sun 23/06/2024

Q&A Special: Musician Femi Kuti | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Musician Femi Kuti

Q&A Special: Musician Femi Kuti

Son of Fela looks back through the past, darkly

Femi Kuti: 'Events he had tried not to think about came to life, and the horror overtook him'

When the hit Broadway musical Fela! reached London last week, Femi Kuti joined the ovations on opening night with more feeling than most. The musical’s subject, his father Fela Kuti, was a government-taunting mix of James Brown and Che Guevara, a musical revolutionary who, with drummer Tony Allen, forged Afrobeat, and a polygamous, dope-smoking thorn in the side of successive corrupt Nigerian governments.

at the National Theatre reviewed on theartsdesk">Fela! is set in 1978, the year the military retaliated by destroying his musical base, the Shrine, and its adjoining commune. Fela was dragged by his genitals on the way to jail. Amid rapes and beatings, his 75-year-old mother Funmilayo was thrown from a first-floor window. She died soon afterwards. Femi remembered it all.

Femi had an often fractious relationship with his father, no one’s idea of an easy man. He was first shoved on stage by Fela later in 1978, aged 16, to play a trumpet solo in front of 10,000 in a circus tent near Paris. After Fela’s 1997 death, Femi took up his mantle, starting a substantial career. International success rarely makes him stray from playing at Lagos’s rebuilt Shrine, where he has demanded Fela! be performed. His new album, Africa for Africa, buzzes with infectious funk and jazz grooves as he typically lays into corrupt African authorities, who remain at war with the Kutis.

When I met Femi two years ago, it was ostensibly to talk about his then latest record, Day to Day. It was a warm autumn morning in a near-empty old pub in London’s Fitzrovia; his coat and scarf stayed firmly on. He could be amusingly sardonic - “What is a black man doing in here?” he imagined the bar staff thinking as they prepared “terrible” coffee he all but spat out. Clouds of justified paranoia also descended, as he described a struggle with Nigeria’s masters he wasn’t sure he’d win. Then the conversation turned to that awful day of the Shrine’s destruction. He started to tell it as a funny story against himself. But events he had tried not to think about since came to life again as he spoke, and the horror overtook him.

Watch Femi Kuti live at the Africa Shrine:

Who are your influences these days?

Nobody really. Just the past. What I have listened to already - Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, my father especially. I’m now myself. I’ve listened to them to find myself, and find my own contribution to music. So I think this is me, really. Me, at a point, that I’m going to use to propel myself, hopefully to greater compositions in the future. Yes, I think I’m breaking boundaries. People say, “You are not doing what your father is doing. You are not trying to copy him. You are setting new standards, and taking it into greater heights.” So hopefully now you will see the branches, and the fruit will start to come out. Maybe the forest, or a big city, will come out of this, who knows?

If you look at your father or Miles Davis, they changed all the time, it was almost an insult to themselves if they stayed still - that defined them. Is the way you grow an evolutionary thing - not taking sharp left or right turns, but growing naturally as yourself?

Yes, I believe so. And that is because I always go back to and reflect on the past. I try to understand and be sure of that past before I move forward. And when I move forward, I try to be sure I’m not stepping on quicksand.

Have you done that - made missteps?

Musically? Getting angry is always a mistake. I always get angry. I always get frustrated when I think people are trying to annoy me. I always make that mistake. That is spiritual development, where one has to have control of one’s thoughts and one’s actions. That is what makes you human. You can either be an animal or a human. You need to have control over anger, envy.

“They Will Run” is obviously about people who betrayed your father, and didn’t stand up with him. Have you been betrayed in the same way - had false friends around you?

Yes, many times. Even by my band members, who don’t care how the band is going to survive. Even by my fans, who come to the club and just light a joint and when the police come say, “Oh…” I say, “Why do you light the joint, if you’re going to run?” My father smoked, and when the police came he still sat there. So don’t come and smoke, and pretend you are a real heavy guy, and the police come, you’re going to run? If you’re going to be involved with the Shrine, be a man. Defend your corner, defend your actions. That’s what the Shrine’s about, that’s what my father was about. So yes, many times.

What are your memories of the times from the Seventies on, when the Shrine was being attacked and your family brutalised?

They were very hard times, very scary, because sometimes we as kids felt we were victims, because we knew the police were always following us - the SSS [Nigerian secret police]. My granny showed me, she said, “See that man in the car, he has been outside this house for two hours and he is reading the same paper.” You hid behind coaches watching him when you came home. It was kind of frightening. I was victimised in school, because of who my father was. Because he was anti-establishment, and their fathers and the teachers were part of the establishment, so they were always on my case. They would say: [sneering] “Ah, your father smokes hemp, he wears underwear.” I’d say, “Your father wears a coat and tie, he’s a slave.” And we would start punching, and the teacher would come. Some teachers liked me, but they kept it inside. In primary school, I used to come first. But in secondary school I couldn’t get anywhere. That was the time my father started to have all his problems. I just lost track. I can’t really place my finger on why. Everything just went wrong in my life.

