BY CHUKS NWANNE
PERHAPS, if there’s an award for the most touring Nigerian artiste, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti would pocket that category permanently. From January to December every year, Femi and his Positive Force Band are touring Europe, America and other parts of the world; his schedule is usually fully booked. You hardly see him in the country, less granting interviews.
However, if it has to do with struggle for the masses, like the January fuel subsidy saga, be rest assured that the first son of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, would find his way back home to Nigeria to participate. He’s a chip of the old block.
Only yesterday, the three-time Grammy Award nominee marked his 50th birthday anniversary with a star-studded ceremony staged at the New African Shrine, Ikeja, Lagos.
At the event, friends, family members and fans gathered to pay tribute to a man, who has brought so much honour and accolades to his fatherland. As expected, Femi treated the crowd to the best of his hits.
Prior to the celebration, the Guardian Life had requested for a chat with him, hoping he could squeeze out time from his tight schedule. Eventually, the confirmation came, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
THE New African Shrine was very peaceful this Sunday afternoon, with a group of young boys and girls watching the Super Eagles game against the Brave Warriors of Namibia. At another corner were two ladies slugging it out in a snooker game, while others sat round bottles of beer, puffing smokes.
Femi was busy with another showbiz reporter when I arrived in his office; so, I had to wait in Yeni Kuti’s office. Few minutes later, he was ready to go.
Clutching his trumpet while working his blackberry phone, Femi appeared very different from that man you see on stage; there was this calm about his looks. Though his skin still remains as fresh as ever, the grey hair was an indication that at 50, the boy is now a full-grown man.
“You are all making it such a big deal,” he said with broad smiles.
How do you feel turning 50?
“I’m quite indifferent o; I think I’m full of mixed emotions. Some times, I’m happy, some times, I’m sad. However, I never knew I would live this long definitely,” he said.
“Because I was a very reckless boy. If you had told me by 1982 that I would live up to 50 years, I wouldn’t have believed it. I had a bike then; I would go from Ikeja to Surulere in five minutes. If you saw me biking on the road… haaaaaa, I was very rough,” he stressed.
You biked with kits?
“Ha, which kain kits; kit ko, kit ni,” he quizzed. “Look, I was a very rough guy growing up, that’s why I’m full of mixed emotions today. Sometimes when I think of it, I’m quite surprised and happy. Some people around me are making it (50th Anniverssary) such a big deal and I’m forced to accept that it’s a big deal.”
Left for the Afrobeat musician, his 50th birthday would have been like every other day. Thank God for his choreographer sister, Yeni, who seems to be the architect of the celebration!
“Sometimes, when I think of the wahala that comes with it… now, they want to do a big party for me. It’s going to be very stressful; I’m not sure I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
With three Grammy nominations and a flourishing music career, cerebrating a 5oth birthday in grand style is not out of place for an artiste of Femi’s calibre. But for him, there’s more to life than counting success.
“If you are looking at it from that angle … I don’t look at things from that perspective; I like my peace, my quiet time and I don’t like dwelling on things I’ve achieved. I think they can be derailing; it makes you lose focus. ‘Oh, yes, Grammy Nominee!’ Come, is it Grammy that will take me to heaven, that’s if there is actually heaven,” he retorted.
Are you saying you don’t believe there’s heaven?
“There’s definitely no heaven,” he said confidently. “You know, when we were younger, they said heaven is up and hell is down. But when you know the world is spherical in shape, revolves and rotates at the same time in 24 hours, you will know that that place you point to, as up, will later become down,” he said, bursting into a prolonged laughter.
So, what exactly do you believe?
“I just believe this world is a school and we are here to learn. If you find your ability to develop yourself spiritually, then you may be able to probably move to a different planet where you go through whatever you find there before you become godly.
“You know they’ve just found another galaxy; they thought it was just this galaxy, but they’ve found another one. Maybe, there are several galaxies. When you go through science, you will be overwhelmed; how can you just narrow your mind down to God and devil, heaven and hell! It’s more than that for me.”
That means you don’t believe there’s a Creator?
