Lagos

The Kuti Legacy

Femi Kuti on politics, family and the future of Nigerian music

by Molara Wood
Photography by Pius Utomi

A uniquely congenial atmosphere welcomes visitors to The New Afrika Shrine in the Ikeja area of Lagos—the holy ground of Afrobeat—founded by musician Femi Kuti to preserve the legacy of his father, the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. In the US for a performance in 2010 while Fela! the musical was playing on Broadway, Fela’s son Femi Kuti told the New York Times that he would not go to the show, because it was important “spiritually and culturally” for the musical to come to Lagos and the Shrine instead. The musical eventually had a successful run in Lagos, just as today the great and the good come to The New Afrika Shrine to pay homage. High profile visitors notwithstanding, the Shrine remains a place for the people, a defiant finger to authoritarian elites and an anti-establishment symbol of Fela’s notion of the utopian rebel republic, which he termed “Kalakuta.”

The sense of community grows even stronger upon entering the capacious cavern that is the Shrine. On Thursday and Sunday nights, the Shrine is in full swing with music, food stands, drinking and dancing. It’s relatively empty on the day I visit, but there are many people milling around, including workmen applying a new lick of paint on the stage backdrop. In the private quarters behind the stage and up a flight of stairs, is Femi Kuti, first son of Afrobeat and keeper of the flame, who presides over the whole enterprise.

Now 57, Kuti started performing in his father’s Egypt 80 band in his teens, playing the keyboard and saxophone. The sax in particular has become synonymous with the musician, who formed his own band, The Positive Force, in 1986. He first gained recognition in his own right in 1988, when he toured France and Germany as part of a French cultural exchange, playing alongside the likes of reggae music legend Jimmy Cliff. Some 10 albums and four Grammy nominations later, Kuti has successfully carved his own niche musically, establishing a distinct fusion sound that has enabled him to come out of Fela’s giant shadow, even as he stays true to the spirit of Afrobeat. His records include: Shoki Shoki (1998), Fight to Win (2001), Africa for Africa (2010), and One People, One World (2018).

Photograph: Pius Utomi
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There have been many collaborations over the years, including with D’Angelo, Niles Rodgers, Roy Hargrove, Common and Macy Gray. Fresh from a tour that saw him introduce his son Mádé to an international audience on the British band Coldplay’s new Everyday Life album, Femi Kuti sat down with Stranger’s Guide at the New Afrika Shrine to talk about his four decades in music.

FELA’S LEGACY

MOLARA WOOD: You’ve said that when you were young it, was expected that you’d go into music like your father, even before you chose to do so yourself. You’ve also said that, once you chose music, it wasn’t easy forging a path for yourself—and coming out of Fela’s shadow as it were—that nobody gave you a chance. And now your son also rises, playing in your band and challenging you to sax marathons on the stage. What are you doing differently from Fela’s time? What are you doing differently to make Mádé’s musical journey easier than it was for you?

FEMI KUTI: The first thing is that [Mádé] has got a solid foundation by training at one of the best universities, so he’s not illiterate musically. Everything I’ve done, I’ve achieved 99% on my own; I had to teach myself everything just by watching.

I was supposed to be a failure … all my father’s friends and family, nobody gave me hope. I even think at some point my father was having his doubts, too. It was not until I left my father to go back to my mother that I realized the gravity of what I was going to encounter in my life. This is the fight between my father and myself, because what he did was he just put me out there to the wolves.

My father took a risk. He was hoping and praying that I’d be successful.

Of course, I would be eaten. How does your child survive if you don’t train him? [But Fela said] I will survive. And I think his experiment did work, but it was a big risk. I would never take that kind of risk with any of my children. If I am going to send you out to a war zone, I will arm you fully and I will make sure you come back safely. I will ensure you come back victorious and that’s the difference.

My father took a risk. He was hoping and praying that I’d be successful. How? He didn’t know himself; he just said: “Be successful.” For me, it doesn’t work like that, so I arm [my son] and I prepare him for the turbulences he will probably face. He’s a wonderful boy because he has listened. He plays six instruments professionally. He’s reading and writing music. He scores his own music—at the age of 24.

