Classics, Interviews

Afrobeat king Femi Anikulapo Kuti examines life at 50, ‘I have been lucky’

COME Saturday, June 16, 2012, Afrobeat king and three-time Grammy Awards nominee, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti will join the league of golden boys. Activities to celebrate the milestone are already in top gear as friends, family and well wishers have started warming up to storm The New Afrika Shrine venue of the 50th birthday celebration.

ENCOMIUM Weekly visited the saxophonist on Thursday, May 31, 2012, at the house of leisure, where we took him up on life at 50 and much more.


In a matter of days, you will be 50, and like they say 50 is a milestone in the life of a man, do you feel apprehensive or excited about this?

It is not easy to be 50 in Nigeria. Last year, I was kind of excited that I will be 50 this year, approaching 50 now, I am not that excited when I see the money I have to spend to celebrate it. I never thought I will live to be 50. For my kids, I am very happy I am alive to be there for them. When I look around me I have lived a good life. I have no complaints really. But on the other hand, I am not happy because the things I believe generally I don’t see around me, poverty is more, we still don’t have electricity, government utters things that you don’t want to hear. I even wonder if we have a government, I am scared about the future of this country. There is nothing to show that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

You said you did not expect to live up to50, but Fela and people before him lived more than 50, so why is your case different?

Not much, my grandfather died at 55, Fela 59. I said this because when I was young, my life was very reckless. I never thought of living this age, I was smoking a lot, I thought I would be dead. I didn’t think I would have children and suddenly things started changing in my life. I had my first son, that was a very different thing. I would say having Made made me responsible. I started thinking about many things in my life. Now, I have five other children. I have to think of how to be responsible and cater for the children. On stage now I know how to please myself. When I was younger, I was not able to do 20 gigs in a row, now I am not afraid to do 20 gigs in a row because I know when to rest, when to set the numbers and all that.

Will you say this is the life Fela had wished you live when he was alive, a music star and not a medical doctor or a lawyer?

Never, he wanted me to become a musician. Fela wanted me to be a musician, he was not a dictator. One thing is that when I said I wanted to become a musician, he didn’t want me to go to a music school because he wanted to prove that I did not need education to become successful. So, there was a fight between him and his brothers, even my mother complained that how can you not promote this children’s education and you want them to be successful. This was a problem I had with him, I didn’t talk to him for about six years, I told him he never wanted us to read and write and how did he expect us to succeed. Everything that I have learnt was just studying on my own, practicing on my own and by the time I came out with Wonder Wonder, that issue now came up. He called everybody that they were blaming him, now Femi didn’t go to school but he is successful. They all laughed it off, you could say he won because I became successful. I was now maintaining a big band, my family and paying my bills.

But I will not put my son through that experience. I will make sure my children get the necessary education I can afford. I had chaos in my mind that if I wanted to go to music school and I could write very well, I feel I could have had an easier route to success. But then maybe my music could have been boring, maybe I would not be as dynamic as I am now. My music would have been boring, nobody would like me, who knows I might just have been a boring person.

Looking back, will you say you are fulfilled being a musician than being a doctor or a lawyer?

I have no regrets at all. This is what I truly wished to do, I am doing exactly what I love to do with no regret whatsoever, with all the ups and downs in the entertainment industry I am happy with what I do. You need to love what you do.

What are you most grateful for in the 50 years of your life?

My children, there is nothing that I cherish more than my kids. Made is now going to be 17, he is much older than the others and he is doing very well in England. There is no pride that I have that is beyond having those children.

What do you think will change about you now after you must have clocked 50?

I think I will not tolerate any more rubbish. I noticed in the last few weeks I see myself doing that. I won’t take rubbish from anybody anymore. I owe nobody anything, I just unconsciously started doing all that. I don’t know if it has to do with the people, I just noticed I was changing.

Don’t you think this is contradictory, some people when they draw nearer to their old age they tend to be more nice and generous?

(Cuts in) Those people they must have been very nasty when they were young. The only reason I want to be alive is to ensure nobody cheat my children. I am not afraid of death. If my kids can fend for themselves now, then I am not afraid to go. I owe nobody anything, if its charity work I have done that. If it’s helping people, I have over helped sef, and I was not doing that because I want to go to heaven. I can help anybody, there was a time I used to send bags of rice to beggars on Benin Expressway when I had enough but when I started paying for my own kids, I can’t afford it anymore. Before I used to send 10 bags of rice, garri, malaria tablets, I did it for about four years, whenever I sent it people that delivered it will tell me they prayed for me to go to heaven but that was not why I did it. Rather, the reason was that there was a time we were travelling in 1987 along that route and I saw these lepers and I swore if I ever make money I would try my best to help them. Then, when I started making money, I said see me making money and I forgot my pledge. So, whenever I came back from tour, that’s the first thing I do. If it’s SOS Village, I did the same not because I want favour from heaven.

Do you feel 50, are there some things you normally do that you want to let go off?

I will say maybe I am more mature, I am more patient with things around me. I am probably not as aggressive as I was 20 years ago. I might be nonchalant with some issues and I don’t now rush into judgement on issues. I don’t condemn, rather I will ask why is that thing so. I will go to the basics of things, I will not just be critical. Maybe before I will just be critical, now I will investigate.

People seem to judge you from outside, that you are this and that, how best can you describe yourself?