How long did it take to get back on track - to be in control of yourself again?

It took me till… because when I was at school, I moved to my father’s house. I would like to be a musician, I tried, I read a lot of books. I would say I really lost track there - in the sense that I wasn’t achieving things in my life in the way I believed I should. I went back on track when I moved out of my father’s house, back to my mother, in 1984. I led his band while I was in my mother’s house, because he was in prison, between 1984 and 1986. So that is when I focused and became a man. And said, “Okay, I’m not going to do this again.” And gave myself laws - “Okay I’m going to start my own band one day, I’m going to go out into the wilderness.” I set myself standards.

Fela1Did everything that happened to you in your early years give you some steel, inside you?

Yes, because all my friends had gone to university and were coming back as doctors, lawyers or accountants. They were all in the Establishment, and I was just smoking grass at my father’s house, believing I was a great musician. When I moved to my granny's [his mother’s mother], she said something: “You call yourself a musician - and I never hear you practise.” That night I cried all night. It touched me. They all said, “Fela’s son, tch, he’s like his father, he will never be successful.” Even his brother called me and said, “You are going to be a failure, if you don’t go to school and university. I’m going to tell your father to send you to university.” So I said, “I’m going to be successful,” even though I didn’t go to university.

With your family it seems the easy, obvious thing to become a musician; but really, it’s the hardest thing.

Yeah, it was. I think even without your parents being great musicians, if you pick up an instrument and you’re going to be serious, and want to be great, to get to the level of yesterday takes hours, the instrument is cold. That’s why music is it for me. When I’m frustrated, or happy, I pick it up. The only thing that gives me the confidence to have control is music. When I’m worried, I just think of music. It gives me peace. I think if I wasn’t a musician I’d be too pompous, arrogant, negative. Music gives me the ability to be kind, to progress in your life spiritually, on a very high level. You develop discipline… confidence. You must be scared of what is going on in Iraq, you are scared of world issues, and it’s music that makes you sensitive to all these things.

Were you in the house the day your grandmother [Fela’s mother Funmilayo, a freedom fighter since colonial days] was thrown out of a window?

I was coming back from school. I watched everything from outside. I ran back to tell my mother: “Aah! There are soldiers at my father’s house!” I came back crying: “Soldiers, Mummy, the soldiers!” But I always used to come back and say, “The police are there.” Sometimes I would tease my mother, I was very nasty. So she thought I was pulling another one of my jokes. I’ve left the police, now I’m saying soldiers. Nobody could ever believe the soldiers would come there. “Mummy, I swear the soldiers are there!” It took me two hours to convince her. “Femi, stop it, stop it! I’m not joking with you! I’m just putting on my dress, and I’m going there, so you’d better not be joking!” I said, “Mum, the soldiers are there! Not one, I saw hundreds!” And she asked my granny, her mother. “Think he’s joking, Mum?” “I don’t think so.” I went to call a taxi, and went to my uncle’s house. But the traffic - because the soldiers had blocked everywhere, and his house was in the centre of town. Anywhere you had to go, you had to pass the front of the house in Lagos. Now the soldiers cut everybody out. Now, you had to go to another country to come here.

I have to be suspicious. I might be paranoid, sometimes. But I have to say, “Who is this man, why is he always there? Does he know me?” For the sake of my son

So I started playing football. People said, “Ah, you are mad - soldiers are burning your father’s house and you’re playing football.” So I ran off the field, and said, “They’re burning the house!” All my uncles and aunts were there. They said, “Impossible…let’s go.” We now went that long route, it took hours. By the time we arrived, it was night. We passed the house, and the soldiers made everybody put up their hands. And then we just saw smoke. My mother said, “Femi, get down, get down, they might recognise you…” And then when we saw the house, my mother started crying: “Ah, he’s dead. They killed him.” Because when you see the house, and you see the soldiers, you cannot believe anybody survived. It was really… scary. I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll look for him.” So we now went to all the hospitals and couldn’t find anybody. And luckily we found his mother, somewhere in a cousin’s house. She said, “Fela is in the military hospital.” We drove, that is when they let us see him briefly. So we knew he was alive. He hadn’t seen anybody. He didn’t know if anyone was dead. He didn’t understand.

And that was the day your grandmother was thrown out?

Yes, she’d broken her spine. Ahh - it was hell. It was hell. He had 14 cars. All the cars were burnt. He had big massive generators, and everything was on fire, in the centre of town. Fooh, and all the cars were burnt. Fooh, and all this smoke. You had to be scared.

Did that day change your life?

