Femi Anikulapo Kuti was in his office, backstage at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, getting ready for his Thursday performance. It was the Thursday show that members of the public did not like to miss. The appointment for our interview turned out to be three hours before show time. Femi Kuti is the first son of the legendary creator of the Afrobeat genre, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He has followed in his father footsteps, first joining his father’s band before creating his own band, Positive Force.
In this exclusive excerpt from an interview with Valentine Iwenwanne, Femi talks about his life, music, Fela and, of course, political and social issues.
TIA: It’s 20 years since your father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre, passed away, leaving his saxophone( his iconic instrument), his family and fans behind. Today, his music still remains a weapon against corruption, indiscipline and social injustice. What is the secret to this longevity?
Femi Kuti: His music remains relevant today, because he was genuine. He was sincere and committed to his beliefs, the foundations of his music, and his convictions.
TIA: What exactly do these beliefs and convictions entail?
FK: What he was talking about was real and he didn’t compromise. There was suffering then – when he sang about “49 sitting, 99 standing”, it was happening. When he did song like “Original suffer head”, it was happening. What about the song “Unknown soldier”? It was happening.
TIA: What is the origin of the New Afrika Shrine?
Femi Kuti: The New Afrika Shrine was built to honour my father, because he never owned his own shrine. Many thought he owned the last one, the Afrika Shrine, but unfortunately he was stripped. It was a lease, but he thought he had bought the land, so he built on it. He tried to get ownership, but it was already in court when his death came. Unfortunately, after he died, they said the deceased cannot fight, nor can his family continue the fight. That’s what the law says. So we tried our best to settle with the Mene Benite family at that time but they refused. When we licensed my father’s catalogue, my mother, elder sister and I decided to build this in his honour, and to take it a step further, since he admired those who fought for the emancipation of Africa, people like Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley – everybody who fought; people we hadn’t even heard of. It’s a shrine and its significance is to honour great Africans.
The New Afrika Shrine is a shrine and its significance is to honour great Africans.
TIA: It’s 17 years since the New Afrika Shrine came into existence. So far, what has been happening here?
Femi Kuti: We play music and hold festivities in honour of my father. We’ve had lectures, dramas and symposiums here. It could become a public studio one day; it could become a library providing books for people someday, but it’s mainly for entertainment. I play twice a week. It’s the biggest disco you can find in Africa on Fridays, and most of the things here are free. I play on Thursdays for free, and on Sundays I play for 500 Naira. The disco on Friday is free. It’s a place that we want people to be able to appreciate.
The 500 Naira entrance fee was a lot of money then, and it’s still a lot of money for many of the people who come here to watch the artists they love. That is why we tell every artist that comes here to understand that this is a place for the people. Wether you are rich or poor, when you come here you will see Femi playing for free. You watch many concerts here, for free. Felabration is also free. As I said already, the biggest disco on Fridays is free. I also play every Thursday and Sunday from 7pm to 11pm. We want the plumber, the okada rider, the danfo driver, the bus conductor to come here and feel great. It is their right as Africans to feel great. We have suffered oppression is and we don’t want anybody to come here and look down on anyone. So, this is a symbolic place, standing firm behind the struggle for the emancipation and freedom of the mind of the African person.
TIA: How would you describe the difference between the Afrikan Shrine and the New Afrikan Shrine?
FK: Since it was built, the New Afrikan Shrine has been battling the negative label that the Nigerian government had placed on the previous shrine, when they referred to it as a den for armed robbers and drug addicts. We had a fight against that bad label.
Everybody thinks about ritual when they hear the word ‘shrine’. [Laughter.] We are not performing any ritual here. If we did, the law would have caught up with us after 17 years. [Laughter.] We have taken the positivity of the word ‘shrine’, which means ‘a place that is sacred’. We believe this place is sacred because it was built in honour of great people who fought against corruption and injustice.
TIA: Between then, when Fela Kuti was alive, and now, when he is no more, where would you position his work?
FK: Some people say he was a prophet, but for me, I don’t see the prophecy there. He was singing about suffering then, and the suffering now, at present, is 100 times worse than what it was then. When my father was talking, it was two US dollars to one naira. Nobody understood what he was saying, a lot of people were compromised and they presented many reasons not to listen to him. They said he was smoking weed; that he liked women too much, but they knew what he was saying was true. Right now, the suffering is staring people in the face, and his songs are still relevant. That is probably why people call him a prophet.
My father was singing about suffering then, and the suffering now is 100 times worse.
TIA: With all that he sang about manifesting today in Nigeria, and considering his experience with the then Nigerian military government. Could we say he was a prophet who was not honoured in his country?
FK: I won’t say ‘a prophet’ but ‘a person’ who was not honoured by some. Many people appreciated him. So I would not say he was not honoured in his country but I will say that the Nigerian government did not honour him. They were compromised in corruption. When you’re lifting oil, you will not want to listen to Fela. When you are part of the corruption, you will not want to listen to Fela.
When you are part of the corruption, you will not want to listen to Fela’s music.