Photograph: Pius Utomi

My success is my father’s success, whichever way you want to look at it. So as a father, of course I will be worried for Mádé, but I’m not that worried because he’s a very hardworking man. He’s dedicated. He has all the attributes I didn’t have at that age. He is such a nice person and really, he’s so much better than me. I see how he relates to people.

THE SHRINE

MW: The Shrine is now, I’m sure, on the top of the list for tourists coming to Nigeria. Emanuel Macron, the French President, came here in 2018.

FK: When President Macron came, they say it was because of my father. But Macron previously visited in 2002 [when he worked as an intern at the French embassy], when Fela was already dead. He was in awe of the atmosphere of the Shrine, and he made a comment that if he ever come back to Nigeria, he wanted to feel what he felt then. So when he was coming, he sent his people to meet me. We were supposed to keep it a secret for security reasons. Only [the government in] Abuja knew he was coming, and I remember they tried to discourage him. But he said, “I’m coming.” He wanted to see that same energy and that atmosphere, the place that inspired him as a young man. So you see, again, they gave my father that credit.

My success is my father’s success, whichever way you want to look at it.

POLITICS

MW: And indeed the vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, came to visit the Shrine.

[Muhammadu Buhari is the current president of Nigeria, but he previously served as head of state between 1983 and 1985, when he was head of the Army, after taking power in a military coup. Fela’s former compound was raided countless times. In 1977, soldiers under then-military president Olusegun Obasanjo destroyed the building and threw Fela’s 77-year-old mother, (Femi’s grandmother) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, out of a second-story window. She died of her injuries the following year.]

FK: He came before Macron, before he won the elections. He came to ask me to campaign for them. And I told him that I’m sorry, I can’t go against my father, because you see, General Buhari jailed my father and there’s been no apology for that. There’s been no apology by the federal government for the killing of my grandmother, so there’s too many things the federal government has not done.

And we cannot go by promises. Before this family will be seen to be on the side of the federal government, there are things the federal government must do, because this family has been victimized. Everybody knows the story.

There has been no apology for the killing of Fela’s mother, and they just want to sweep it under the carpet. I feel that this [The Shrine] is my own contribution to my land, my people. I play at the Shrine for free. I love to see people happy. Before we built it, there was nothing here, and everybody said this [area] was too far away, too dangerous. Today, this whole place has transformed because we are bringing thousands of people here week in, week out. And now, there are hotels, event centers. So the Shrine made this place. We know what we have done. Look at this community; it’s alive, and secure.

ON NIGERIA

FK: Look, if you think Nigeria is going to get better next year, you are deceiving yourself. Of course, we will get better slowly, but that won’t magically happen [right] now. I will play my part. I’m critical, but I will [focus on letting] myself be a great musician and hopefully inspire another generation to become great musicians.

Likewise, a doctor must work to save lives. A pharmacist must not sell fake drugs. We must all play our part to make our nation great—because it’s the only country we have. This is my way of thinking, and this is why I bring up my son or my children the way I do.

Before this family will be seen to be on the side of the federal government, there are things the federal government must do, because this family has been victimized.

But I don’t believe in Nigeria because Nigeria is a colonial structure. I have no respect for that name. I do respect my people, but not that name. So my home is Africa.

Africa is fighting for globalization. Africans are everywhere. Hawaii. North America. We are in China. We were in Spain. We became kings in Rome, kings in Spain. When you study African history, we ruled the world. But we understood that we’re all human beings, so it wasn’t the color of our skin … I’m not somebody that will say I’m against Europeans. I understand they are our neighbors and we need to live together. I have white blood myself from my grandparents. I have Indian blood.

Photograph: Pius Utomi

NEW NIGERIAN MUSIC

MW: Coming back to music, Nigerian contemporary sounds are taking over the world with the rise of artists like Burna Boy, WizKid and so on. How do you feel about these young stars who are increasingly known in the rest of the world as Afrobeats? Is there a fear of mistaken identity in relation to Afrobeat [the term Fela coined]?

FK: That is one topic I am not going to address with you. Anybody can say or think what they like. They will become wise one day, as I became wise in my life.

