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Yeni Kuti: dancer and priestess of the Afrika Shrine

Yeni Kuti is a renowned afrobeat dancer and now the matriarch of the Fela dynasty

About this time every year, afrobeat musicians and enthusiasts from around the world gather in Lagos for Felebration. One of the organisers of the festival is Yeni Kuti, Fela’s first child. Most of the work she does currently is keeping alive the spirit and legacy of her father, but it was through dance that she first came to public attention.

Yeni trained as a journalist at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) and then worked for several years as a secretary and a fashion designer before joining her brother, Femi Kuti’s Positive Force band in 1986, at 25. The band, she said, gave her the opportunity she needed to dance fulltime. Since then, she has not relented. Even in retirement, now 54, she still trains and rehearses with the band’s dancers.

“Performance arts is my forte. Performance arts comprise music, dance, acting etc. I fall into the dance category. I performed as a professional dancer for close to 18 years and as a choreographer for 26 years and counting,” Yeni told cdn.ng.

Photo: Chris Saunders
Photo: Chris Saunders

Music, she has said, is the most important element in a dancer’s repertoire. If that be the case, she has plenty of that to move to, surrounded as she usually is, with musicians. The afrobeat dancer persona is a woman dressed in bra and fringed miniskirt with bead chains around her head, neck, hands and waist, and face dotted with white paint. The makeup is to emphasise African heritage, Yeni said at the 7th Arthouse Forum at Freedom Park, Lagos, to commemorate her 50th birthday in 2011, while the costume is to highlight the mood and dance.

Though she described afrobeat as sensual, “makes you shake your back side…” music, she believes dance goes beyond just shaking the buttocks.

“I believe a dancer has to be creative. I come across a large percentage of dancers who believe that dancing is just jumping or gyrating their posteriors…In my opinion an artistic dancer has to connect to and inspire the spectator. The spectator should leave with a feeling of pure satisfaction having watched a spectacular performance,” she told cdn.ng.

Speaking at the Arthouse Forum, a journalist, Lanre Arogundade, noted that it was the dance aspect of the Positive Force band that made it a complete ensemble, and praised Yeni for filling the ‘missing link’. Also at the event, a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Sola Olorunyomi, revealed at the event that two students of the university were doing their Doctoral thesis on Yeni.

If you come from the Kuti family, with forebears and siblings that are successful in music, religion, activism, academia, law, and medicine, it is a big deal to be one of the recognised.

Photo: West Africa Lifestyle
Photo: West Africa Lifestyle

Though Yeni is retired, she has said that she is not tired. With a multi-million naira offer, she could be lured back on stage. Meanwhile, she told The Sun that she has channelled her strength into running the family business. “I see to the daily activities at the shrine and I also arrange for shows for the band and liaise with Femi’s international manager who arranges his international shows.”

The shrine she talks of is the New Afrika Shrine — her father built the original shrine in the ‘70s where he performed regularly until his death in 1997. Her brothers Femi and Seun, too, now play at the new shrine regularly. If the shrine is an afrobeat temple, Yeni is its priestess.

She has been managing the shrine since it opened in 2000, “There are different things to do there. You have to do your books, balance the sheets, make sure there’s diesel for the generator.” She said in a Vanguard newspaper interview. She describes herself as a very strict manager who doesn’t ‘suffer fools gladly’.

The shrine is the main venue for Felabration. “The Felabration event has become a melting pot for all lovers of Fela’s music and ideology,” she said in a recent interview. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘just like that’ and is slated for 12-18 October. It will feature afrobeat bands from Nigeria, Chile and London.

These days, if Yeni is not at the shrine, she may be found on the set of ‘Your View’ a talk show she co-hosts on TVC.

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