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Femi Kuti, the first son of legendary musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, speaks with TUNDE AYANDA on his childhood days in Kalakuta Republic, relationship with his father, his regrets and how he never knew he would attain age of 50.
IN a few days now you will be 50 years old, can we start by saying congratulations?
In fact, I need to be congratulated for that, reaching 50 here in Nigeria is not a joke. So, I think I deserve those congratulations.
50 is a milestone in a man’s life, do you feel excited hitting that age?
Last year, I was kind of excited that I would be 50 this year, but reaching the age now is no longer exciting because when I see the money I have to spend to celebrate it, I become depressed. I never thought I would live up to 50. For my kids, I’m happy that I’m alive to be there for them. When I look around me I can say I’ve lived a good life and I have no complaint really, but when I still look around and see that the things I believe in I don’t see them around me, the poverty is much, no electricity, the government utters things we don’t want to hear, I even wonder if we have a government, I’m very scared for the future of this country. Is it about Boko Haram that I should talk about? There is no discussion we hold that gives us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t say I’m happy because I don’t think there is a good future for us in this country, there is no security in my country, we still don’t have electricity. I can’t eat what I feel like eating, I can’t afford a good education for my children, then where is my happiness? Do I really want to be happy and combat all these problems in my future? With the way we are going, it’s likely we end up in a war, people are even talking of dividing Nigeria, that might be the case and I don’t see any cause to be happy with all what we have preached, what people have died for, the civil war...people are still talking garbage and when I look at it like that I don’t have any cause to be happy.
You said you did not expect to reach 50, but longevity runs in your family...
(cuts in) not much more than 50 years! My grandfather died at 55, Fela at 59. I’m not saying this because of my family. When I was young I was very reckless, so if you asked me in the 70s or 80s if I would live up to Year 2000, I would tell you ‘it looks so far.’ I was smoking a lot and I was an example of a real jaguda (rascal) then. I didn’t think I would have children, I didn’t think I would be where I am today and then suddenly things started changing in my life. I had my first son and this made a very big difference in my life. It made me start to think responsibly, and now that I have five other children the way I live my life is now different from the way I used to live then. I wasn’t thinking of living up to 50 because then my only responsibility was to take care of my mum. So, I was living daily, I was thinking my age then because when I was young and if you told me I would leave up to 50 I would tell you it’s far, because I had a very troublesome childhood, I was living in Kalakuta.
One would expect that when Fela was alive he would have wished you become a doctor or lawyer but you chose music, how did he feel?
Never! He wanted me to become a musician. He didn’t choose our careers for us, the only thing he did when I decided I wanted to be a musician was that he didn’t want to give me any form of education. He didn’t want me to read or write, he wanted to prove a point that I didn’t need any education to become successful. So, there was a big fight between him and his brothers and my mother who felt he was ruining my life. They were all against him because he wouldn’t even teach me the music, and he wanted me to be successful and this was a problem I had with him and we didn’t talk to each other for about six years. I told him ‘you know how to read and write, your father sent you to school, why won’t you send me to school?’ Everything I learnt came from the investigations I did on my own, practising on my own and finding my way, especially when I made the hit ‘Wonder, Wonder’, the issue came up again and Fela called everybody and told them they were all blaming him and he asked me ‘you that said I didn’t send you to school, are you not popular now? you can’t read, you can’t write music but you are successful, what is your problem?’ We all laughed and he could say he won, but I will never put my son through that trauma I passed through and I make sure my children get good education. Though I might be wrong judging him, because I felt I would have done more, had it been he allowed me to go to school, but I might be wrong, maybe my music would have been boring, maybe I wouldn’t be able to be dynamic and by the time I did Bang Bang, I couldn’t complain about anything again.
People tend to misjudge you, they can say you are wicked, harsh, crazy, and so on; how best can you describe yourself?
