AFROBEAT king, Femi Anikulapo Kuti is still basking in the euphoria of being nominated for the fourth time in the Grammy Awards as hope rises for him to win next year (on January 26, 2014, at Staples Centre, Los Angeles, California, USA). He spoke to ENCOMIUM Weekly about his expectations this time around, having lost out in the three previous nominations.
How would you assess 2013 as it winds down?
It has been a good year. I won’t say 2013 alone, my whole life has been quite good, a great album, another Grammy nomination, successful tours of the US and Brazil. It has been quite a good year for me, I can’t complain.
Are there targets you set that you couldn’t achieve?
I don’t really set targets for myself, I just work hard, do my best every year. I think it is just focus, do your best, the rest will be history because we are human beings, our perceptions can be wrong. So, I have learnt to take things easy. Sometimes, it is a challenge on your life we have to overcome. I hardly let anything weigh me down. Failure is not the end of life. Success is not material, all I know about life is be good and every other thing will follow. So, I don’t set targets for myself, that is the way I live.
For over a good decade, I have set a good precedence in my life getting nominated in Grammy Awards four times. That alone means I am doing something very good with my music. It means I am setting a standard. I hope I can do another great album. Even if I don’t win the Grammy, I am satisfied for the fact that my music is recognized around the world. Over 10,000 entries go into Grammy. In my group, they chose four. World music is the biggest entry. For me to be recognized is a massive achievement. If I win, we would get drunk. But if I don’t, it won’t remove anything from me. I will continue doing what I love to do. My wish for next year is to go back to the studio. I will do another album, to beat those albums that have already been nominated, but it will be very difficult.
You have been nominated for Grammy Awards four times, what do you do to get all those in one decade?
I just work very hard. I still do a minimum of six hours practice every day. I try to be down to earth. My whole life revolves around my creativity. I won’t say I am doing anything extraordinary and I won’t say I am lucky because if I am nominated for four times, then I am doing something good. It is all about dedication and hard work. I don’t toy with my career. I put a lot into my live performances, most of my songs in my albums have been performed here at the Shrine. I might do some studio magic on the song in my album but very minimal. I play some tracks two or three years before I record them.
Life! Everything that happens, social, things that bother me. Right now, what bothers me is the way our country is being run. We still don’t have electricity after 50 years of independence, corruption is at the highest level, education is only for the rich. These are things that bother me. I think about them. I see love stories in my life to sing about, but it’s not important as the suffering of my people is alarming. I don’t see a love story that is more important than the future of my children. I tend to sing more about social ills than my personal problem.
Would you say your current album, No Place for my Dream is a result of your love for singing about social ills?
If you check all my albums, the topic I sing about bothers me.
But Bang Bang Bang is somehow different?
Because I just wanted to show that it’s possible to do a love song. By the time I recorded Bang Bang Bang, I was very young then and I just wanted to deviate a bit. The song does not sound political. I decided to sing about love from an African perspective, not love of a broken heart. Any African that hears it would laugh and enjoy it. It is a sexual encounter but I made it funny.
And since then don’t you think you still need to sing more about love?
I don’t see how that is very important than the corruption in the country right now. And don’t forget, I am much older and to sing about love now will not sound quite good. Those love songs are for younger people, not my age group. Why would I, at my age, want to sing Oh Baby don’t go? If you want to go, so be it. I have seen it all in love at my age. We must be more concerned about the problem of our country because we don’t have anywhere to go. The schools are shut down, unemployment everywhere. Are those not important than love story?
Recently, you appeared to be busier in Nigeria doing shows more than going abroad?