“I’m not saying there’s no Creator,” he said in defense, but added, “If there’s that Creator, I don’t think it’s something I have to call every day of my life. Imagine someone calling your name over and over again! Like me, if they call me ‘Femi, Femi, Femi …’, I would say, ‘stop it, leave me alone!’
“They won’t let the man (Jesus Christ) rest in peace sef, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…!’ Maybe that’s why we are suffering here. They call Jesus every time, they won’t allow the man to rest; maybe the man is giving us damnation from wherever he is.”
To Femi, man can achieve a lot without depending totally on miracle.
“For instance, I’ve never called Jesus in my life. Never,” he stressed. “Let’s look at it from the angle you pointed out earlier, those Grammy nominations wasn’t because of Jesus, but those who believe in Jesus were saying, ‘oh, Jesus gave it to you because he wants you to believe in him.’ I will still not call him tomorrow. Why should I call Jesus; do I know him?”
Then he turned around to declare that, “Ok, I believe he was a great man, probably died, but I didn’t kill him. Why should I beg for forgiveness? Those families that killed him, they should forever beg for forgiveness; I’m sure my family never participated in that incident. Since I wasn’t there, why should I be begging for forgiveness,” he quizzed again, pressing his phone.
Generally, Christians believe that Jesus Christ gave his life for mankind, but Femi thinks otherwise.
“They said Jesus gave his life for me, but when you go through that whole story very well, how did he give up his life for me? Even Jesus himself said on the cross, ‘God, you have forsaken me.’ When you go through that whole story, except you are not wise or you are too afraid to ask questions about that story, then you lose your self-confidence as a being.”
He continued, this time, using himself as an example: “Yes, I call God, but not to help me out in an effort I think I should do on my own. I don’t think I will be a proud person if I know God helped me to succeed. If I know when I’m practicing, God is the one helping me to play my trumpet, I better leave it for Him to help me practice; why am I bothering myself? When you are making love to your wife, you call God abi,” he said rhetorically.
Notwithstanding, Femi strongly believes there are supernatural powers and our ancestors, who are there for us.
“I don’t think we are supposed to keep on nagging over this; you need to find your own being in this chaos. Where is your own effort as a being? These are the questions we should be asking.”
AT 50, nothing changes for Femi. Like his legendary father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Femi remains the musician activist and social critic, whose voice goes beyond rhymes and rhythms.
“Well, I know I’m old o. When I was 20, we used to call 50-year-old people old men. I have a lot of young people in my band and they are already looking at me as an old man,” he said.
But when it comes to performance, “I think I’m even better now than when I was younger; then, it was difficult for me to place myself. Along the way, I’ve learnt a lot. I think I’m a better performer and artiste today; my maturity brought all these. So, I don’t think I’ve got to that stage where age is a minus for me,” he insisted.
Though a lover of football, playing at 5o is a no go area for the musician, who spends more time performing abroad.
“If I want to play football now, it will be difficult. I used to like to play football, but I’ve not played for about 25 years now. About seven years ago, my son called me to play with him and I had a tear. They just passed the ball to me, I kicked it and my muscle tore. For six weeks, I couldn’t move my leg, but when I watch those boys playing for Arsenal and Chelsea, I see they also suffer hamstrings and they are still young,” he joked.
Which football club do you support?
“Ah, I have many clubs; Enyimba of Aba, IICC of Ibadan … up Stationary Stores,” he screamed.
His playing music was never an accident. Right from his childhood, he has always known that playing music is the way to go. With a musician father, it didn’t take long before that dream came to limelight.
“My only problem then was how and when. But when I knew how and I saw how great my father was, I was like, ‘will I be able to live up to this heritage?’ I was a bit frightened.”
You had the blessings of your father?
“Oh, my father always wanted me to be a musician,” he enthused.
At the time Femi started his band, The Positive Force, many Nigerians, especially fans of his late father, wanted the young man to be a replica of Fela. While some complained about his fast tempo, others simply wanted him to sound like Fela, the Afrobeat legend.
“That was a major problem in my beginning; a lot of people didn’t want to listen to me. For a good number of years, I was a complete write-off; my first album, they dissed it. We were not getting shows; I was going to disband so many times. Yes, I played under my father for six years: dressed like him, danced like him, did everything like him and I got bored; I couldn’t find Femi Anikulapo Kuti in that chaos,” he said, somewhat exasperated.
