The Unofficial Website for Fela Kuti and Afrobeat Music

The Pre-Conviction Interview
Since the Sixties we have grown accustomed to the phenomenon of the politically conscious pop musician. We have only to point out the phenomenon of the protest singers, who sharply criticize existing situations or provide overall criticism of society through their lyrics. And although there were other musicians who had their regular run-ins with the authorities, the few arrests made could almost always be attributed to the liberal use of forbidden stimulants. Only the Czech band Plastic People of The Universe or musicians in the South-American dictatorships have been jailed because of their political convictions. Names of musicians of truly international fame cannot be lapped up yet.

This has changed with the arrest and conviction of FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI. He was convicted by the military regime in his native country to five years imprisonment on the basis of an extremely debatable charge. Even Fela’s national and international fame couldn’t save him this time. And from the interview that follows, the last he gave before his arrest, he was all too aware of that himself.

On 4 September last year (1984), minutes before leaving the country for an extensive tour of the US, Fela Anikulapo Kuti was arrested at the airport of Lagos due to an attempt at smuggling foreign currency out of the country. “He who emanates greatness, carries death in his pouch and cannot die” is what this controversial African musician called himself. But the Nigerian authorities took this for granted and took him to court for the 451st time in ten years.

Fela was supposed to have carried 1600 English pounds with him instead of the maximum amount of 50 that one person is allowed to take out of the country. An accusation that Fela’s defense did not deny but explained by pointing to the 45 people in the retinue of the musician. And 1600 divided by 45 is nowhere near 50. This did not impress the judges who sentenced Fela to five years imprisonment. When he has served this sentence he will be 51. But if the man will survive the circumstances

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and treatment in a Nigerian jail remains doubtful. It appears his health has deteriorated frightfully in the last three months.

Initially Fela Kuti was locked up in a hot, crowded cell of the Ikoyi Prison that is so crammed with prisoners that they are even locked up in the toilets. In the meanwhile he has been transferred to the Kirikiri Prison that is less crowded. Now that the judgment has been ratified by the Supreme Military Council the last hope for a legal solution has vaporized. No appeal will be possible.

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“In Nigeria they convict by law, not by the truth” Fela says himself in the following interview that took place during his last stay in the Netherlands, June 1984.

In the meanwhile Fela’s brother, the doctor Beko Ransome Kuti, publicly dedicates himself to Fela’s cause. He travels the world and reports on the abnormalities that occurred during the trail wherever possible. Fela’s son, Femi Anikulapo Kuti, is now the band leader of his father’s orchestra and the band, Egypt 80, plays as many gigs as possible under the leadership of the 22 year old saxophonist.

And then there is the album “Army Arrangement” that is expected one of these days. It will be released by the American Celluloid Label and mixed by Bill Laswell. If this record is indeed as explosive as Fela prophesized, it won’t exactly boost his popularity with the authorities, but maybe the album can focus the attention of the public on the fate of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a courageous man that knows no compromise.

Fela’s first run-ins with the authorities date from 1974. On 30 April of that year he was arrested for possession of marihuana, an arrest that was accompanied by heavy ill-treatments. By that time Fela had acquired international fame and his political commentaries got sharper and sharper. That was the reason for the authorities to arrest him immediately before his departure to Cameroon for a tour. But the one joint that was taken by the police as evidence was pilfered away from them by Fela who ate it up before the very eyes of the officers. He managed to avoid the draining of his stomach and even managed to trade excrements with a fellow prisoner when he was locked up at night. He was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but the authorities never forgot this humiliation.

Countless raids, assaults and arrests followed, culminating in a relentless assault by the army in 1977, when Fela took a critical stance against the propagandistic showpiece of the government, the FESTAC activities (a festival of African musical culture). All Fela's properties were destroyed, his house burnt, his singers and dancers raped and all other people present were assaulted. His 78 year old mother, a very well know progressive political activist, was thrown from a window during the raid. She died a year later.

It took years before Fela Kuti came to terms with this blow, but he seemed to be totally recovered last year. Moreover, the military government that has ruled since the beginning of 1983 didn't seem to be all that hostile towards him. The opposite has now been shown. What makes this musician so dangerous that the Nigerian government had to use a far-fetched excuse to take him out of circulation? Part of the answer to that question can be gathered from the report of the interview from last year's summer, a conversation that by now has become heavily loaded.

