I live for my son’
You could say that Femi Kuti is now minding his business. Not that he has ever done otherwise before. But more than ever, the most savaged musician in Nigeria today is keeping real low.
It isn't arrogance, nor is he disdainful of the press. He has had enough, he reasons, and now channels his energy to grooming his son, 'Made, who is the all and all in his life at the moment.
Just back from a European tour, and soon to hit the road again for 20 more concerts, all Femi does now is sit back and teach himself how to play the trumpet, teach his son how to play some musical instruments too.
Ribbed by the press at both the christening of his son and the passing on of his mother, the leader of the Positive Force Band is trying to put all that behind him as much as he can, including his messy divorce with ex-wife, Funke.
In this very frank interview with MIKE JIMOH & KAYODE FAYEMI, Femi lets go on a number of issues for the first time in five years. Excerpts:
How come your music is far more appreciated in other parts of the world than here in Nigeria? What do you think is responsible for that?
I would say the reason is the media. The way the media has lambasted my music and career from day one. Second, I would say is the government through the media, by banning me on the radio. They say the music is not radio-friendly, so they want to hear love songs. (He mimes a song: My baby, please don't go). And my music is not about baby please don't go. If baby wants to go, baby should hurry up and pack her luggage and go.
I disagree with what you say to some extent. Fela had bad press too. But it didn't affect his music and they still play him on radio.
If you say, do Nigerians love my music? Do you come to the Shrine? We have two thousand people coming here when we play every Tuesday, every Thursday, and every Sunday. I believe this is one of the largest followings in Africa. If you ask me, do Nigerians like me? I will never tell you Nigerians don't love me. If you are asking the problem with why my music don't reach out to more Nigerians, I will tell you it is the press who are supposed to feed and correct people with their own information.
But if they like, they confuse the audience. So, anywhere I go, they ask me if I am mad. Of course, if they write that I am in a psychiatric hospital in France, if I come back, will Nigerians believe it? Coming from your media, when it goes and they put it on the Internet from Nigeria, and I go abroad and they ask me the same questions, is it not bad? If I am not friendly with the press today, is it not part of the problem?
A journalist comes, he wants money, and I don't give him money or I don't give enough or he believes he wants to blackmail me or he believes in me giving him money every time to feed him. Is that my job in my life? And if I explain my situation to him, he goes and takes a vendetta and brings his other colleagues and they start a clique to ruin my career except I cooperate with them. That's what's called journalism in Nigeria, and when they misinform the public, and I have to get my own view across, then I have to look for my own press guys who will write a good story.
If that is the career of an artiste in this country, then I am sorry for Nigeria. We don't even have an industry. How many studios do we have where you can record live bands like in the 70s? And my father did have a lot of problems in Nigeria. Many Nigerians, as at today, are still lambasting me on their own that my father is the one that corrupted the youths.
Even a German woman was here recently. She is writing a book on Fela but she says she has a problem with the elite crowd in Nigeria who don't want Fela's name to be written in a book she is writing. There is a serious problem with the elite and the government, especially with the Anikulapo-Kutis. How many good press has Fela received in this country? If it's left to the media and the government, nobody will even listen to Fela. Fortunately, Nigerians have not listened to the media.
They came out in their thousands during his burial.
How many times has the media raised their stars and left them there? Is it not the media that made Shina Peters and brought him down? They made him, but they brought him down too, because he spoke bad English. Who does not know that Shina does not speak good English? Till tomorrow, they abuse him. Everybody knows Shina. So what if Shina cannot speak English? Is it a crime not to speak English?
It is a failure of the country for not educating people like Shina. And like they've not educated millions of Nigerians who are not privileged to have good education. Today, it costs about a hundred thousand naira to put an average student in school per term.
How many Nigerians can afford that? How much is your basic salary? And that is not counting medical services. You cannot even take care of your wife. Both of you will now take to working. Who will be there to look after the child? Who gives the child the home training that he can now go outside to survive?