Yes. I was everything. I was scared, I was everything. Just because you’re asking the question - but it’s something I’ve locked out of my mind, really. I was too young then. It was so much, so much, so much… even till now, everything I do, unconsciously I react because of those things in the past. Because before I do something, I know, “Hey, the SS might be here, be careful. The Government’s going to react to this. Be careful.” Which way is best, because of the experience, what I’ve seen, what I know. It’s all part of my daily judgement on life, and how I proceed.

For you to say the things you say now in your music takes some bravery. Do you feel you have to say those things because of what’s happened to you and your family?

Yes, spiritually. Because I try to be very spiritual in everything I do. I’m not going to die wondering. How do I want to be received in heaven when I arrive? As a coward, or as somebody who stood by his heritage? It’s a choice. I can’t pretend problems are not there. I can defend my heritage, my culture, my tradition; I can do things so my son can say, like I would say: “I’m proud of my father.” I will give him the leverage and confidence to stand up to injustice. Now, that’s the position I’m in. I either forge ahead, or I become a coward. It’s not easy to become a coward. But I choose to forge ahead.

Is it like if you didn’t, you’d be betraying what happened that day?

Probably. Probably. Maybe if I chose to go the other way, I would find an excuse to be a coward! [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s a sin to be a coward. Especially if you go: “If I go that way, they will kill me, I’m afraid.” I prepare myself. I think: “This thing got my father into trouble, it might get me…”

Have you been in situations where you thought, “I’m going to get killed here,” and gone ahead?


I look at my instruments as weapons. I look at my trumpet like an Uzi. Brrrrrr!

Do you prepare yourself for death and keep moving forward?

Yes, yes. Many times I’ve thought, “Wow, I could die.” Even on the world stage. Because I know [George] Bush [Snr]. Bush was the head of the CIA when my father accused the CIA, when instructions were given to the Nigerian Government by the American Government to make sure he’s killed. Like the instructions were given for Lumumba to be killed. The American Government is on my case. Can I believe now with what I’m doing that the American Government is not on my case? They might not act. But they are studying my case. And they acted on my father’s case. So I have to be aware of all that. If I’m talking like I’m talking, I think the British Government is going to read in the papers, or listen to me… even if it’s just a suspicion. I have to be suspicious. I might be paranoid, sometimes. But I have to say, “Who is this man, why is he always there? Does he know me?” Even for the sake of my son. “Am I putting my son in danger. Okay, stand behind me…” “Daddy why?” “Never mind. I have to check out the area.”

It’s a hard way to live.

Other people are being bombed. People have lost their arms and legs, out of just sitting in a pub. Somebody walks in and bombs them.

Is it like being a resistance fighter, being the person you are and the musician you are?

Yes, it is.

You never know who to trust.

And I look at my instruments as weapons. I look at my trumpet like an Uzi. Brrrrrr! I take my piano as a tank. I look at this like a war. Only I’m not allowed to carry weapons.

Having the Shrine in the centre of town shows what a force your family was, cocking a snook at the Government. It’s amazing they then attacked it there, in full view of everyone.

Don’t forget they are the military. The military don’t think before they act, they just act. America will just go to Iraq [childish, yapping voice]; “Oh, there are chemical weapons,” then they will go, bomb a whole city - “Oh, there are no chemical weapons!” They don’t think, they just act. What you are supposed to do is like a Mad Max exam: “Okay, if I’m going to go here, they might resort to this, or this. If they resort to this, this will be the result…” That is what serious people do. But governments and dictators say: “I don’t like this man. Get rid of him!” Don’t mind me.

But sometimes, yes, I get very scared. You know, even recently… because I have to leave the club at two in the morning. Everybody used to think I’m paranoid. But I need people to come home with me. Because they could just say bandits killed me, and nobody would question it. Because I’d be dead. So now we take our security. And now what I have done on the way… because people really love me. The grass roots love me. So they know when I’m coming home now. So on my way I buy them presents, so they know, on Tuesdays, they all wait for me on the streets.


So you’re never alone.

Yes. Because most of the streets have private security to guard against bandits, so they’re all waiting for me on the streets. And even the police - not the hierarchy - they really love me. When they take off their uniform, they come and watch me. They don’t let their boss know they love me. I have a very good rapport with them. So I defy all of the time.

It sounds like you almost expect one day that won’t work.

Yes. I just prepare myself, if that happens. I try to carry a shotgun in my way. My son asks me, “Why are you carrying a gun?” Then I thought to myself, if I really believe in what I am doing, then I should not… except I really see evidence. And if somebody comes up with a gun, then I will carry one. If somebody shoots, and misses, then I will carry a gun. If I survive that kind of attack, then I will arm myself, yes.

What does the Shrine do for people in Lagos, and what does playing in it do for you?