When I started playing music, Fela said I should listen to jazz. I hated jazz so much, and it was like a bitter pill. I liked Michael Jackson and The Temptations. But when I started to understand jazz, I nearly gave up playing music when I saw the hard work involved.

I will give everybody a little advice. A nurse cannot be a surgeon. A nurse cannot be a doctor. The receptionist cannot be a nurse. You see, in every profession, we have specialists. If you want to study leg, you see you study leg; it’s different from studying hand. It is the same with music. So why do you want to abuse the profession? I really advise you; if you want to do it, do it well, because when you become my age, I cannot show you. You will meet another generation that will be more daring, and you will become irrelevant and society will not care.

If I play my sax for you, I will show you something it would take somebody probably 10 years to learn. The first decade I was with my father, everyone said I could play, and they said I was great, but [my mother said] Fela told her that I was a useless musician; she made me cry that night. [All I kept hearing was] “Fela’s son, Fela’s son,” but who cares that you are Fela’s son?

So I went back to listen to jazz, I went back to understand. I had to come up with a way to survive as a musician, so where normally you put in one hour, I was putting in six hours. If you put in six hours, I’d put in 12. If you put 12, I will put 24. I would not sleep.

If I play my sax for you, I will show you something it would take somebody probably 10 years to learn

So you see, all these young boys and girls, I’m not saying it because I don’t wish them well—but you can see by my life, 30 years from today, I don’t want to mention names, you cannot last. Because music has never been about fame, fortune, wealth and all those things. It will never be about that. So if that is your mission—“I want to be famous,” “I want to make money”—your footing is already wrong. You don’t have the passion, because those things don’t last.

INTERNATIONAL TOUR

We did go to South Africa, and we kind of escaped to record it, but we couldn’t tell even family because we didn’t want the word to get out. We were away for 10 days, and they made us feel at home. They are great guys, very nice, respectful people. It wasn’t a job as such. It was like we became like family.

MW: On the track “Arabesque,” we see two generations of Kutis on the screen, but we’re really hearing three generations, because Fela himself is there, sampled with his immortal words, Music is the Weapon of the Future. This will no doubt strike a chord with Fela and Afrobeat devotees. Was this special for you to evoke that sense of an Afrobeat lineage on this track?

FK: It was Chris’s idea to do that. He did not know my son was coming. He wanted me on the track, and when we arrived, I said, “Oh, my son is playing.” He says, “This is your son? Wow!” Then he said, “Whoa, I’ve got three generations on the album.” So we made history.

MÁDÉ, HIS SON

FK: Working with Coldplay wasn’t about money. It was about building so many bridges. And the biggest bridge that was built was introducing Mádé to that world. There is not an ounce of arrogance in him, so the world can take him to beautiful places and we’ll stay happy in our lives in our old age.

I think I’ve fulfilled my most important desire in life, which is growing Mádé. All the fame, all the money, the Shrine, nothing can be more important than giving Mádé the machinery to have love in his life.

Mádé is working on his own album right now. And I’ve just finished my new one. If I die right now, I’m successful. Mádé is my success. I have other children, and if I can raise them like Mádé, oh, I have an army. I have a well-trained army. So I said, I will die with a smile. What more does a parent want?

My youngest child is eight months now, so in between my work, I go to relax with her. She knows I’m coming just by hearing my footsteps, so if she is in the other room and I start walking, she starts getting excited that daddy’s coming.

It can be worrying because of the way the government is going in Nigeria, or when you see the suffering in the world— and it’s not just Nigeria. When you see Iraq, Iran and all these places, when you see so much harm being done to humanity. But then you see a beautiful child, and you wonder … ahh … in all this chaos, what does it mean? I worry, but I still appreciate the beauty.

CONTRIBUTOR

Molara Wood

Molara Wood is a journalist, essayist, critic and author of the short story collection, Indigo. She wrote an Arts column in Nigeria’s Guardian on Sunday and served as Arts & Culture editor of NEXT Newspaper. She is based in Lagos.

Pius Utomi

Pius Utomi is a Nigerian photojournalist who works for international news agency Agence France-Presse.

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