Many people just walk around aimlessly with nothing to do. Just go one day in the middle of the night in Lagos and look under the bridges. You'll see many people under them. Is that not what Fela's life was about, fighting for the oppressed? He started back in the seventies. 30 years after, there is no sign of improvement. But the press didn't mind to write what they did. I don't know if it is because of the education they received or home training. They just take up their pen and lambast somebody in their pages for hundreds of thousands of people to read. They don't care about the effect the publication has on the person and his family.
The press practically killed my mother with the bad press I received between 1998 and 2000, insinuating that I am mad. How they arrived at the story, they will never give us an explanation. If I had gone to court, I will still be in court by now. The turmoil they (press) caused in my life! They have not even appreciated it. So when I am angry, pressmen don't want to accept the fact. I am telling you, this thing affected me. How can I pick up a paper and read that I am mad? Then people come and watch me to check if I am mad or not. And I am supposed to survive and feed my family. So, I don't know what Nigerians want from me. But I will continue to fight with my music and will portray my people in the light I see. I believe in my own people.
Apart from music, what are the other things that you like? Do you like the world cup, for example?
I can tolerate football. I don't mind when people are watching. I could also watch a film a month if the film is really good. I don't have the time for all that right now. I want to concentrate on my family and my career.
Your little son, 'Made, has been playing the saxophone. You have been giving him lessons. Is this some kind of passing it on to your son, as Fela did to you? Or is that 'Made is a naturally gifted child?
'Made is naturally gifted. The speed at which he learns makes him gifted. So, if I am even teaching him, it is in him because you can teach a child from now till next year or forever, if he is not meant to know, he won't know. Made is not like that. He is naturally gifted.
What kind of instrument can he play apart from the saxophone?
He has interest in everything. But he cannot learn everything in one day. And I am not going to put the Nigerian syndrome in him where you want to overdo it. The boy is trying. 'Made is going to go to school, he is going to grow with his colleagues, he is going to learn. As his father, I am going to give him everything I know and my abilities in music. I know he has his own. And then he had his grandfather. So, in his time, he would have his father, grandfather and himself.
Hopefully, he will pass it to his son what he learnt. That is how heritage is passed on. So, I am not going to go and put 'Made to the world and say this is the greatest man. Made will still prove that he is a good musician. He will have to do it himself but I can only be there as a father. I know he is going to be great, maybe greater than any of us, because he started very well. I am truly overwhelmed, so proud of him that sometimes he brings tears to my eyes at his abilities. And it will be a joy, a great joy, to watch him in future. He has done me very proud.
How would you rate him musically?
If I were to do that, I would give him full pass marks because he learnt the sax in a month. I just woke up one morning, he was going to school, and he started playing. He played with the band for four months. He has toured already with the band, playing all our numbers. So, how else can you rate a boy like that? If I give him any part, he plays it immediately. We were in Zimbabwe once and he learnt some of the songs in 10 minutes. So, his ability is something else, especially at his age. I didn't start until I was 16, Fela at 19. 'Made has been trying the conga from age 3. He is playing drums, the keyboard…I would not say he has excelled if you consider his age.
When you consider the pressure he has been under, his mother has not been there…the family broke up, but he is doing well in school. He is handling his life well. So, I say I am proud. I believe in him. I absolutely have no doubt in his ability in future. I am confident that when I die, he will handle his heritage even better than I have done, because he will be guided. He is made to understand that his father is not perfect. He is taught to look at his father as a father, not like something extraordinary, something abstract. He should even find the faults of his father, so he can correct them. That is what life is all about. What you don't like in your father, you don't do it to your own son. Then Made's son, too, hopefully, will be greater than every body and our heritage will just grow like that.
'Made is doing well musically. Suppose he gravitates towards the sciences, for example, outside music, what will you do?
