The release of Alex Gibney's new documentary on the late Nigerian pop star Fela Kuti spurred me to sift through my own personal journalistic archives to find an audiotaped interview I conducted with Fela in 1986.
And here it is, a transcript and audio clip of my mostly unpublished interview with Fela, perhaps the first one-on-one he granted after being released from prison in '86.
On June 17, 1986, seven weeks after his release from Nigeria's toughest prison, Fela spoke exclusively with me. And, bravely, he remained defiant against the military regime in Nigeria that had imprisoned him.
As is the case with many interviews that I conducted as a writer for music trade weekly Cash Box, the Q&A remained unpublished (except for a few lines published in the June 21, 1986, issue of that magazine).
Kuti is probably best-known today as the inventor of Afropop, a massively influential musical form that mixed jazz, rock, funk and revolutionary politics.
Fela was also famous for having fought against oppression in Nigeria. In the early '80s he was imprisoned by his country's autocratic regime for three years on what appear to have been politically motivated charges.
After he was released from prison in April 1986, he visited New York City, appearing at a Manhattan press conference on June 13, 1986 (my interview was not a part of that conference) before performing for Amnesty International at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on June 15.
Here's an edited version of the conversation I had with Fela on June 17, 1986. (Andhere's a link to audio clips of my conversation with him.)
Paul Iorio: It must be a big change for you to be out of prison now.
Fela Kuti: Yeah, it's a big change for me. It's a good change.
Iorio: Did you write a lot of songs in prison?
Fela: No. I just kept my brain blank. I left my mind blank in prison.
Iorio: You were transferred to Kirikiri. Was that, as they say, Nigeria's toughest prison? And was it tough on you?
Fela: [Kirikiri] is one of the toughest prisons, but it was not tough on me. I lived through it. It was tough on the body. I lived through it....
Iorio: Do you think your spirit is stronger because of this experience?
Fela: Much more stronger.
Iorio:There was a period when you were in the hospital and they transferred you over to Maiduguri prison. At that point nobody heard anything from you for about six weeks. What happened to you?
Fela: They just took me to the prison ... and it was very, very uncomfortable, very far away from everybody. And visitors weren't allowed for me for about five months.
Iorio: Were you afraid for your life?
Fela: No, no, no, I was never afraid for my life.... We just try to face the government....
Iorio: Are you still going to speak out against the Nigerian government? ... You're not going to back down?
Fela: No, I'm not going to back down. I still intend to [protest the government]. I'm not backing down....
Iorio: Would you ever consider getting involved in Nigerian politics ... ?
Fela: Yes, definitely.
Iorio: You mentioned that some of the military people have your records and like your music.
Fela: Oh, yes. Everybody in Nigeria likes my records.
Iorio: Do you think Amnesty International had a lot to do with getting you out of prison?
Fela: Not much. They tried to make people aware of it. But there's not much they could do....
Iorio: While you were in prison, what was the worst thing that happened to you?
Fela: The worst thing that happened to me [while I was in prison] was that my record was produced by somebody else, Bill Laswell. And that really fucked me up in prison.
Iorio: That was "Live in Amsterdam"?
Fela: No, no, "Army Arrangement" ... destroyed me completely, fucked my mind up.... When you're in prison, you can't do anything about what's happening outside.
Iorio: But at the same time, people were being carted out dead every day; there were beatings.
Fela: Oh, yes.
Iorio: But it never happened to you?
Iorio: Was that because everybody knew who you were?
Fela: Yes, exactly.
Iorio: You were more than disappointed with "Army Arrangement."
Fela: Yes, Bill Laswell's production. I had a production [before I went] to prison. So they abandoned my production and put in a new one.... They knew that [I'd given] instructions that it not be produced by anyone. They knew how I felt about it.
[I was unable to contact Laswell for comment on this claim. Of course, Laswell is welcome to give his side of the story in the comments section here.]
Iorio: How about "Live in Amsterdam"? Do you harbor any bad feeling that EMI released that instead of releasing "Perambulator"?
Fela: EMI did so many bad things. They didn't look out for my interest at all.... They just wanted to rush something out.... "Live in Amsterdam" wasn't a good recording. I only [made] it happen because the system wanted it, because the company complained ... and demanded a live album.
[Any executive from that era of EMI is free to rebut Fela's statements in the comments section.]
Iorio: Is there a Fela record that you consider is your best?
Fela: No, I don't.
Iorio: Do you think that you could live a better life as a musician if you were to leave Nigeria?
Fela: I could never leave my home.... It inspires me a lot.
Listen to clips of the interview here.