Maybe some people just realized I exist. There is nothing I am doing differently than before. They asked me to come and do shows and I obliged. Outside Nigeria, it’s very difficult. I am still one of the few bands in Nigeria that still travel every year but at a very huge cost. To break even is very difficult. By the time we buy 14 tickets for members, you think of feeding, salary, you come back with nothing. And we have to decide either to give up or continue. We decided to continue just for my name to be out there, and just to make sure my band keep functioning, because a band is like an engine. Once it stops working, that is all. We have to keep on playing whether we have a show or not. This year, we were in France and Brazil for three weeks and we had a fantastic outing. This is something I have been doing since 1988. There are a lot of sacrifices I make to keep working, to be out of the country for some weeks is something. People will talk about us and we gain a lot.
It’s not easy to be jumping and blowing the trumpet anymore. Yes, it’s very stressful and the only way I cool down is to do more practice. I don’t relent on my practice. That is what gives me total satisfaction. One thing about music is that once you take a break, it is very difficult to come back. The band is only allowed maximum of one week to see their families and then we start work again. Even that one week break it’s very difficult to get everyone back. The show must go on. You must continue to work to breakeven or else that band will fizzle out. At times, we will be on the road for days, you can’t drink, smoke or misbehave and spend your energy for the show. Even when somebody cracks a joke, you mustn’t laugh too much or else you lose your vocal delivery. Many bands break down on the way, some say they are tired, they can’t continue.
Because of the hectic nature of your performances on stage, what do you take to energise yourself?
Nothing. I just practice. Those who are energizing themselves it’s because it’s good for them. When I used to smoke and I realized it’s affecting me, I had to stop. Smoking kills you before your time. You burn yourself up. We have different nature. If I drink, I know I want to kill myself. I don’t want to get drunk and mess myself up on the stage. I will find it difficult to interpret my lines on stage and I have seen alcohol destroy a lot of people. So, I wouldn’t advice anybody to drink before performing. However, some deliver better after taking alcohol.
I was in Bayelsa State. I was on twitter when somebody was telling me congratulations. Then, I got about 10 tweets. I didn’t take them serious until my friend in America sent me a tweet. I was cautious because you shouldn’t believe everything you see on twitter.
So, what came to your mind that moment?
To be honest, I was really pleased. I felt 10 years younger. The only time I was not nominated in the last 10 years was when I released the album that had live shows in the Shrine in it and Grammy don’t recognize live album. Between 2000 and now I must be doing something good.
What do you think will happen this time around?
Nobody knows. I have to depend on my management, record label in the US. Now it is Christmas. Everybody has gone on holiday. I am just going to enjoy the fact that I am nominated. I am also not going to lose focus about what my music is all about because of the nomination.
Is it true that you said if you win the Grammy they should bring it to you here in Nigeria?
If I win and I don’t attend, somebody will surely collect it on my behalf. They won’t send it to you. They are not bothered about whether you come or not. It will cost a lot of money if I want to attend.
Looking at those in your category, what are your chances this time around?
It is 50:50 because they are all great musicians. Ravi Shankar is known as godfather of World Music. I believe it was because of him that the category was created. He is the godfather of that category, he won it last year. He is late now. His album that won last year was Part One. The Part Two is the one that gave him the latest nomination. It might go to him, very likely. The South African group, Lady Smith Black Mambazohsa has been nominated 16 times and they have won it about eight times already. The last one, Gypsy Kings do great music too. They are on the same label as I am. It could go to them. Gypsy Kings have been around for a long time. One of their managers used to manage my father. I will be quite shocked if I win because I know the caliber of those in my category.
Who takes care of the children whenever you travel because one of your baby mamas, Tonia usually goes with your band?
My sister is always around and others. I will not move if I don’t secure their safety and welfare. Besides, Bose Ajila is always around. Don’t forget, I also have older adopted children who are in the university. They are not on their own.
I won’t say so. Bose Ajila and Tonia stay with me. We all stay in the same house. So, we are very close, only that everybody minds his business, everybody has her own apartment and I also have mine because I love my privacy. Tonia is in my band while Bose has other business she does. Since she left dancing, she has a shop in Surulere, Lagos. She takes care of the children and they are very close whenever the band is out of the country.
THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN ENCOMIUM WEEKLY ON TUESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2013