On the eve of his fiftieth birthday, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti was as cool and calm as ever, as easy going as any peace-filled man should be.
Clad in a simple t-shirt and tie-dyed cotton pants, he was chilling at home, lounging around his living room, dividing his attention between the news on a wall-mounted flat screen TV, his three constantly beeping three cellphones and an old, rustic trumpet he cuddled and blew intermittently. He looked like a big five-year-old boy at play, home alone, quietly doing his homework while waiting for lunch.
Speaking before his ‘Femi Kuti @ 50’ party on June 23 at The New Africa Shrine, his nightclub where Afrobeat fans gather weekly to watch, dance and worship at the feet of the musical maestro, he said: “I feel truly loved at a time like this. I feel really honored that my family, friends and my fans have decided to throw this big party for me. I think it is a sign of how much love I have.
“I can’t complain. I have had an eventful life. I’ve learnt to understand the fact that life isn’t easy, so I don’t expect to take anything for granted. When I think of the suffering masses out there globally and even in my country, I can’t complain, my brother.”
At 50, Femi can truly be called his own man. Increasingly absent from media reviews of his songs are comparisons to his old man, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who created the Afrobeat music genre in the 1960s. Fela died of complications arising from HIV/AIDS in 1997, at 58, and was constantly a thorn in the flesh of the civilian and military authorities of his time.
Fela spoke truth to power with his music. Femi’s music is equally acerbic, except that his beats are faster and more energetic, appealing to a younger, broader spectrum of Nigerian, African and international audiences.
Afrobeat is Nigeria’s contribution to world music. It seems that the style and substance of this music genre—even from Fela or Femi wannabes—is well suited to preaching and about the ills of society. It could be down to genetics though, for the Ransome-Kuti family has always been radically outspoken—Femi’s father and uncles were constantly in and out of jail on account of their political activism and brushes with the law; his grandmother famously led riots and campaigned for gender rights and female taxation in the 1920s in her native Abeokuta town. But the question for Femi remains: he is certainly a chip off the old block but is he as good as the great Fela?
“Nobody gave me a chance in the beginning, especially when I left my father’s band to form Positive Force [his own band]. So I was determined to prove them wrong. And if you come from a big heritage as mine, with a big father and a big family and everybody says you are going to fail for whatever reason, you can imagine the pressure… so I started from rock bottom; the fear of ever being poor again motivates me now. Also when I started to understand the greatness of my father—he was so courageous, he was larger than life—I was like ‘Wow, will I be able to live up to this heritage?’ I had so many worries along those lines. The determination to excel and succeed inspires me. I don’t know how to relax anymore probably because of the fear of my beginning, and knowing the consequence of failure. So I’m always on the move, I’m always practicing.”
Femi and his band are constantly on tour, playing around the world. His weekly shows, The Sunday Jump, at the Shrine are always jam packed, especially when he is in town.
Yeni Kuti, Femi’s sister, choreographer and matriarch of the shrine, said: “This is the only place on African soil where you would find street urchins and students, working-class professionals, tourists, diplomats and expatriates swinging in harmony to the soulful, frenetic rhythm of Afrobeat music.”
“Femi is a living legend. He has taken Fela’s legacy to another level,” Ayoola Sadare, an Afrobeat fan and convener of the annual Lagos Jazz Festival told FORBES AFRICA. “How many Nigerian artists have gone global successfully? How many Nigerian artists have received three Grammy nominations?”
“I know for sure that the difference between Femi and many other artists in Nigeria is consistency, dedication and sheer hard work,” Nseobong Okon-Ekong, entertainment editor of ThisDay newspaper told FORBES AFRICA.
“Very few are willing or prepared to do what it takes to achieve… Femi resumes at the shrine every morning after doing his school runs, he is always practicing with his band, always working on new stuff. That’s why he will keep being ahead of the pack.”
Beneath Femi’s affable mien is a fiery and politically astute mind constantly soliloquizing about the extant features of the global order and the sour political economy of his country: Africa’s most populous and fastest-developing market.
His greatest fear is the prospect of Nigeria falling apart, going to war. He says the global recession is frightening, trusting that Europe would eventually be propped up to rise above its present economic woes.
“You see, when Europe is telling us there is no money then we need to be worried. Africa has always understood no money; Africa has always understood poverty and all that. We need to be very frightened of the global corruption we face and the way politicians have made a nuisance of life generally.”
There is no peace in life now, he cries.