"HOTS"

I speak to Fela in the departure hall of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where the retinue has to wait for several hours, before they fly to London. In the last few days I have noticed that Fela Kuti is not by far the potentate that his image would make us believe.  He spends most of his time in his hotel room in the company of his eldest wife and the magician Professor Hindu, Fela's advisor and spiritual guide. The extensive retinue amuses itself, as far as possible, although they have to keep to certain lines of conduct, like the prohibition to consume liquor. This rule, together with lack of money, makes the women beg for "hots" (glasses of whiskey) constantly. Besides that the group behaves quietly and disciplined, even without the controlling glance of the boss.

And that Fela is by no means the authoritarian harem boss becomes clear when photographer Ernest Potters suggests making a group photograph of the entire retinue. "You mean now?" Fela asks startled. "Oh wow… I don't think they're in the mood for that kind of shit right now. They all look pretty down because they have to wait here for two hours and they're pretty sulky about that. If I call them together for a couple of pictures they'll curse me in their thoughts".

Only in their thoughts?

"Well, they won't do it openly. Sure, they'll obey me, but you'll be able to read the resentment from their faces".

Maybe we could do it later on when they have to check in?

"Yeah, then they might be glad because we can leave".

Glad that they can leave the Netherlands?

“No, no, not to be able to leave the Netherlands. Glad that they won't have to wait any longer. We had to leave the hotel too early. We were planning to leave at four o'clock, but we had to leave at 1.30. Otherwise we would have to pay for one more day. That would've been ridiculous. We already paid for two nights and with a group of 45 people that's a lot of money”.

“GOT A LIGHT?”

A few moments later a man approaches Fela and asks him for a light in English. Fela hands him his lighter and says in a friendly way: "help yourself". The tourist accepts the lighter and when he's gone the African says: "I hate lighting other people's cigarettes. In Europe they do that for you. What I'm trying to say is this: you're the one who wants the cigarette, man. Then don't bother me. In Europe they'll even light your cigarette if they don't like you. That is over-polite. Too polite."

You mean dishonest?

“Exactly, that’s what it means. Too polite”.

I'll remember that. For when I go to Africa.

"Then you will without a doubt encounter the higher, English speaking colonial bureaucratic lunatics who want to copy the whites. Then you'll meet people from the press or maybe politicians. And they'll probably want to light your cigarette to show you they've been in England. Shit, man. But when you're in a night club where the ordinary man is, they'll probably just hand you the matches".

COLLEAGUES

Another African decency measure Fela maintains is that he and his band members refrain from making negative comments about fellow musicians. Fate would have it that last year in June Nigeria's three most famous musicians visited the Netherlands: King Sunny Adé, Ebenezer Obey and Fela Kuti. However, they don't have much in common musically, although all three of them belong to the Yoruba tribe and the age difference between them is small (Adé is the youngest with his 38 years and Fela the oldest at 46). From this threesome King Sunny Adé, who travels the world accompanied by a professional team, now seems to be the established star and Fela is unquestionably the rebel. Obey is somewhere in between, but seems to want to follow in Adé's tracks at all costs, although he was his forerunner for years. To scale down this situation Obey performs everywhere for knock-down prices and this has cost Fela several shows. In Germany, for example, he was told that the planned gigs were canceled because "we already have an African act that demands only a quarter of your price". This was painful for Fela who hoped to raise the money that isn't available in Nigeria. But my hope for some bold statements is dashed immediately.

"It would be inadmissible if I would vent my opinion publicly. Not only could I harm the artist concerned seriously because people have so much respect for me and believe in me because of my musical accomplishments. And I could also antagonize people against me, because everyone has his own taste. We all make music, people can choose from that what they like. Every musician likes his own music the best, man. I don't want to attack that. I don't mind criticism, I can handle it, but most people can't".

He slumps in the small plastic chair. Professor Hindu, who was vehemently hacking with butcher knives into human bodies a year earlier in Amsterdam’s Paradiso, sits next to him. He now kills time by trying to get a small ball into the hole of a cheap toy. I have taken the place next to Fela and show him a book that I took with me, a novel by Wole Soyinka. The book, “Aké”, is the life story of a little boy who lives in Abeokuta, Fela's town of birth. The Kuti family, and especially Fela's mother, Nigeria's first women’s rights activist, plays a role in the book. When he sees it, a big smile appears on his face. "Wole, that's a cousin of mine. He is five years older than I am".