When he was born, they asked me what he would be? I said he will be a musician. Even when the mother was pregnant, they told me it's a girl, I said it's a boy. It came out a boy. And when he did, I said this boy is going to be a great boy, just some kind of feeling, intuition. 'Made will not do anything outside music. He might branch out into acting, he might play football but he will always get back to music. Even if he does not play music like Fela or I, he will have a lot to do with the music industry – management or producing. He might get bored because music is very tedious.
My problem now is that I am scared that may be he started too early. Because what will he be doing at 20 if he is doing so well now? What will he be doing at 30 when he has known all the scales in all the musical instruments? You know that can be a lot of pressure on somebody. And the person can start acting weird, they will say he is crazy. So, I fear, especially in a society like Nigeria where we've been in the dark ages. When you see the stars in America acting weird, they call them superstars. But when our stars here act weird, they say they are mad. If at 40 now, I am still working hard to prove my abilities, I feel sorry for him when he gets to the same age. So, that is the only fear I have for him.
Do you fear that he will burn out?
No! When you are doing the same thing over and over, 365 days is a long time. It is Nigerians that take time for granted. Five years in a man's life is a long time. If you live in poverty for five years, you will know. Everyday is like a year. You don't know what is going to happen the next day, everything will be uncertain, there will be power outage, mosquitoes will be sucking. Who wants to live that kind of life? So, it's my fear I have for him, in Nigeria. What will there be for him, considering the way we have been run, the way our leaders are behaving? With the extent of corruption around, ha, that's my fear for him and not in his abilities.
Fela pampered you. Do you pamper 'Made?
Very much so. Fela didn't pamper me because his life, which I said I learnt a lot from people around him, from the way he handled the people around him, so I can correct some issues. I don't believe I will correct everything, which might be impossible. But I will correct as much as possible. It's why I am teaching 'Made. If I say don'ts, don'ts take my don'ts. If you feel an argument arises from my don'ts, explain it to me. So, he can correct it. My joy in having him at his birth, I don't want it to die for any reason. So, I am still proud and I love him. He has to be a criminal or act like our leaders before I will disown him. But he can never become any of those.
He is always complaining when somebody is being beaten in his school, or he sees poverty on the street. “Ah daddy help this one, daddy.” So, he is so kind, he has all the abilities, he has all the virtues. He just has to develop. If a boy is that concerned about his society, as a man he would certainly do better. So he will be a fighter fighting to raise mankind. That is the kind of son that I have. I am proud of him.
You are one of the best musicians in Nigeria today. You are also very rich.
(Cuts in, “I'm not rich o. The day I will have one million dollars, you will know. Don't worry. Then I won't stop laughing.”)
Then again, you are the son of a famous man. Yet, you don't allow all that to get to your head. How have you managed it?
Because I've trained myself. I teach myself new things. I try and teach myself the virtues of life, to be patient, to be tolerant. And I try to also understand my country and my people. I can understand the frustration. I have been in poverty. When my father was a millionaire, I was with my mother. We lived in serious poverty. Nobody wanted us, we were like the outcast of the elite crowd. The only homes that people were nice to us were the poor people who are Fela's fans. So when I understand that, I can play free, for instance, at the Shrine, because I know the people around. They only need to hear the music and feel good when they hear it. Some can't afford N100, because they don't even work. They beg.
Afrika Shrine has developed well in six years. I play free two times a week. I try and be all these things and try as much as possible not to be upset because I realize the last time I was upset, I was really upset. When people were playing and toying with my life, with my career, I got really angry. When I found out the government had given money to my band members not to come to my Australian tour in 2002, and they were all behaving like lunatics, people were calling me mad. 'How can you not take the flight? You have your tickets, take the flight to Paris because I am waiting there, I told them.' But they were convinced I was mad. So, they just didn't show up. What happened in the end was that I was blacklisted. Nobody wanted to sign my band because they believe my band would not show up for any gig any more.
So, I had to start all over again. It was actually Uncle Rasheed Gbadamosi who was behind it. So, they believed that if my wife left me, that would be the end of Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, which was the initial plan. I had to be mad and my wife would be portrayed, which you have seen in the media, as an innocent woman who left this poor mad man.