I’m very frank. People have this misrepresentation of me because there was a time I was in the bad books of a lot of journalists. They had a misconception about me and started writing horrible stories, I even went to their offices to fight them at that point in my career because I thought they were my friends. They even wrote I was mad and it got so bad that I was in the bathroom that I had to look in the mirror and asked, so, mo ti ya were? (so, I’m mad?). It was on their front-pages. I don’t want to talk about this again because we had settled it. Between 1999 and 2006, I experienced bad press and I cut away from talking to anybody and except you were very close to me, you would not know anything about me. I stopped socialising because when I go to parties people would start looking at me. When I picked up a glass to drink people would be looking at me wondering what I would do next with the glass, it was so bad! If I wasn’t strong I would have committed suicide and that formed the way people think about me unless you know me very well. There were some other untrue stories when I had problems with my wife that they wrote and said I used to lock her out, beat her and cut her water supply.
Looking back, what can you call your greatest achievement?
You will have to ask me that question in two ways, is it generally or professionally? If it’s generally, I will say my children, they are the only ones giving me satisfaction. These little ones are real terrors, they used to come on stage when I perform and entertain the crowd, they are so mischievous and I like it. My first son too, Made, is someone I love so much, I’m so proud of him. He is playing complicated classical music which I know my father would have done or me. If I can do that for my son I have every reason to be happy, he is doing well and I love all of them. What I’ve achieved musically did not give me the satisfaction my children are giving me.
Musically, what I want is to keep on producing good albums, if it’s achievement in my country I have it, I’ve won NMA (Nigerian Music Award, FAME award, Encomium Award and so many others I can’t even remember. Nobody ever gave me a chance in music, notwithstanding I was the first Nigerian to win the KORA award. I’ve also won the World Music, I was very naive about it because everybody was saying I must win Grammy, which they thought was bigger than the World Music, but they don’t know you cannot get anything than the World Music. Grammy is just an American award but is more popular, and I really wanted to win it till I realised that it isn’t as big as World Music which I’ve won already. I’ve done a lot, even in the Grammy. I know in the American power house they know me, they recognised me and I’ve been nominated three times. The first time, I even snubbed them, after the one I didn’t win, because right from Nigeria they have brainwashed me, telling me I would win; and when I didn’t win I was pained and walked out because I thought about all the cost and pains. With my reaction, I thought they would not recognise me in their awards again, and when I was nominated again I realised they were not biased. Now, I don’t go to their awards because I feel I’m too old to be getting excited for the awards. I’m not against the award but at 50, I can’t imagine myself going there and be pensive when they are announcing the winner. if I win it before I die I will put it with my other awards and be thankful. What is most important for me in life now are my children, my family and my music.
You spoke glowingly about your children, you love your family but you are not very lucky with marriages, are you pained by that?
Yes, I would say I was full of regrets then, but not anymore because if I am still in the marriage I won’t have other kids and I love them a lot. As much as I was broken-hearted, it has healed. There were many factors that surrounded the failure of the marriage. I won’t blame anybody. Somebody was telling me to write my autobiography and I said I can’t because in it I would speak a lot of truth that will hurt a lot of people and that isn’t my intention. Again, I would hurt my kids because I will have to say things about their mother which they won’t like. In writing an autobiography one must be very honest and I won’t want to expose anything about their mothers which will be from my own point of view- do I want to hurt my children even if I am right? I was very hurt when my marriage broke up, I was upset because I thought we had everything going. It wasn’t just a marriage of my wife and I, there were so many other factors and I blamed myself so much for being naive. People I call my friends were envious of the marriage, ‘why was I stupid not to realise my enemies were around me,’ I lived with that self-blame for a long time. I think I’m a very lucky person because I realise I can be successful without education. I can have a shrine that is doing well, people never gave me the chance; they were all like ‘Fela’s son? Ah! you can’t make it.’ It’s not my objective to be greater than my father, it never crossed my mind because I love my father. Nobody came to my concert, I couldn’t get a gig, nobody wanted to hear me sing and to have been where I am now, how can I complain? I still find happiness with my family.