A HISTORY LESSON

I use the opportunity to ask Fela about the town of his birth. What kind of a town is Abeokuta? "Come and have a look for yourself" he says. "That's all I can say". Only after some prodding does he become willing to provide an explanation.

"Abeokuta is not a good example of an African town to me. Seen through the light of Africa's history it's a fairly new settlement. It was founded during the time that the Yoruba went on war expeditions, after the French occupants, if I'm not mistaken. They lost this battle and could not return to their own villages. That's why they settled there. This happened in the time of the slave trade, so I think the expeditions were aimed against the slave traders. That's why the city is set up without any form of planning. It became a settlement of beaten warriors.

That's the planning of most contemporary African cities, because that kind of thing was happening all over Africa at the time. The real, old cities were all destroyed. Benin City, for instance, the ideal African city, was burnt down by the English. That happened in 1899 or around that time. Benin City was a very ancient city some 2000 years old when it was burnt to ashes. It was built by the Africans that came from Egypt. They built more cities then like Oyo, but that city too perished in flames. That was the English again. No city escaped that fate. That was the game played by the slave traders. They knew that if they wanted to force the Africans into slavery and colonize their country they had to prevent the African from seeing that he was capable of creating beauty. So they destroyed everything and proceeded by calling Africa the Dark Continent. That's why I tell you you should come and look for yourself if you want to see what an African town looks like".

Fela lately seems to be obsessed with anything to do with Egypt. He now calls his band, the former Africa 70, Egypt 80. What's up with those Egyptians? How did they arrive in Nigeria?

“They had to leave Egypt because of the evil. The spiritual forces of the African were ravished by the wars Egypt got drawn into. In Egypt itself and in Sudan and Ethiopia. Everywhere along the Nile up to Kenya. That's why the Egyptians traveled inwards to settle there.

Those wars started somewhere around 1200 before Christ. After that the Greeks came, the Romans, the Arabs and the French. So the Egyptian population had to move away. It all became too hectic, their civilization wasn't attuned to war. And when they had chosen a new place to settle they began to develop Africa. There were cities everywhere, new cities.

And then the slave trade started. The so-called "discovery" of Africa started about 500 years ago and from that time on the Africans were forced to settle in what nowadays are called "poor, clay houses". Abeokuta is set up along that line. You see poor, clay houses almost everywhere".

JUJU

As said before, Fela Kuti is a Yoruba, just like Adé and Obey. As a matter of fact Ebenezer Obey went to school in Abeokuta. Juju is the music associated with the Yoruba. Fela doesn't play Juju, but must have been confronted with it in his youth. "Sure, but I don't like Juju music. I liked a few things in the past, because it used to be reasonably musical at the time, but what they do nowadays, no. I never really liked Juju, except for a few very good, musical Juju players. That’s a typical colonial term by the way, Juju. That's what I associate it with".

Then let's call it Yoruba music.

“No, just call it Juju music, that's what it's called after all”.

What did you like when you were young? Jazz?

“When I was young I listened to a lot of music from abroad, on records. That, by the way, couldn't have been otherwise, because it was the only music that was available on records. There were hardly any recordings of African music, you heard that in the street. Especially Highlife. That was the music I loved. Not a lot of Highlife is played nowadays in Africa, it's nearly all foreign music nowadays, Disco.

I liked some things from abroad. “If I May” by Nat King Cole. I thought that was a really beautiful song. But even Nat King Cole wasn't known in Abeokuta. I got to know him only when I went to live with my brother in Lagos. I went to school there. And I also liked Rumba music. That's from South America if I'm not mistaken. I liked music from those parts of the world”.

SCORN AND BITING SARCASM

Despite his growing passion for mysticism, his unconditional faith in his guru from Ghana Professor Hindu and in visions in which he claims to have contact with spirits, including the spirit of his departed mother, his lyrics remain invariably political in content. Biting sarcasm and ridiculing the rulers predominate. On his last album (“Music is the Weapon”, recorded live in Paradiso) especially the colonialists and their feelings of superiority and the African nouveaux riches become the victim of Fela's scorn.

Since then the civilian government of President Shagari has been replaced by a military regime in Nigeria, but if you go by the songs Fela belted out in the last couple of days, nothing much has changed as far as he's concerned. “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense” was one of his songs and the colonial school books that were opened in this song speak volumes. Of course I am very curious to hear from an expert and a person who is directly involved to hear about the current situation in Nigeria (June 1984). Is the situations worse than before the coup d’état?