We will give her to any of their gang to marry. And when Fela's son is mad, it proves to the society that obviously Fela that was smoking Igbo, married 27 wives, died of AIDS and walked around in pants, what else can you expect of his son? The son, too, must be mad. So this family, please Nigerians, they are not even worth thinking about. That was their plan. When I saw all of it, that's why I am still fighting today. Many Nigerians don't know the truth because the press had been bought - journalists writing nonsense. I locked my wife, beat her.
They have distorted the story over the years and they have been pursuing me as if I got nothing to offer. So, I don't feel good. I feel good with the people that come to the Shrine but I don't want to see people. I don't want to have no friends again, I don't want to see anybody cause everywhere I go, people ask me, are you okay? What happened? And I am tired of going over the same thing again and again, defending myself. It's been like that for the past six years now. I want to see my son develop. What I have done in all this time, I have had to teach him sax, I have been able to use all my energy and love to concentrate on him.
Which day will you never forget in your life that even if you live to a hundred years that day will stand out in your memory?
Hm! If I say right now the day I can't forget was when my wife left, and all that happened, the people involved, the break up, etc. It was unbelievable! It really tore me down. Probably I will forget about it in a matter of years but the next thing that will come to my mind is 'Made who has taken over everything in my thoughts and everything, because he has always been my focus from his birth. I was happy when he was born, and his birth still overshadows so many bad things in my life.
But the other one was very painful because I really believed in the concept of what all of us were doing, as friends, as a family, we were all around. Luckily, I have managed to pick up the most important issue, which is 'Made. Every new thing I know, I will teach 'Made. If I have any new idea musically, I will let him know this format of my rehearsal or practice. As we are speaking, I will make sure he goes to school. When he is under pressure, I will try and be there for him. So, everything I can do in my lifetime, I focus on 'Made because I know he is young.
On the supposed quarrel between himself and Fela when Made was born
Fela and I already had our problems before Made was born. But journalists now wrote that Fela did not come to Made's christening, which was a big lie. Fela was very sick and it was raining on that day. He now got boys to carry him down his stairs and he came to my house in a taxi. Since it was raining, he didn't come to the house but begged us to bring Made out. We did. He blessed Made and gave him Afolabi in the rain outside. The next day, what we saw in the papers was “Fela shuns Femi's naming ceremony.”
And I got angry. I went to the newspaper and said, “why are you doing to us?” “Please, what have we done?” “You are letting Nigerians believe a lie.” “Fela was at the naming ceremony, so why should you write that he was not there?” So, that caused bad blood between the press and I. When you go and write something that is not correct, haven't I got a right to ask as a citizen? When I got angry, they all ganged up against me and gave me bad press. So, I apologised to them and said, okay, let's forget this.
So, I have to be the one apologising for their mistakes. If it's like that, maybe the judgment will be when we get to heaven. But I am not going to go out of my way to hurt them. I have never done that. I have cooperated with the press throughout my career. I even go visiting. But I now noticed that no matter what I do, no matter how much I pay, the journalists will still do what is in their minds. Unfortunately, most of the times, they have been negative for me. I am not generalising. But if the editors cannot correct this kind of mistakes, what can I do about it?
When my mother died, one said he saw no sign of mourning in me in my mother's house. And I only begged the journalist that this death is very painful, after Fela and everybody. He said he needs something for the editor. “Go back and tell your editor, I have nothing to say, that my mother has just died and I want to be left alone.”
At that point in time when she was dying, I found out that Gbadamosi was trying to destroy my family. I found out that my wife was about to leave. I found out so many things and I wanted to be left alone. Suddenly my mother died, there was too much pressure. He took it upon himself to press for interview. And I told him, “you are a young journalist. If your editor has any respect for this family – who must be Fela's mate, or Fela's gang where they all grew up together, and then he must have known Fela's wife who had three children for him - shouldn't he come and sign the condolence register?” That was what I believed. If the editor walked into the house, there is no story that we wouldn't have given him.