People have this misrepresentation of me because of you –the press. There was a time I was in the bad book of journalists that was when I was travelling a lot. And this group of journalists believe I was making so much money and they said to me they wanted to blackmail me, they decided to write horrible stories. At a time, I went to their offices to fight them, they wrote that I was mad. Between 1999 and 2006, it was bad press and I decided not to talk to journalists. I stopped socializing because if I go to any party people will start gazing at me. If I was not strong then I thought if committing suicide. For like five years, they were on my case. Those that are close to me know how generous I am and all this while I was donating to charity I didn’t go to the press to tell them come and see what I have done. Those that were close to me were taking advantage of my being nice. So, if you don’t know me and you follow what the press writes about me, you may come onto that conclusion that I am bad. But if you know me very well, you can never come to that conclusion. Without blowing my own trumpet, I am a nice guy.

What will you want to point to as your greatest achievement in the last 50 years?

Having my children, they are the only ones that give me joy. They can be mischievous but I like it. Look at Made now he is doing so well in England and I am so proud of him as well as others. What I have achieved does not give me satisfaction as my children. In my musical career, however, I don’t know what more I want than keep on producing good albums. I have won several awards, NMA, FAME, ENCOMIUM awards. I cleared all the awards with Wonder Wonder, I was the first Nigerian to win the Kora Awards. Then the World Music Awards.

I have been nominated for Grammy Awards three times, that means they recognize me in America. If I ever win the Grammy before I die then I would just add it to my other awards. What is most important to me are my children, my family and my music. I am happy today that I am successful without being educated, I have the Shrine, not many gave me the chance, they will say Fela’s son, he can’t make it. I think I am very lucky to have come this far against all odds.

Talking about your sister, Yeni, how do you get along because the two of you are very close, don’t you quarrel over how the Shrine is being run?

It’s about our upbringing from my father and mother. My grandmother taught us to be united. We were very close and because of my father’s other wives, Kalakuta forced us to be very close. The three of us we were very close. When we lost my younger sister, Sola, it was like there was a big gap even up till today, we miss her so much. Second, we are not materialistic. My sister may buy clothes and jewelries. For me I can go on like this forever, she will even force me to buy clothes and sometimes when she travels she will buy them for me. She cleared my account to buy my new car. To be honest with you, there is no way I could have done all that she is doing. How can I and still play music and she understands me, all the problem I went through to control my band and all that. I can’t attend family meetings. She does, she is more cool headed and diplomatic and that’s it. Our upbringing helped us in that direction. Fela was so rich but he didn’t spoil us. Fela will spoil everybody but not his children. Fela can give other people school fees but to get N10 from Fela for our school fess was hell, even at that we must not be rude to him. My mother must not even hear of that, the beating will be much. When we moved to Akute, I just signed with Motown and I got this money from them. I didn’t know what to do with the money ($20,000). I just quickly bought that land in Akute, I got it for N450,000 and I quickly paid. So, we decided to build houses for ourselves and our mother. Unfortunately, our mother died.

The picture you just painted now, you didn’t mention Seun your younger brother?

Let me say this, Seun and I cannot be close as much as me and Yeni because as at the time we were close he was not born. I am old enough to be Seun’s father. Don’t forget the conflict that occurred between I and Seun that everybody was on my neck. One day, Yeni came to me and said Seun has come to apologise and that I should forget all that happened. If I wanted to be stubborn I would have said no way and it’s over. We are close but we can never be as close as Yeni and I. We have come a long way through our childhood, we had a bitter childhood. We used to take commercial bus to school and by the time Fela now said we should go to school by private car, we had already started enjoying the public transport because we will meet our mates in Yaba. And then when I look back, I think those treatment helped us more than anything, maybe if he had spoilt us with his money, maybe I would have been a snub, maybe I won’t understand the poverty he talked about. I am not critical of him, I am only talking about how we grew up. Now Made understands poverty because I lecture my children and I do not spoil them. There are five kids that I am taking care of now, they are about going to the university. They are Made’s friends and I had to take them to a better school because their parents could not afford it. My children must be concerned about the plight of others.

Let’s talk about one of the legacies of late Fela Kuti, and that is his house in Gbemisola Street, Ikeja, Lagos. It seems the children neglected the place?

All the things in that house belong to my mother. According to the Will, all Fela’s clothes, shoes went to his wife since they were married and she willed it to us.

Now that Lagos State government has taken over the place, what happens?

They haven’t taken over the place. Lagos State government want to immortalize Fela by turning the place into a museum. We don’t have that kind of money. Now, I am not involved, other members of the family approved it. I decided to distance myself because if the government messes up tomorrow, I will still abuse them. It’s even long overdue the government immortalized Fela. If the government decides to name the University of Lagos after Moshood Abiola why not Fela? Abiola was not even a fighter. When police came to arrest Fela they exchanged blows. If they want to build a museum for Fela, so good but if tomorrow the government messes up, I will still blast them.

Will you say the name Fela opened doors for you?

It opened more doors than it closed. Many of my girlfriends dumped me because I am Fela’s son and my sister. Some will say she is Fela’s daughter, we can’t marry you that made us close. But when we go out on the streets, the poor praise us. Even my wife had to run away from home to get married to me. She stayed with me then she had Made and when that happened I now said let us get married so that your parents won’t complain. The name opened more doors than it closed.

Growing up in the environment where your father was arrested several times, didn’t it affect your psyche?

I have been arrested several times. They beat me, they used to beat me when they came to arrest him. The biggest trauma for me was growing up to see my father in his pool of blood. There was one day they beat him and there was nothing we could do about it, he was handcuffed to his legs and he was bleeding. He was covered in blood. It was a nightmare. The first time he was detained at Lion Building, we were all crying and shouting and he said don’t cry. He was even smiling, we were so embarrassed. My father had been locked up because of Indian hemp. It was my mother who encouraged us to go back to school. It was very traumatizing for us.


This story was first published in Encomium Weekly edition of Tuesday, June 5, 2012

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