“Much worse! Much worse!”

Also concerning freedom and justice?

“That’s also much worse. There can be no justice in Africa until African courts are instituted. Most people that have to appear before a court have absolutely no idea what’s happening to them. Sometimes they don’t even speak any English. As a matter of fact most people that have to appear in court don’t speak any English and then some lawyer starts citing books that were written in London, the magistrate sits there nosing about in them and the man in the bench doesn’t understand anything. He has stolen two chickens or some money and there they sit closing and opening books. He asks himself what that has to do with the two chickens. For an African such a dispute figures between him, the man he stole the chickens from and the judge and together they find a solution. That’s an African concept. There are only three parties, no intermediaries like lawyers. I just mean to say: that this man is stealing chickens doesn’t mean that he has lost his voice. He can still defend himself and then it would be a simple case. But no, law books from 1840 have to be cited. Hahaha. They say everything in pompous, unintelligible English and the man doesn’t understand anything about it. All these things are so undemocratic. But our democracy is nonsense to begin with. Democracy is demo-crazy. Because the judges are also appointed by the government, you see. They are instructed by the government. I could be taken to court right now if they weren’t afraid of my popularity. Many people are sent to jail simply due to the instructions of the government. You are put on trail but go to jail the same, guilty or not guilty, if the government wants it. They pronounce judgment by the letter of the law, not by the truth.

I myself was once brought to trail and I asked for bail. But the judge first had to excuse himself and I knew that he went to ask for instructions. When he returned I was refused bail and was sent back to my cell. There wasn’t even a legal reason to refuse me bail, because that’s only allowed if you’ve murdered someone or committed armed robbery. There wasn’t even a charge against me. When we demanded to know in the court room why I was put on trail they told us they were still working on the accusations. So I had to spend 30 days in jail without an accusation and couldn’t even get out on bail. That was in 1977 when they burnt down my house. After those 30 days I had to appear in court again and was sent back again for 20 days. Now I ask you: what kind of law is that? And if that can happen to me, and I am quite familiar with the laws in my country and informed about my rights and am also backed by half the population, how would that go with the ordinary man, who has no support? The prisons in Africa are full of unemployed young people who are searching for life itself, searching for improvement. They have no way out. Convicted by the letter of the law”.

COMMISSION

Fela seems to feel reasonably safe because of his alleged support of the people, but what is the actual chance that he will become victim to the aggression of the rulers?

“What’s happening around my person in my country at the moment is the following: the government tries to make the public believe that they serve my best interests, but that is not the case. For instance, they appointed me as member of the Commission for The Relationship between The Police and The Population.  So I am a member of that, but why they chose me I do not know. The commission is supposed to make suggestions for a better relationship between the police and the civilians. I went along with the membership, because I don’t want them to get the feeling that I am not patriotic. But that doesn’t mean that I am willing to compromise! Okay. What I don’t understand is this: I haven’t been able to release an album since November last year because the raw components for vinyl are lacking. And the album I want to release is pretty explosive. The title is “Army Arrangement”. Only when that album is released will I know the government’s attitude towards me. My appointment as a commission member doesn’t mean shit if you ask me, man. Hahaha”.

Fela has no idea how long this lack of components will last. “Nigeria is not a producer. You could say the same thing for Africa as a whole and that’s why it will continue to go downhill. We do not produce anything that is needed in the world. Just oil. Music? Oh please stop. Music might be able to be an economic aid for Africa, but we are not in urgent need of that kind of production. We must produce raw things that people want and must buy. Only then will thing improve for Africa. But as long as that doesn’t happen, what does Nigeria’s development plan stand for? Nothing. Just oil. And everyone has oil nowadays, because the Arabs are selling more oil than the world can use. I see no future for Africa until it starts looking at its own ancestors. Until it realizes that the spiritual senses must be used and an Africa can be developed as it used to exist in the past. That’s the way I see it. 

