The Voice of Africa’s Consciousness
After a long train ride in a train full of joyfully singing soccer supporters I arrive at Eindhoven’s train station a few minutes before six o’clock. It’s just the right time for my appointment with Fela Kuti’s eldest son. Luckily the Effenaar is a few minutes walk from the station. An employee of the Effenaar kindly opens the door and delivers my message to the tour manager. He comes back a few minutes later and leads me to the lounge where I lounge for some time while two employees watch the Discovery Channel. The tour manager comes to fetch me for the interview. We go up in the elevator to Femi’s dressing room. I hear Femi playing his flageolet. The tour manager introduces me to Femi. Femi seems a bit apprehensive at first, but after a few questions from his side we sit down and I get mine from my backpack.
Julio Punch: To begin with, I once heard you say that the Netherlands is one of your favorite places in the world to visit. Why is that?
Femi Kuti: Why is that? (laughs) I think they respond to my music. We’ve been building a fan base over the years. It’s almost 15 years now. So it’s getting comfortable.
JP: I once heard Fela say “I like Holland, small, because you can smoke!”
FK: Who said that?
JP: Fela, your father!
FK: Oh, my father. OK. Haha.
JP: Last time you were here there were problems with the authorities closing The Shrine. Is everything OK now?
FK: Yes, it’s reopened now.
JP: So you have a peace with the authorities, at least to a certain degree?
FK: Yes, to a certain degree. I mean, they opened it, so… But then I have to be very thankful to a lot of my friends all over the world who must have complained basically everywhere. Because when the press heard about the closure, there was a lot of press worldwide covering the incident. So I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of what made the government open it. There was so much outside media coverage. I was quite surprised myself.
JP: We’ve heard quite a bit about the political situation in Nigeria lately. You have a new president and I’d like to hear your view as an insider about the current political situation.
FK: The current situation as far as I am concerned is very depressing and sad. Even though some people will seriously say it’s getting better. Those people that say it’s getting better are feeding off the government. Now we have to understand the way the democratic government came into power. The democratic government came into power because the West and America were forcing many cultures to come into democrazy. Nigeria being one of its main allies, it was forced, and they allowed democrazy to come into power, with the military taking off their uniforms and coming into power. Our former president Obbassanjo and the vice-president were ex-military men. Many of the governors and senators who came into power were ex-military men who took advantage of the democratic era to retire and come into and play politics. They are still part and parcel of this democratic change in Nigeria. So we don’t have a sincere democratic process. If they are not part of the leadership then they are the godfathers of whoever is in authority, respective of the state.
JP: I’m was born in the Seventies and I think for the first time in my life Nigeria now has a president, Goodluck Jonathan, who wasn’t targeted in Fela Kuti’s lyrics.
FK: He is a godson. He is new into the political era. Many of the new politicians playing politics of today, they all have their godfathers who allowed them into politics to represent them at their cover-ups. Ex-military men, too old politicians who can’t be part of the democratic era.
JP: Fela once said: “If there is a clean, progressive government in one African country that knows what its doing, the whole of Africa can be liberated.” Is there a country in Africa today that fits this description?
FK: Not really. I thought South Africa would have taken the initiative with Mandela, but that did not happen. Now Mbeki did a very bad job, and I don’t think the new president is going to do any better. Now we need a pan-Africanist government and we don’t have that in Africa, unfortunately. We need an African government that loves its people and loves the continent. And we would be building roads from like Nigeria to South Africa and railroad lines. Like I see in Europe, people go from Holland to any part of Europe by rails. You can fly anywhere. You can go by road anywhere. Now this does not exist in Africa. If there would be a pan-Africanist government, this would be one of their first steps into the liberation of Africa. Opening the roads, opening the borders. No African leader since Kwame Nkrumah in the Sixties is talking about this positive road today. African leaders see, Africa as it is, as colonial structures and borderlines that will always keep us separated until they see in this respect that we will continue to have the many problems that we have. Problems that are forced upon us because we have lost consciousness of where we are coming from and why we are the way we are. And it suits the West and the corrupt African leaders to leave us like this. Fighting amongst each other, complaining and being divided. Like the old saying goes: “divide and rule”!
JP: Exactly. On an average day in Nigeria, what does your day look like? How late do you get up and what do you do?
FK: It depends on how late I sleep! If I go to bed at ten in the night, then I’m going to wake up at about seven in the morning. If I go to bed at three in the morning, then I’ll wake up at about twelve in the morning. I always try to wake up before midday, no matter what time I go to sleep, because I try to do a minimum of six hours practice of my instruments every day. I like to see my children, so I like to spend time with my children. So I try not to live the nightlife too much when they are in bed. So I try to make sure I put them to bed, or make sure their mothers do that. I make sure to go to their schools, see what’s going on in the school. Things like that.
JP: So you eldest son, Made, is now following in your footsteps?
FK: Well, hopefully he is.
JP: Hopefully. Is it because he is the eldest son? Because you also have six other children.
FK: No, I have four.
JP: But didn’t you adopt three children?
FK: I adopted four. So, eight in all. Four are adopted and four are mine.
JP: But is it because he is the eldest that he might follow in your footsteps?
FK: I believe the others will play music as well. Not the adopted children though. But my children, I believe they will go into music. I see music in them. According to our culture and our tradition, he (meaning his eldest son) will always lead the way. I strongly believe he is going to be the inheritor of the Anikulapo Kuti dynasty from my father’s point of view. If we follow tradition, as the first son, the responsibilities are going to fall on him to lead the family when I am not around anymore. Even if he doesn’t go into music, he is going to be obliged to stick to that rule.
