Wednesday, 12 March 2014
PUNCH Interview: Why I Didn’t Talk To Fela For Six Years – Femi Kuti
Fela Anikulapo’s son, Femi, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI and GBENGA ADENIJI what people didn’t know about the late Afrobeat musician.
Why did your father choose a controversial lifestyle?
It was because he was too honest about his way of life. He liked women and he did not hide it. He liked to smoke marijuana and he did it in the open. Many people like women but they do it secretly. There are so many brothels all around the world but Fela never patronised them, many people go there to pay for s**x.
You will be shocked to know the number of people that smoke marijuana in Nigeria and all over the world. I hope you know that some countries are legalising the smoking of marijuana now. He was truthful about his way of life while many of us are hypocritical about ours. Many people were envious that he was too honest and bold and that was why there were so many controversies about his life.
Most of his friends who are highly-placed admire women even girls young enough to be their daughters. They leave their matrimonial homes to meet them secretly. Some of them hide in hotels to do what they cannot do in the open. Many of them smoke but they are not brave enough to say they smoke. All the call girls you see on Allen Avenue, who picks them? Fela never did.
How was he able to manage his many wives?
It was very stressful for him. Do not forget that he divorced all of them. They were not faithful to him. When he decided to marry them, he did so for a reason. He said they had been with him in difficult times. They endured police harassment and beating. But they never left. Though they were very loyal to him, they still had a bad image in the public because people were calling them prostitutes.
He felt that the best way to protect them was to marry them. They became Fela’s queens, so the society had to respect them. I believe he loved them and he was already sleeping with them before he married them. It was not really a big deal to anybody that knew them. For instance, my mother knew this was happening so it was not a hidden thing. The big deal was how he was able to convince the 27 of them to marry him same day.
Did Fela talk you into music?
He did not influence me as such. I always knew I would go into music. It was just a question of how and when. He was however a big motivation in my life because every child wants to be like his or her father. The son of a plumber will want to be like his father, especially if he is learning the trade early. If the son loves the father, he will want to emulate him. I am not a different son. I love my father and wanted to do what he was doing. The only question hanging over that ambition was whether I could fulfil that ambition perfectly.
How did he punish any of his children who misbehaved?
He beat us. In fact, I was the one who got the most beating in the house when we were young.
Can you remember things you did that made him beat you?
I stole my mother’s £1 to buy chewing gum one day. You can imagine how many wraps of chewing gum that money would buy. They were not less than 100. My friend convinced me to go and steal the money but we were caught while chewing the gum. When my father asked me where I got the money from, I was speechless. I was still thinking of what to say when he started beating me with his hand. He then warned me never to steal again.
He also beat me when he caught me with cigarette in 1969. My mother used to smoke and he saw me put the cigarette in my mouth. I did not really smoke the cigarette because it was not lit, I only put it in my mouth but it angered him when he saw what I did. He beat me again and warned me not to touch cigarette again.
Why do you think it has been difficult to replicate Fela’s style of music?
It is so because the foundation of the band was truthful. He was not pretentious. He really believed in what he was saying. Despite all the police harassment, he was not moved. Many people would have gone to seek political asylum in another country but Fela did not do that. He had so many opportunities outside Nigeria and he would have taken advantage of them to run away from his enemies. These are the things that every generation admires in him.
What are those things you imbibed from your father?
I may not be able to mention them. In the way I deal with people, I am very truthful. If I say I am going to do something, I would do it. But I am more of my mother than my father. My elder sister has more of my father than I do. I am more of a practical person. If I plan to do something, I will think of the consequences. My father would never weigh any decision before executing it. If he planned to go to Dodan Barracks, he would just go there. As for me, I make plans before I do anything. My father would not write a Will. But because I know that I could get killed, I had written my Will a long ago.
I know that in a divorce case, my wife could claim one third of my property, so I would not go into wedlock. The most important thing to me right now are my children. Now, I will not play to the gallery. I will not say because people love me, they must come first before my family. Who are my family? My children of course. So, whether you love me or not, I will let you know that my children come before you, take it or leave it. I live this way because I learnt from my father’s life, the decisions he took and the consequences. When you learn from someone, you don’t have to do what he did. Fela did what he did for his own reasons. I cannot criticise why he did what he did.
Also, we must remember the stardom. Nobody was as big as my father. He had over 100 people around him daily when he became a star. I cannot live like that because I don’t want too many people around me. I saw what people did to him. It was too much. I can keep the Afrika Shrine open to everybody but not my house.
If you come to my home, you will only see me, my kids and may be my girlfriend. Sometimes, my friends visit but I don’t keep a crowd around for any reason, my father did. I like women but I saw the harassment he went through with 27 wives. It is not that I don’t want 27 wives but I know what will happen because of what happened to my father. I can’t tell a woman that I will be faithful in our relationship. That was part of the problem of my marriage. I cannot be faithful. I will not lie about that. It is not that I cannot be faithful, but I cannot start my relationship by saying I am going to be faithful till death do us part. There are possibilities that if another woman comes and I like her, I cannot give the assurance that I will not have an affair with her. I have no intention whatsoever to bring all of them under one roof. My intention now is to cater for my children and do my job to the best of my ability.