There is absolutely no economic benefit that can be developed. Even food is imported. Rice that we could just as well cultivate ourselves. But there is no one left who is willing to cultivate the land. The whole shit is so bad, man. Only if you look with total honesty at your own people do you see the hopelessness of the problem. Otherwise you stumble dully from day to day. That happens a lot right now in Africa, not only in Nigeria. I speak about Africa as a whole. But they don’t like this skeptical talk. They like to see their ministers talk big. Why does the news always report with so much fuss that a minister is going to America or Europe for consultation? I always ask myself what that motherfucker is going to talk about. He only goes there to borrow money, you see, that’s all. And Europe and America are tired of having to lend money again and again, because the debts are much too high as they are right now. I understand that very well. But okay, if it really gets difficult they will have to find a better solution".

BENEFIT

Just before Fela came to the Netherlands a festival was held that was organized by the government to raise money for the Olympic Team that will represent Nigeria in Los Angeles. Fela played at this fund raising festival and so did Victor Uwaifo and Ebenezer Obey.

“The government tries to make me do things that would let people believe that I am on their side”. Fela comments. “But I was paid for it, so that’s okay as far as I’m concerned. I don’t do anything for nothing as far as my music is concerned. I only said I would ask the minimum of my stadium rate. If I play stadiums in Africa I ask about 35.000 Naira. So I asked them for 15.000 Naira. Then they try to make the public believe that I performed for free, but that is not my way of doing things. But that’s how things work in my country, you understand? I do not understand what they have to gain by declaring that I performed for free. But as long as I get paid, it also works for me. If I release my album and they’ll want to get me for that the people will wonder why they’re so unfair against someone who even collaborated on their project for free. Hahaha. That’s cool”.

PRESIDENT

As was featured in “Music is The Weapon”, the documentary on Fela that was broadcasted last January, Fela had high political ambitions. And he still has them. He actually ran for presidential candidate, but his candidature was dismissed. I ask him for his precise suggestions to improve the situation in Nigeria.

 “I will disclose my plans no sooner than when I become President. Hahaha.

You do have them, I hope?

“I have an ideology. That’s all. What I have in mind can only be ideological plans. I cannot put them into practice and only when ideas are put into practice can we speak of planning. I essentially follow Pan-Africanism, the philosophy of Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana”.

Is there a government in Africa at this moment that tries to implement this philosophy? Maybe Tanzania?

“No, no. They work totally different. On many different levels. For instance, there’s only one political party in Tanzania, while in Nkrumah’s philosophy there can be several parties. But in Tanzania the President holds an election contest against himself. Nkrumah never forbade political parties and that does happen in Tanzania. Nyere wants to be President forever and that should in fact depend on the will of the people, not on the will of the President”.

So you want to become president by the will of the people. Should that happen by elections?

“I don’t care how. It could be through elections or through another way. I wouldn’t be able to tell you by which, but…”

So you don’t want to become president through a coup?

“I am not a soldier, so I will never be able to commit a coup d’état”.

You could get the support of the Military?

“Oh, if the army would suddenly realize that I am the only one who can truly lead the country. Yeah, I could become President that way. That’s possible. In that case the army follows the will of the people, because they know the population wants me. Yeah.”

These determined and reasonable sounding words were spoken by Fela Anikulapo Kuti two month before the army put him behind bars. His judgment on the new Nigerian government was apparently much too optimistic. The military, who have criticized Fela so efficiently in the past, used the ridiculous WAI (“War Against Indiscipline”) to take the fearless Fela Kuti out of circulation.

And Fela may serve five years after a trail full of dubious legal manipulations. He is not my favorite African musician, but I admire his attitude and his political ideas should be taken seriously. And even if this would not have been the case, such a harrowing example of injustice as committed in this case should always be condemned.

Despite the restricted measures concerning the press in Nigeria, there are sounds of protest against Fela’s conviction. The students of Nigeria’s School of Journalism have, according to an article in The Vanguard of 16 December 1984, requested the head of state Buhari to grant Fela a pardon. In their plea they point to Fela’s patriotism and his public renunciation of foreign products and customs.

Fela’s eccentric behavior at times arises from his deep love of his homeland, the students write. Besides that, they remind the head of state that Fela Kuti performed for free last summer for the benefit of the Nigerian Olympic Team(!). They finished their petition with: “must we allow this musical genius to rot away in a jail because of some minor regulation?”

Translator’s note: Fela was released from prison on 24 April 1986 after 18 months imprisonment after a change of government.

Source: OOR Music Magazine, 26 January 1985, article written by Henk Tummers. Photographs: Ernest Potters

Translation: Julio Punch