But the reporter, a real nuisance, now got angry. He refused to see my pain, and then wrote, “Femi was not mourning his mother,” the most precious human being from now till tomorrow in my life. When we started Positive Force, she led it. She practically led it. When the whole Fela battalion and Beko were fighting me, it was my mother stood by me until I had to look after her till she died. She gave us the money to build this Shrine. She could have been a nasty mother and say that this inheritance that my husband left behind, I will use it for myself, or say that I have never enjoyed my life. I want to build a house.
What could we have done as children? She even understood our point that as children, we want to build a Shrine that where ever Fela was, he would be happy. She gave us every single kobo to build this Shrine. But the journalist, whatever was wrong with him, wrote that. Why should I be happy? Tell me! Tell me why I should socialise, why I should be friends with anybody? Because you can't trust any body. So, it is better to just stay here. Sit here and do my work.
But don't you think that by staying indoors, you will be lending credence to the belief that all is not well?
I don't want to sound arrogant to you. But I have not spoken to the press for a long time. The only reason I am doing so now is because of the pressure from my sister who has been telling me to just talk. I don't need to talk to anybody till I die. I have made up my mind that I am dead. I wake up every morning and I do my work. If I die right now, I am not worried about it. In this Nigeria, Ha! I've heard enough. Show myself to who? Do you know what I've done? In the last two years, I've done over 203 shows.
In a week's time, I am going to do another 20 outside the country. The first time I went on television was Channels, live, five years ago, and because the reporter met me on my birthday and he made me promise to come. I am not staying away from the press because I am arrogant. No! It isn't so. It's because I don't see the objective to go and convince anybody of my sanity or anything about my career. If Nigerians don't know what I've done, it's their business. If they want to sweep it under the carpet, it's their prerogative. I do not give a damn. But you the press created more problems for me.
And what's bad about those negative publication is that they put it on the Internet. So, when people go and check about Nigeria, they say oh, oh, this is Femi. So, anywhere I go, they keep asking me questions. They have problematised my life. So bad! I have never been so unhappy in my life. They have destroyed me, you know, it's like being dead but alive. And I am telling you, the only thing I have had to rule my life again was to have 'Made. He gave me the essence of living.
Which of your songs do you like most?
All of them.
Which of your songs does Fela like most?
He liked MYB (Mind Your Business) before he died, because of the arrangement. The horns were so interwoven that he really liked it. There were three horns - the sax, the trombones and the trumpet - all interchanging perfectly. MYB also had a simple baseline. I was shocked he liked it, and he kept on telling me it was good. This was in 1991.
But we hear your mother didn't like Bang, Bang, Bang. Why?
It was because of the sex in it.
Could it be the number Hefner also liked that made him send for you?
Probably, it was a big success everywhere although they didn't pay me sha.
They didn't pay you. How?
When I won all the awards at the World Music, they said I sold over 500,000 copies. So, I went to ask the company (Barclay Records in France): My royalties must be very great. They said no, I've only sold 40,000. They didn't even pay that. I never got the royalties of a successful album. I went on tour and played in 45 shows and was paid $5,000 and I will come back to Nigeria.
So, I have been fighting since to get paid. So, when you say I am rich and I am telling you I am not rich, I know what I am telling you. I know what rich means. It is only in the last two years that I made some small change. But from 1991 to 1999, I was not making money, yet I was paying my musicians very well. Even my management in France was annoyed with me for paying them so well, that they will become ungrateful in the end. Truly, they became ungrateful. But that is not a reason not to pay somebody good salary, which was my right to them.
There were many occasions where the band will get paid but I would come back with no money. The band never believed because everybody believed I was cheating them. But nobody can come out and tell me I am cheating them. Even the company cannot face me and show me where I've stolen money or where they paid and I said they didn't pay me.