Femi Kuti, the eldest son of Fela in this interview, went down memory lane, recounting the story of his late father, his music and ideologies. He also talks about what the fans of Afrobeat music will expect at this year’s Felabration among other issues.
The 2013 edition of Felabration,a week-long concert which celebrates the life and times of Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti commences from Monday, October 14 through 20 at the Afrikan Shrine, Ikeja, Lagos
What’s new in this year’s Felabration?
I think what will always be new is the enthusiasm of the crowd. The festival runs from Monday through Sunday. It kicked off last Monday with school debate. Wuri Modern College won the competition last year. The Felabration usually kicks off with school debate because we are trying to introduce new things other than music. There will be symposium where the likes of Femi Falana, SAN, will be in attendance. The festival will kick off properly next week Tuesday. It will run till Saturday and closes on Sunday.
With this year’s Felabration coming up, would you say you have achieved the dream of setting up the festival?
Definitely. We are all Nigerians and we know what it means to run a festival at that level for 13 years. I think we have to be applauded. It’s a feat that hasn’t been achieved in Nigeria. All the great festivals we know in Nigeria are no longer functioning. We have never heard any security challenges in the past 13 years. With the crowd of over 10,000 people attending the festival, I think we have to be commended. Now, Felabration is observed across the world, especially in major cities of the world. The event my sister, Yeni started has grown big and stronger.
Looking at it holistically, do you feel comfortable that a Nigerian who has practically lived abroad all his life is playing the role of Fela?
I’m sure if they do a movie, it will be great. Now, let us look at the broadway show. Critics say that it was too Americanised. They did not want to show Fela’s story from the Nigerian perspective. They wanted the American and the international market to understand the Fela story. See how Fela was misunderstood even when he went to the United States. It was after his death that people started evaluating his music. What he was doing? He married 27 wives in his lifetime, how dare he? This man was against feminism.? They gave him different kind of names. He was completely misunderstood because he wore pants, he smoked marijuana. He had issues. He had serious issues whether we liked it or not. At his death, people were celebrating him but in his lifetime, he was broke before he died.
What they did was to tell the Fela story for the average international market to watch and understand it. If you did watch them, you would notice that the dancers could not dance the Afrobeat music. For you, the man was speaking American English. But you would have every reason to believe that the Fela you know was not being acted but if you look at it from the neutral perspective like you didn’t know Fela, you would understand the story and even weep for him.
The day I watched it, I cried. I cried because I knew where they were coming from and I saw the audience. Probably, they have not heard about Fela, the Americans were saying, it made them want to listen to his music to know more about Africa. It opened their minds to so many issues. Now, they are studying Afrobeat in many of the schools and universities in America, Germany, France, Sweden, Australia, everywhere. There are over 20 American bands playing Afrobeat at the moment.
Over the years and given what is happening in the country today, will you say your father has been vindicated or misunderstood while he lived?
I will answer in the affirmative. He was grossly misunderstood for a purpose because he saw corruption and he knew what corruption was going to do to the country; those involved in corruption wanted to get away with dictatorship and corruption which was what he was against. And because he used his own unconventional way of protesting, it didn’t go down well with the authorities.
Then the authorities controlled the media up to a point until after Daily Times, when other media houses started springing up because we have to remember that it was only government newspapers and TVs that we had then. So, the story was told from the government’s perspective until The Punch, Vanguard and other magazines were established. Fela’s story could be seen from another point of view.
We have to understand where Fela was coming from in the 60s. Where did the problem start? What was the cause of his problem? And maybe, because he was already a stubborn character, he was going to make matters worse and that was his character and that is the character that people now love. What kind of man was he, that many people ran away from him, or even compromised him. But he didn’t have to go through all those beatings? So, I think, he was purposely misunderstood but yes, he has been vindicated.
But you are a different specie?
I would say, I am probably more diplomatic because I have learnt from what I saw of him. First, you have to understand the political climate which we live in. Let us remember who voted for Obasanjo? Except if we want to be dishonest with ourselves, Obasanjo won the first election, clean and clear. What would Fela have done if he was alive and this same Nigerians still went to vote for this same Obasanjo? Didn’t they hear Fela sing about this man?
Then, it is still these same Nigerians that were criticising this man and they know it. Let us look at our incumbent President. He was declared wanted by the EFCC when he was governor of Bayelsa State and you voted for him. That case was pending in court when Yar’ Adua made him his Vice. Opposition parties should have objected to his selection. But they didn’t. Again, his former boss late Yar ‘ Adua whom he served under had a seven point agenda. Where is it today? Jonathan promised that if anything happened to him that he would follow his footsteps. Has him followed his footsteps today?
There are many things you have to understand as Fela’s son. Did Nigerians not hear what Fela talked about? Are they not feeling the same pain that Fela felt when he was alive? Nigerians are still voting for the same corrupt politicians.
Are you worried that government has not been able to honour your father after his death?
Not at all. The people will always honour my father and he will always be celebrated worldwide. Even Lagos state has honoured him. Even if the family doesn’t celebrate him, Fela has gone beyond the shores of Nigeria. As we speak, New York, Paris, England, Japan, Australia, New Zealanmd, China, Malaysia, among others still celebrate him.
At over 50, some people say it seems you have become more sexually active?
That is not true, I am no more sexually active. When you see a beautiful woman, when you reach my age and you have responsibility like myself, you will know what I am talking about. Before now, as a young man, you would want to go after her. There are many nights I go and sleep alone not because I don’t have girlfriends or want a girlfriend, when I think of the responsibility I have in my life, I will immediately have a rethink.
The women in my life also have responsibilities. I can tell you that the mothers of my children, we stay together, we are very serious. You could say we are husband and wife but I don’t believe in marriage. I just don’t understand why one man will say I pronounce you man and wife, in that case. I pronounce myself man and wife. I am very different from my father but in a lot of ways like him.
Like I couldn’t understand why he married 27 wives. When he married them, he divorced them. I didn’t have a problem with my father’s wives but my mother did. When the problem started in Kalakuta, for us it was fun. Many things have changed. Of course I am very much sexually active but when I consider the problems my shoki has given me, it dies quickly.