I don’t think he liked the sight of blood. Would he have been a good surgeon? I don’t think so. Definitely, I think he was a genius. He had a God-given gift for music and he did incredible things with it. He was more into the arts.
That he was a genius in everything may be too general, but he had a very big mind. Fela was very brave and courageous. I don’t think he was even that disciplined, because he had a lot of faults. I’m not here to criticize him, but I can tell you many of his faults and I learnt from them.
My children think I’m the perfect father, but I try to bring them up to know that, ‘when you are old enough, you will find some faults in me, so keep an open mind.’
My father put people around him before his family because he felt his family must suffer, I will never put anybody before my family because your family is your family. So what did he do? He put people around him that just gave him hell…
He fought the government, but inside his own kingdom was tough, because he had so many people that were so disloyal, which we even face here in the shrine. Over five years ago, we had a very big scandal in the shrine…
Sometimes, I play for free, and we have kept our gate fee at N500 for 13 years at the shrine. When one bulb blows off, it cost N15,000 – N20,000 to replace, they know the expenses we incure in buying diesel, but they have been stealing big time. What do you say about these people? This is not Jonathan or Obasanjo. So, you see, who do you blame? My sister for trusting them too much, for being Fela’s daughter, or the society, who do you blame for such incident?
I know I have that I have fault too, trusting people too much, although I try to be a bit firm, but it is a fault that we have learnt from my father.
When Obasanjo burnt the house, my father was a multi-millionaire, there was nobody richer than him, we knew because we were his kids. He had 14 cars, my father had money, he was buying everyone a car, he was rich. Nobody was making money from record sales then, but he was having hits after hits.
All the musicians combined were not getting the royalties he was getting from his record sales. I remember going with him to EMI, Decca or Polygram, to fight for royalties for the other musicians. So he did it to a fault. When they burnt the house, it was his cousin that forged his cheque with a girl in the bank and they cleared everything, they didn’t leave one naira. It was a big scandal.
They ruined him (Fela). He lost everything and had to start from the beginning. He had no money. But it is the same father, that would take 70 people to Europe when he was travelling on tour and I wondered why… He was kind to a fault. You can’t blame the government or these people that were so ungrateful.
SUI: How did you and you siblings feel when all of that happened? From that point, how much of a father was he to you?
Femi Kuti: It was a lot of pain, and by this time we were old enough to feel his pain. He was in a lot of pain. He couldn’t believe what happened. But we admired the way he came out fighting, because I remember that Babangida and Obasanjo came to beg him, for the government to settle of out court. We were there.
They even wanted him to come to the barracks and everybody was like, if you go, they would kill you. Then, my sister and I believed that the government truly repented, but they wanted to do it in a way to save face and because they did not want to be seen to be wrong in the public eye, they wanted to call him and say, okay, you this man, take this and just cool down.
I think my father wanted to take it, but the people around him were against it, Where are these people who gave him this advice now? Probably if he had gone to the barracks, he would have had time to sit down, not with Obasanjo who he had no respect for, but there was Murtala (Mohammed), there were many people and all these people used to come to the shrine, Abalti Barracks was just by the shrine, sometimes it would be full of soldiers, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; they were the main customers of the shrine.
During that time, Murtala was a real smoker at the shrine, and everybody knew him. So when the coup happened, Kalakuta jubilated that their man has taken power, until he was killed. Probably, Fela would have been able to talk sense into many of them because Fela was a very good speaker; he could convince you that this cushion was a carpet
He had that power, that’s why Lemi will say he was a genius because Fela could convince you of anything and he had this kind of aura around that he could just change everything, and except he told you that it was wrong, he would be able to fool you. He had this kind of gift; I think oyinbos call it the ‘gift of gab’. He probably would have changed the thinking of government, who knows?
SUI: I remember reading in the papers some years back about Femi Kuti’s clean cut image, no smoking and all that. What enhances your creativity?
Femi Kuti: They said I fell into the pot of igbo (general laughter). But I was a smoker o. I smoked cigarettes when I was 12. There was so much freedom in our house. My father and mother smoked, so it was normal and my father gave us so much freedom that my mother could not tell us not to smoke. And by 12, I was very tall. By 13, I was rocking night clubs. I was a real ghen–ghen. So I have done my share, so to say. But I stopped several times in Kalakuta and every time I stopped, my father and I stopped talking and our friendship went cold. But whenever I started smoking again, we resumed talking again.
The reason I stopped was after I was jailed in ‘84 and I went to Hollywood. I arrived America, but he didn’t take the flight with us. And then, I used to have this fear that, what if something happened, was I ready to take over this band? I was being groomed by him. I used to dress like him, wear the same shoe; I was his spitting image.
He (Fela) was so brave and courageous. I didn’t know where he got this from and I used to be scared. But I followed him o. I used to get arrested but I was scared and didn’t know how he used to go through all of that beating. Then, I would sit down and say this is not my life, why is this man putting me through this life? (General laughter)
In ’84, I had this girlfriend; I told her my father had been arrested and that I was going to have to stop smoking to win this battle. ‘I think I cannot do it if I smoke,’ I told her and she was like ‘you? You can never stop smoking.’ We took a bet. This was the night we arrived New York and I stopped. I didn’t smoke again till October 2000, just before the shrine was opened. I don’t want to tell you the person who gave me the igbo (weed), but one day I will reveal it.
So I smoked from then to 2005 when I eventually stopped again.
I started again when I thought I had achieved all I wanted. I had won the KORA Awards, I was nominated for the Grammys and then I was like, what more do I want, I can have fun in my life now. That was the way I looked at it then. I toured everywhere, Japan, China, Australia; I was at the top of my game. Most of the people around me were all smoking and I was like, ‘you all are smoking, I’m the only one suffering’. So I decided to smoke with everyone, a lot of them didn’t know until I revealed it. The minute they knew I was smoking again, many of them turned against me, that I was going mad. So it became a big scandal.
Many of them went to the press to write all sorts about me, these people are so wicked. So I went to France for six months and stopped smoking again. Then I decided change my tactics. While in France, I read all those books again – Stolen Legacy, Black Man of the Nile… I just spent my time reading and came back more informed and had answers to all my problems. I arrived Nigeria and said I will not talk again, but just focus on my work. I have been doing that since. I don’t listen to anybody. I don’t smoke or drink, but I will not tell you that I won’t smoke again. Probably I will when I’m 60.
SUI: You don’t drink or smoke? So what do you do now?
Femi Kuti: Nothing, I just practice. I do six hours of practice everyday. I set to teach myself the trumpet they all said I would never play. I put the organ in my music, like if you listen to my work Day By Day, which got me my second Grammy nomination.
I think this my last album – No Place for My Dream – truly is my best work. My fear now is, I don’t know if I can do better than this in my lifetime, because technically, sound quality, composition, the melody is really high standard, it’s very scary; the way it was recorded, the way I was focused. I think it is top of the music scene.
SUI: What role did the Fela Kuti family play to get Fela! On Broadway?
Femi Kuti: By only giving them the will (permission) to do it
SUI: How did you feel the first time you saw the production?
Femi Kuti: I cried, I was so impressed, I cried. That is my shortest answer (General laughter).
Someone asked me yesterday what legacy I wanted to leave and all my answers were so long that I even bored him. I said I don’t care. Why should I? I will die someday. So if you like, remember me.