JP: Do you have any hobbies outside of music?
JP: OK, pool, that’s funny. Do you do any exercise to stay in shape?
FK: I used to do a thousand press-ups each day. I think I am too old now. I can do close to 50. I think I do too much singing and dancing at my age to do all that right now. I’m trying to get down to doing at least 50 daily. I stopped for a while, maybe next year.
When I was young I was doing too many crazy things. It’s incredible how age catches up with one. I just realized, wow, that was back then. Now you have to reprogram yourself to fit your age and the times that we live in now. I couldn’t do a 1000 anymore, it would be impossible. I wouldn’t be able to bear the pain. Then it was all about me and showing off my muscles, taking off my shirt on stage. Now, I think I’m too old for that. I would look quite stupid, I would feel quite stupid if I did that. This is part of progress.
JP: Will there be a new album any time soon?
FK: Yes, very very soon. We are working on that. Hopefully we will be recording it in Nigeria. The Decca studio has been reopened in Nigeria, Lagos. I try to be as close to home as possible. So if there is a good studio, I think it would be good for Nigeria, it would be good for me and it would be good for the music to record it there.
JP: What kind of music do you listen to yourself?
FK: Right now? I haven’t listened to music in ages. I stopped listening to music for a while. We have a big disco at The Shrine so I hear music there. I know what’s going on. When you put on the TV, you know what’s going on. But I don’t listen to music like I used too. It was very important for me to shut off my mind. I wanted to find my music. In order to create my own stuff I must understand where it was coming from. I’ve had a lot of influences in my life. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, my father. I was listening to a lot of Classical music as well at one point in my life. So I needed to shut off and say: where is Femi Anikulapo Kuti in all this? So, for a good ten years now I haven’t listened to anything. That’s not to say I will not go back one day, because I’d still love to listen to Miles Davis or Coltrane again. I’m sure I still would.
JP: On the last album, Day by Day, there were some anti-Christian sentiments yet you also sing about the Creator. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
FK: Spiritual, not religious. In religions you have to follow the Anglicans, the Baptist, the Koran, whatever it is. When you are spiritual it means you have found the Creator yourself. You don’t need the middleman or middle person to pray for you or to reach life. It means you are in a relationship with the Creator yourself. You don’t need a middleman to be your spiritual guide, so to say, in life. I’m more spiritual, I’m not religious at all. And yes, definitely because of what the role of Islam and Christianity have played in the downfall of Africa I am very much a pan-Africanist. Why do we neglect, discredit our culture over foreign religions that have nothing to do with our people? So yes, I’m a very cultured person and I strongly believe in my roots. From research we know that thousands of years ago we African already knew that the first man-child will always take the ability’s of the father. Africans didn’t arrive at that custom for no reason, it was hundreds and hundreds of years that made them arrive at that point in history. Like in my family, my sister is the eldest of the family. She now plays a motherly role, and as the first son I cannot overturn her decision. I have to respect her decision. But when it comes to, I wouldn’t say the negative aspects, but mostly the hard things of the family it will fall on me. Like building The Shrine.
In a united family she will play a motherly role, if you understand where I’m coming from, she will want to make sure everybody is OK. blablablabla. So she has a role to play, but our culture says I am the head of the family. It’s not a bogus or pompous rule. It’s just so that there is understanding and unity in the family. Now my son, after I am gone, will take over my family, and he has to respect the other children. That is not to say he will not have other roles to play. He is much, much older than them. He is 14, as you will remember. The youngest is 12 years younger. They cannot disrespect him, my culture does not allow them to disrespect him.
JP: Do you have a favorite book?
FK: Book? I have read too many books. I haven’t read anything in a long time now. The autobiography of Dizzy Gillespie, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, the autobiography of Miles Davis, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Ghana, The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. So I’ve read a lot of books.
JP: Do you have a favorite movie?
FK: I like true stories involving great people. Like I liked the film on the death of…
FK: No, not Kennedy. Yes, that was a good one too, I watched that as well. It made me understand American politics. I watched the film about the assassination of Lumumbah. That was very scary. I watched this film King Leopard. It’s a very powerful documentary about the aftermath of King Leopard’s rule and how it’s still affecting the Congo region after all this time. It’s a very beautiful documentary. It explains so much about what is going on in the Congo right now. That was the last documentary I watched. I think everybody has to watch that to really understand what is going on in the Congo region.
JP: OK, last question. Do you have a favorite Fela Kuti track?
FK: Ah, too many.
JP: That’s what most people say!
FK: He wrote so many tunes, it’s difficult to choose. If I had to choose one I’d pick “Coffin for Head of State”, because it always used to make me cry. The melody is so powerful, everything is so powerful. But it’s very hard to choose. But if I had too to choose I would say “Coffin for Head of State” is my favorite.
JP: It’s one of my favorites too!
I thank Femi for the interview and give him a bottle of organic pomegranate juice as a present. “Don’t worry, no alcohol” I say and Femi laughs. I give him my card and ask him if he’s ever seen The Shrine website. “I’ll get my son to check it out. I think people spend too much time on the Web these days.” “Where are you from, Julio” Femi asks. “Amsterdam area”. “Where you there last night?” he asks. I reply that I was and Femi remarks it was a crazy night. “Will you be here tonight?” “Of course” I answer. After we shake hands, Femi starts playing his flageolet again as I make my way out of the building in great anticipation of what will follow.
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Text and pictures, copyright, Julio Punch, 2010.