Did Fela have any special food?
He ate any food. He liked cakes and ice cream too. I don’t like cakes. I can eat ice cream and chocolate once in a while but my father loved them all. If somebody is celebrating and there is a cake, I can take a little piece not to offend my host. My father could die for cakes. If you visited him and looked inside his refrigerator, you would see lots of cake in it.
Your father did not hide his hatred for western medicine. Is it the same with you?
I grew up not liking tablets too. I grew up to be a traditionalist like my dad. But I later realised that there are too many fake traditional medicine in our society. The government must understand that many of these herbs are claiming the lives of our people. We must ask ourselves which of the herbs has been scientifically proven to cure malaria and the ailment they claim to cure. I once had malaria and I drank herbs but I was not cured. I felt very uncomfortable. I will not say that herb does not work because Africa believes in it. It is a fact that we did survive before orthodox medicine came.
There was African traditional medicine, but where is it today? Everywhere, you will see people hawking herbs, saying it work for this and that. People buy them and mix with hot drinks. Really, when you are mixing alcohol with herbs, you are damaging your liver. While you think you are curing one thing, if it does work, you are damaging another thing in your body. Until we have concrete fact to say something works for the body, we will be deceiving ourselves.
Why do you think Fela hated former President Olusegun Obasanjo?
Olusegun Obasanjo was a bad leader. He did not do well for Nigeria. He ruled this country three times but has nothing to show for it. They called the soldiers that burnt Kalakuta Republic and killed my grandmother unknown soldiers. The Federal Government is yet to apologise for their action against the Kuti family. Whether they like it or not, Fela was one of the biggest stars from Africa. As the days go by, people are beginning to understand the importance of his music. The Lagos State Government is building a museum in his honour. The family does not have that kind of money to build a museum. It is not the governor’s money but the state government money. But the governor took the decision on behalf of the people.
Another museum is also being built Ogun State. Governors are beginning to understand that Kuti’s name cannot be swept under the carpet. The family has done so much for Nigeria and the world. Many people are playing afrobeat style of music today because Fela invented it. Some people are saying he did not start it. But the question is: Who started it and stood firm using the music creatively? Fela stood for many great things and his contribution to the society cannot be pushed aside.
Did he have time to take the family out for leisure?
In 1967, I remember that he took us to Onikan swimming pool and also Federal Palace Hotel. That was the first and last outing for fun with us. He always made it clear that he was not a conventional father. He did not want us to go to school not because he did not like education, but because he believed that education was colonial. He believed that it was structured to show that Europe is supreme and Africa is not good. Even when he took me out of school in my fourth year in secondary school, I had acquired vast knowledge about the outside world through the books I read at home. I was known as a professor in the Kalakuta Republic. I read books such as Blackman and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I read so much that I even found there was a Pharaoh Kuti in Egypt. I wondered if this Egyptian Pharaoh Kuti was in any way related to the Kuti family in Nigeria. My father said we are probably related.
Which school were you attending before Fela made that decision?
I was studying at Baptist Academy and he withdrew me from there when Obasanjo deployed soldiers to the school. I later went to Igbobi College and spent a year. He advised me to leave the school in form four. Many believed I would become a nonentity because of his action. There was disagreement within the family, my mother was against it, but my dad stood his ground. She wondered why my dad took me out of school when he went to one of the best schools in the UK.
She also said since he did not teach me music how then would I be great in life? My father told her not to worry that I would be great. I was not happy too and did not speak to him for six years. He told me that he was confident that I would be great. I did not know what he saw in me. The day my album, Wonder Wonder, became popular and I was becoming a household name in Nigeria, he called our family members and told them that the same boy he withdrew from school had become a successful musician.
At that time, it was only my father and King Sunny Ade that were travelling abroad frequently for musical concerts. But I suddenly started travelling abroad more than the two of them because I was becoming known more outside the country.
Will I do the same for my son? No. He will get a good education. I will let him understand street life which I grew up to know so that he will have a feel of it, but he must be formally educated.
Where were you when soldiers invaded Kalakuta Republic?
I was coming back from the school when I saw the soldiers. They wanted to arrest me. But I managed to escape through a place called Alagbole behind Kalakuta. I ran and went to pick my younger sister at Mary Magdalene Primary School. We then crossed over the railway and went home.
Is there anything you miss about Fela?
I miss his being a grandfather. I think he would have been a fantastic grandfather. He had already been showing the signs with my sister’s daughter and my son. He died in 1997 and my son was born in 1995. I know that what he was not able to do for us, he would have done for our children if he were still alive.