Meanwhile, as at the time the Buhari/Idiagbon regime locked up Fela, the leadership of the Egypt 80 Band fell on Femi’s shoulders. That era provided him with opportunity to carve his niche.
“I had to lead his (Fela’s) band for two years; I developed so fast. By the time he came out of prison, I had already composed lots of songs on my own. I needed to find my own voice, my own melody and my own rhythm. This was very traumatic for me but…”
Any thought of quitting?
“Never, even without patronage; my mother was the one that financed my band. But when we finished her money, my younger sister suggested I become a fisherman because we had no money and no food in the house,” he recalled.
So, you fished at some point?
“No, I didn’t, of course,” he said.
FEMI was on the verge of disbanding his group when the French Cultural Centre approached him with an offer to participate in a cultural exchange abroad.
“I called my band members to inform them that if we had to continue, they would have to play for free. Then, somebody came from France and that was how I got my international breakthrough through the French Cultural Centre, who took me on a cultural exchange in 1988; that was my first breakthrough. As at then, we were not having tours in Nigeria, but outside, my name became huge,” he said.
Playing from one location to another, his music then was appreciated by the Europeans and Americans.
“When you look at it, the Europeans were the ones that gave me support and encouraged me to carry on. That fast tempo that I developed, the Europeans loved it. Nigerians complained that my music was too fast, that they couldn’t hear what I was saying. But I was like, ‘but you people are rapping, why are you complaining about my music?’ So, I closed my mind to the critics here and decided to face the Europeans who loved my fast tempo and beats.”
Today, that fast tempo has become a big deal for the younger generation of Nigerians, who seems to have accepted it as a groove.
“Bang bang band… became a hit and when I had Wonder Wonder, which was a hit, everybody said Fela wrote that number for me in closed door; they didn’t believe I wrote it. Fela had to come out several times to tell them I wrote the song on my own, but many people didn’t believe because it was so Felaish, it was a massive hit, the kind of music people wanted me to play,” he said.
Till date, Femi still plays with a big band, not minding the high cost of managing such a large group. You begin to wonder how he makes his profits?
“In the beginning, it was very stressful; some times, one or two of them would escape on tour. Nigeria has always been problematic; is it the no light, no water, no road, no money... there was a tour we had more than 20 shows; the drummer escaped in the middle of the tour and we had to improvise.”
To salvage the situation, Femi came up with an idea of using the conga and the sneer drum, while the percussionist was playing the drum pattern.
“We did it and it became a trend; we didn’t play with a drummer for a long time. However, that changed my composition again; it actually enhanced my creativity. Every time there’s a challenge in my life, I don’t dwell on it on the negative; I try to find how to quickly lift myself. I’ve not made millions touring because of the size of the band; by the time we buy tickets, transportation, feeding, salary… I will be left with just a little,” he said.
Luckily, Femi is not materialistic; so he had little to save.
“I don’t wear gold, I don’t have many shoes; I have like six or seven outfits made of adire. I rather invest on helping people, training my children and taking care of the Shrine than spending money on material things.”
Though not your typical rich Nigerian man, Femi is comfortable.
“People think I’m very rich, but I’m not; I’m just okay. However, I’m not poor; I don’ need to go begging or take a bank loan. I think when you start from a very poor situation, you know how to manage money. If not for my mother, I would have died because I had no money; whom do you ask for money? So, it kind of helped me to be a good manager.”
BEING Fela’s child is both positive and negative, depending on the side of the divide.
“If you were with the poor people, you are great, but if you were with the snubs, it wasn’t really great. Even my wife, the family rejected me because I’m Fela’s son; the mother said, ‘the leopard would never change its spots.”
To marry Femi, Fuke had to run away from her parents.
“My sister too had that problem; when their boyfriend’s parents found out that they are Fela’s children, they too asked them not to bring them to the house again.”
But on the streets, “everybody loved us. In school, too, we had problems; the rich children didn’t like us because their parents were anti-Fela, but the poor children loved us because their parents were pro-Fela. The same with teachers; some were for while some were against Fela.”