“Look at the current upheavals in the Middle East, terrorism, spats between America and Iran and all this talk about nuclear warfare, you just wonder whether there will ever be a time in our lives when we will ever discuss good things.
“I am worried about my children and their future. What kind of society would they be living in, in Nigeria? See the scandals, see the corruption; we are still discussing the things, the ills of society my father was discussing when I was in my teens. It’s incredible! See the poverty in the north, we have 150 million people so we need to be scared; see Somalia still talking about hunger, starvation, strife—all these things are really alarming.”
For someone with merely a secondary school education, it is amazing that Femi is arguably one of Nigeria’s foremost social commentators and critics. His articulation on and off the stage is impressive. His decision to quit school at 16 in favor of a full-time music career alarmed everyone—especially his mother and education-proud relatives—but pleased his father, who eventually owned up to being the source of the infamous counsel.
“The poor boy has learned enough academic nonsense, now he will begin to learn music and plenty of African sense,” Fela said then, defending the decision and, as always, promoting his penchant for homegrown knowledge.
“Yes, Fela was highly educated. He studied music in university in England but he believed school did not help him. He wanted to use me to prove a point and he said so himself before he died. He said that I did not need to go to school, read or write music to be a good musician. I think he just believed raw talent was better. How he came to that conclusion, I still don’t know. Only he knew why his formal education in music did not help him,” Says Femi.
In any case, Femi‘s lack of tertiary education did not mean the end of learning for the young man. His father exposed him to global cultures and imbued a disciplined work ethic in him.
“He expected me to still do my work, he expected me to go and practice every day and he gave me a lot of books to read. I was reading big books that my mates had no idea about their existence: I remember some of them like Stolen Legacy by George James, Black Man of the Nile which I read about four times, The Scramble for Africa, I just went crazy reading books.
“I was reading anything. Chinese history, the autobiography of Malcolm X… my father used to take me to this massive bookshop in Chicago and there I would just get lost reading books all day… I spent my entire days in this bookshop. I was reading about American history, African history, I was reading books on Egypt. In fact, I got a nickname there—Professor—because I wasn’t just reading books, I was questioning them, so if I didn’t agree with the author or something he said in a book, I would ask questions or question it… so I would always query things…we would argue and debate and just thrash out issues from the literature I was reading.”
His political and musical influences are somewhat obvious. Apart from his father, who insisted he listen to jazz, he also admired Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. So his musical tutelage under his dad meant also listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and generally American music from the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I didn’t like jazz in the beginning but my father insisted on me listening. Initially, it seemed so bitter in my ears but when I listened more and began to understand, I came to a crossroad where I had to decide whether I truly wanted to be a musician because I was amazed with what Dizzy and Charlie Parker were doing with their musical instruments. I thought it was impossible. It seemed like they were aliens. I couldn’t believe that any man could perform with such dexterity on their musical instruments. I was used to single note melodies and I just could not understand how they could be so creative, and I just came to a point when I told myself ‘Wow, I will never be able to play like this.’ That experience kind of gave me the inspiration to say to myself, ‘Okay, I cannot be a Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie but I can still form my own voice and style musically.”
Clearly, his father’s eclectic ways were a key influence. He however credits his late mother for his cool headedness.
“It is not my fault the press don’t ask about her but if they bring it out she dominates my story. So yes, my father was the superstar, he did all the singing and the fighting but I know that if not for my mother, I would not be who I am today; our family would not be where it is today… my parents were an interesting pair… My mother loved my father. She said she fell in love with him from the moment she met him, but she knew he was a womanizer and she still loved him ‘till the day she died.”
Was her demise the saddest time of his life? Not exactly, he replies. The day his younger sister and his mother died were probably the worst days of his life, he says.
“The day my mother died I had a concert and I had to fulfill it because I had already spent the money. That was very tough…”
“My junior sister’s demise was very hard on me too but I had to brave the situation, being the first male child in the family, the responsibility of her burial arrangements fell on me, and I had to take very fast decisions to quickly console everybody, forgetting that I was also in pain, it took me a very long time to understand that I was in real grief and I still mourn her even now.
“Even my mother, sometimes I wake up and I want to go and say ‘good morning’ then I just realize that ‘Oh, she’s gone.’ I think those two loses of very close family members still haunt me.”
An unpretentious, modest man, any talk of his potential net worth almost annoys him.
“I am worth more than all the money in the world because money can’t buy love. You could be rich and nobody cares about you. People are going out of their way to try to make my party happen; they are trying to give me a happy birthday. Left to me, I would be very nonchalant about it, because I wouldn’t care whether I was 50 or not.”