It gives them hope. It’s a place where they come, and they go and worship at the Shrine itself. They go and worship my father, they go to bow down to him…the masses take it really seriously. It’s not a joke to them. Some guys, it’s their life, their whole world. You see them angry [shouting wildly]: “The Shrine is my home!” It’s very difficult for the family to really change the way the Shrine is going. As much as we don’t want some things, we have to accept them, because they feel, “Fela is our father! I love Fela more than my parents!” This is the way they act. So when they are there, you have to let them…

It’s a strange thing, because he really is your father…

I say, “Please. It’s not my fault your own father is bad.” [Laughs.] I try not to think that. Because when you are in that position, you have to understand fans, you can’t really argue with fans. It’s only when they are drunk or high. “Take it easy.” My [older] sister Yeni takes care of all of that.

What’s the importance of playing there?

It’s everything. I don’t have to beg anybody. I don’t really realise the importance, because I’m so involved in the fight, of having our own club. “Fucking ?Government, they are going to come after me…” These thoughts keep coming: “Eh, you’re relaxing. The police can come any time. They are on your case.”

Can you relax when you’re playing?

Yeah, but I’m still aware. I become many people in one. Because I’m thinking, I’m wishing, I’m hoping. While I’m playing, I’m thinking, I wish I could take a holiday. Ah, the Government, from what you said tonight, they are going to be on your case tonight. Ah, fuck them bastards. When I’m playing, all those thoughts come.

It’s like the Shrine is the heart of resistance, and the heart of your music.

I look at the Shrine like in the galaxy, there’s this spaceship. That’s the base, the Shrine. Now, this is me sometimes, in my own small ship. I have to go and visit them in England sometimes, but the base is there. “Come back with me…”

I was angry that my father didn’t teach me things. But that was his life

Do you ever think of not being a musician?

Never, ever.

Do you remember that first time that Fela threw you onstage aged 16, with 10,000 people watching?

No, I think I was too high on that night, frustrated and angry that… so many thoughts came, and I couldn’t play those thoughts. Sounds were coming into my mind, and my body could not play. I was hearing phrases, and because of my lack of understanding of my instrument, it was frustrating. After that night, and all the nights that I had, when I moved to my mother’s place, and my grandmother said what she said to me, now I do 12 hours practise. I can write the song in my head.

Was part of that frustration swirling in your head also from feeling blocked by your father?

Yes. He never sat me down. He went to school. He passed his degree in Trinity College. So I was angry that never when I was a kid did he say: “Hey, this is a quaver. Watch me.” And even sometimes I am still bitter that I should be able to read music. He should have given me that learning. I’ve had to teach myself the trumpet, I’ve had to teach myself the sax, the way I compose. It’s frustrated me, sometimes I go many hours without sleep, I have to get up in the morning to take my son to school then go back to practise, and things can be so difficult. But really, if things were going properly, there’d be no challenge. I’d be able to face the world easily. Likewise, if he had done things differently in many respects, the Government would not have been able to touch him. Because they would have been afraid of the power of his mind. It’s because I’ve been very tactical that I believe I haven’t been touched yet. And I know even if I’m touched and I survive, I know what I’m going to do next. If you try to take my life, I’m going to come and get you. And even if I die in the fight, my spirit will go on fighting.

Earlier in my career was the time of pop, that was the time of rock [Femi was briefly signed to Motown], and management and everyone encouraging the pompousness and arrogance of the artist; “You are the best in the world.” And that happened with me. Not because of my father. Now immediately whenever that starts happening, I just see my son in front of me, and I start missing him, and I want to teach him everything. I’m angry when I’m not with him, and with things I can’t teach him. I have to arm him with all the weapons I have. I was angry that my father didn’t teach me things. But that was his life. My son thinks I’m the most perfect father in the world. I always tell him, “No, sit back, and see the things that I do not do right, and do that for your children.” Now, he’s afraid his children will not love him as he loves me. So we have this bond, that my father and I had at a distance. He would look at me and say [gruff], “Yeah, Femi, give your father a hug.” If his girlfriends were there, he always wanted to be macho. He would say he was proud of me. But what I wanted was for him to sit with me and teach me music.

My father wasn’t very tactical. He would just think, ah! I’m going to do this! Brilliant idea! Let’s go! Brrrrrr! If I was there, I would say: “We are going to get beaten up. We might lose our lives in this. Okay, everybody write your will now…” I must prepare. He never did. So he was a very lucky man. I wished he did things the conventional way. And at the end, people betrayed him, and they didn’t understand what he was doing.

Is it a lonely life for you? Few musicians face the kind of pressures you operate under.

I draw from thoughts of my son, thoughts of the music, the next album. You fill that loneliness with good thoughts.

Watch Femi Kuti perform in Exeter in 2007:

I always get angry. I always get frustrated when I think people are trying to annoy me. I always make that mistake

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