Were you ever punished because you are Fela’s son?
“Well, I have this belief that some teachers over-punished me because they didn’t like Fela. However, there were some, who loved me because of Fela, but they didn’t give me any favour academically. They would call me, ‘ah, Femi, how’s your father?’ So, you could tell that they liked my father.”
“I used to go to the poor people’s cinema houses like Rainbow and Jebako Cinema; we used to go to Plaza Cinema and others, which were for rich people; I preferred to jump school and go watch Indian movies at Rainbow Cinema. They loved us so much; I could walk on any bad streets then and people would shout, ‘ah, omo Fela, omo Fela …’ that was very interesting,” he enthused.
At the age of 12, Femi was already riding his father’s cars to school, to the admiration of other kids.
“When I started to ride my father’s Volvo and Range Rover to the Baptist Academy, I used to have a lot of problem with the police.”
What was the experience like?
“Ah, I was very popular then; I was notoriously popular,” he quipped.
And Fela allowed you?
“Of course, when he knew I could drive, he encouraged me. He used to say, ‘take the car, take the car,’ but my mother used to be very angry.”
TO Femi, the death of Fela was not as heartbreaking as the cause of his death.
“It was difficult, but I knew he was loved. To defend him because he died of AIDS, that was really a difficult thing. For me, I didn’t see it as a big deal because I understood death; he could have died of cancer or anything. However, it was a new topic of death and people were talking about it. I had a feeling that probably, the government was trying to use it to blacklist him,” he said.
Even at that, Femi was confident that no matter how the story went, people would appreciate Fela in death; he was confident that millions of people would come for his burial.
“Fela’s death didn’t disturb me that much because he had a fulfilling life; sexually, materially, he had achieved everything. He was more than a great man; he was like a demi-god. So, I didn’t feel any kind of dejection. I was even kind of proud because of positive reports about him; journalists loved him. In fact, the Commissioner of Police then came out to say that there was no robbery for three days; he said robbers signed a pact that they won’t rob for three days in honour of Fela.”
From his tone and body language, Femi seems not worried about death.
“I know I’m going to die, so, death has always been something I’ve decided to embrace knowing too well that it’s going to come someday. I’m always psyching myself about death; is it going to be painful…?”
Probably, the lost of his younger sister, Sola, was more heartbreaking than losing his father.
“My sister’s death was a big deal because she was younger; it was unexpected. By the time she died, it was like a shock; it caught everybody unaware,” he said with a painful look in his eyes.
FORGET his life as an artiste, Femi is a true father; he loves his kids more than anything in the world. Aside from his six biological children, he adopted another four, who are presently under his care.
“They are friends of my son and I’m taking care of them; I kind of adopted them because their parent’s were not well to do. I discovered that my son was developing faster than them and my son loved them. So, I asked to have them and train them in school,” he said.
Asked what he would love to get as a birthday gift, the Afrobeat exponent jokingly said, “a private jet.” Then he came on again: “You can’t give me what I want; what I want is not material. I just want my kids to be happy; I want to be able to see that my kids have a good life. I want to be guaranteed that when I’m gone, they will be all right.”
What about your wife?
“I’m not married,” he said with a straight face.
So, who takes care of the children?
“I have people that take care of them and they have their mother’s families; my sister is also there for them. I don’t say anything about the mothers of my children because that’s their effort in sustaining the relationship.”
He continued: “As much as I’m doing things for the children and themselves, they too have to put an effort to ensure that they love me enough to care for the children and myself. So, if they want me to live long, they should love me more; if I want them to be in this relationship, I should love them more. The children cannot fend for themselves; we need to give them all the love and protection we can.”
What’s your biggest asset?
“My children; nothing comes before them. I needed my career to sustain my children. If you are a good parent, you would let go a lot of things for the sake of your children.”
Your happiest moment?
“When my kids are happy and laughing; they determine my mood. You know they come from different mothers; so, its difficult to keep them united. You have to teach them to be there for each other now, so that in future, they would be there for themselves. They shouldn’t let their mothers jealousy to come between them,” he said.