I offer you this analysis: The moment Nigeria found oil, the military began to dictate our pace. Why should the military take our oil? Instead of giving the oil blocks to Nigerians, they gave it to individuals who became very rich. They used these monies to oppress the citizens. If they had used that money to build solid institutions and infrastructure for this country, we would not be where we are today. We would be like Dubai. We would have had the greatest universities, the best roads and hospitals.
But they took this money, sold it to individuals and themselves, and they all became rich – while Nigerians were hailing them instead of understanding that the money belonged to all Nigerians! These resources belong to all Nigerians, even the regions that they were getting it from, like the Niger Delta, were suffering and their own leaders were oppressing them, instead of making life better for them.
TIA: With 18 years of democratic governance in Nigeria, can there ever be another Fela Anikulapo Kuti?
FK: There can never be another Fela in this world. There can be others , but they will not be like Fela. When Fela was talking, he did that for more than a decade before other human rights activists started coming up, people like Gani Fawehinmi and Others. Everybody was so afraid to speak up. Fela was the only person opposing General Yakubu Gowon at that time, also General Murtala Muhammed and the former military general, Olusegun Obasanjo.
Fela stood alone and when he spoke up, 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 a slave name, they could not understand where Fela was coming from. His family rejected it; his brothers carried the name till their death. But for Fela, it was about being yourself and loving your culture. Even his family didn’t understand this.
TIA: On 7 August 2017, the convener of the ‘Our Mumu Don Do’ movement, Charles Oputa (Charlie Boy), escaped death narrowly when mobs suspected to be pro-Buhari attacked him and his ‘resume or resign’ protesters at the Wuse market in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Many Nigerians reacted, saying that if Fela had been alive, activism would not loose steam and colour.
FK: I will not support or criticise Charlie Boy for his beating. When you are fighting, and you don’t have the conviction, you can’t be a fighter. Are you doing it because you want people to hail you? Are you looking for people to support you? Then why are you doing it? Fela didn’t wait for anybody to support him. When he was taking his beatings, he didn’t say, nobody is taking this beating for me. When his house in Kalakuta was burnt down, he didn’t complain about nobody coming to stop the soldiers, because he expected it to happen.
Newspapers reported it, radio and television stations announced it, calling it an injustice, Fela left his properties. He was probably one of the richest people at the time when the government stopped him from performing, and no one came to his rescue, nobody came to give him money or put food on our table. When I was building this shrine, I fought until people began to appreciate this place.
TIA: Since your appearance on the music scene, you were seen as part of Fela’s act, with similar style of music. Should we say that your music is a continuation of his?
Femi Kuti: Fela is my father. I look like him, sometimes I dance like him, and most times I play like him, but I am not him. I do not want to be him. People have fought me for not taking over his band. I appreciate him as my father. If you listen closely to my music, you will discover that there is a difference, but you will see similarities too. Some people even criticise me for not being political like him.
TIA: Before the 2011 elections in Nigeria, you said many Nigerians didn’t know the history of African slavery. Specifically, what are you trying to say?
FK: The average African will say they came to Africa and took us as slaves. We were never slaves, we were kings and queens. White men came here and fought us for over 500 years. Before the Atlantic slave trade, there was the trans-Sahara slave trade: The Arabs came all the way from Egypt and fought us down to Nigeria. That’s why we have more Muslim people who practice Islam in Northern Nigeria. In Southern Nigeria Christianity came from across the Atlantic ocean. They all battled this continent to colonise it, for whatever reason, mainly to oppress us, take our land and our people.
Our women and children were slaves. You cannot imagine the turmoil on this continent. Just imagine an African man today preferring to be addressed as John Thomas instead of Chikwudi Ugochukwu [an Igbo name], because that sounds inferior or not good enough, while the English name sounds great. Our women prefer to wear long hair and bleach their skin, just to look more like white women. We even have black men who are bleaching their skin, or doing jheri curl with their hair. We don’t like African food. We like to go to our offices in suit and tie, just to look corporate. If you don’t go for a job interview dressed ‘corporate’, they will not employ you. [Laughter.]
The name ‘Nigeria’ was given to us by Lady Lugard. We had 100 years of colonial rule. We have about 50 to 60 years of African pockets working for America, the British and other colonial masters, depending on who colonised them. Read the books Black man of the Nile, by Yosef ben-Jochannan and The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. They have detailed information about our problematic history. Another book you should read is The stolen legacy by GM James. We fight ourselves, we even defend slavery, many of us believe that if slavery didn’t come, we wouldn’t have had Jesus Christ. We bring ourselves down – like the word ‘shrine’: We don’t know its meaning. When you know this history and you look at Africa, you will be thankful for how great we are.
Despite passing through all these historical events, we are still standing as a people. When they arrived in Ghana, they named it Gold Coast. They named it after its gold. It was Dr Kwame Nkrumah who changed that name to Ghana. When they saw Ashanti dressed in gold, the white people could not understand it. So, they went to Ghana because of the gold. They also went to Ivory Coast because of ivory. The contribution of Africa to the world is great. Africa brought the world mathematics, astrology, astronomy. Until today, Africans are contributing to all these so-called developed countries, including their technology. If we were so ‘backward’, why are we top in sports?