You and your elder sister, Yeni, are very close. In fact, you live in the same house and you run the shrine together, how do you tag along running the same business?
We are like husband and wife. We are very close and I think the upbringing we had caused this. My parents would never tolerate any fight between us, my maternal grandmother would never take all these children’s fight over sweet or ice-cream, and because of all my father’s other wives and Kalakuta we were all forced to be close, from my mother’s side we were very close. When we lost our younger sister, Sola, it was so terrible. Even now, my sister and I used to cry for no reasons when we think about her, we missed her so much. Secondly, we are not materialistic, though Yeni likes clothes and all those women’s stuffs. I can wear this cloth forever, and she is always fighting me for wearing a cloth or shoe for a long time. There was a time I wore a pair of shoes for two years and she travelled to England and bought me shoes, but I still wore the old ones which made her rant. I am not materialistic, I don’t care seeing people wearing gold or diamond. Even the car I have, Yeni cleared my account to buy it.
You and your step brothers and sisters are not close as you and Yeni, especially in the case of Seun, why is this so?
It dates back from when we were young in Kalakuta and my mother’s overprotection. We lived with our mother and grand-mum because we were like outcasts in our father’s house. Fela was so rich but he didn’t spoil his children with his money. He would pay the school fees of other children but would not pay that of his children. We just learned to live with that. We grow up with that attitude and now we are still like that. Again, we always live together. So, it is normal seeing my sister and I living in the same compound, I love her so much. People expect we would be fighting over the income of the shrine but they don’t realise how close we are. I admire her courage a lot, we can’t fight over money; our upbringing makes it easy because we were the outcast in Fela’s family. He always wanted to please everybody while his family came second, but in my own case my family comes first and that is because I saw what happened in my father’s life and use that to correct it. Fela trusted everybody and he suffered it.
Seun and I cannot be as close as my sister and I because by the time our closeness started Seun was not born. I’m old enough to be his father, I’m like 22 years older than him, my father was only 24 years older than I. Don’t forget the conflict that happened between Seun and I. One day I came back and Yeni came to tell me Seun had come to apologise and that I should let the matter rest. If I wanted to be troublesome I would have said no. So many times Seun had been nasty and rude but because of maturity I’ve refused to judge him. I knew why he was doing it and the people behind it. Fine, he realised and came to apologise and he came through Yeni and she said she wants him to start playing here. He came and prostrated and I told him Anikulapos don’t prostrate. It was over and we are close but not as close as I and Yeni. Seun and I are close and he comes here everytime, I had a bitter childhood just like Yeni and this makes us very close. Despite us being Fela’s children, we used to take danfo to school and we enjoyed it because I realised if he had spoilt us, maybe I would have been a snub and will not care about poverty or electricity. I would have been in Motown ‘blowing’ grammar but I’m happy we tasted this and know how it is. I’m very sensitive in lecturing my children, they must understand the situation in this country.
The Lagos State Government have taken over Fela’s house...
They didn’t take over, they want to rebuild it and turn it to a museum. You know we didn’t have that kind of money and they offered to do it, but I wasn’t part of it because if they come to give me money and later they don’t do well, I will still abuse them.
Did your father’s name open doors for you?
It opened more doors than it closed but not with the rich people. Many of the girlfriends I used to have then, when we got to their homes and introduced ourselves as Fela’s children they would kick us out of their houses, saying ‘you cannot marry from us.’ We had many relationships that were not successful because we were Fela’s children. In the streets when they saw us they ran after us, and loved us. My wife’s parents didn’t want her to be with me and she ran away from home. It was when she had Made that we married and they were forced to accept her.
Growing up in such environment as Kalakuta, what were the experiences you had then?
I was arrested several times and beaten seriously, they used to beat me when they came to arrest him. I’ve been detained in Ikeja cantonment, Panti and other police stations. I’ve had my own share of it all. The biggest trauma was seeing my father in blood, they handcuffed his hand and legs and broke his skull and he bled. He was charged with armed robbery then.