Afrobeat musician, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti speaks with ADEOLA BALOGUN about his recent nomination for a Grammy and sundry issues. How does it feel like to be nominated in the Grammy awards?
I am so glad. It shows that I have been working very hard outside Nigeria. The fact that the Nigerian music industry has failed me does not mean that the rest of the world has done the same thing. I signed a contract six months ago for the same album to be released here in Nigeria, but the records company has not released it. It is the problem that I have been having in my career. It shows that the music industry in Nigeria still has a very long way to go.
When do you think the company will release your album?
I do not know. The album was released in America in January. It was released in Europe in November last year and the rest of the world has been dancing to it. The Grammy is not about Nigeria. It is an American award. So it is the American establishment that is nominating me for the award.
Did you ask to be paid a large sum of money in advance?
I have been paid. They have paid me some money. That is why I do not understand why it is taking so long to release the album. The issue is not about money. It can not be about money. I recorded the songs to be heard. So people understand what I do and where my career is at that point in time. I can‘t understand why somebody should take my work and hold on to it, even after he has paid me.
Maybe he is having a problem with the authorities or the songs are offensive.
Well, it depends on what side you are on. If you are a progressive Nigerian, it would not be offensive. But if you are a corrupt Nigerian, the songs would be very offensive to you. The owner of the records company has not said that the authorities are delaying it. If he said he has a problem, what is this problem that he will not disclose? We were waiting and we are still waiting. I am surprised and frustrated. My lawyers have written to him because he is my friend. I have known him for some time. So it is hard to want to take your friend to court. But if the album is not released on a certain date, then the contract will be terminated
It seems strange that a big artiste like you cannot have his album released.
It is very strange. I am compelled to conclude that the owner of the records company is working for the government. But he is my friend.
I am puzzled.
You cannot be more puzzled than me. If he is frustrating me as an artiste, he cannot stop the rest of the world from listening to me. The world is dancing to the music, Americans are dancing to it. I am still touring and I am still working hard as a musician. So it is Nigeria that is frustrating me as an artiste. Even the distribution of my last album was very bad. When Bang, Bang, Bang was banned, the records company refused to sue the government or argue that the song cannot be banned. It did nothing, only accepted the ban and stopped printing. They did not even tell me how many copies of the album that they sold. Why ban the song? As far as I am concerned, it had nothing sexual in its content. It won the World Music Award and was nominated in the Grammy awards. All this while, everybody has been frustrating me.
Recently you were quoted in a publication as saying that ‘Bang, bang, bang‘ was one of the best songs that you have produced. Would you say it was banned because of the problem government had with your father?
I think so. I think about it, but I do not have any proof. You see, when the government wants to deal with, you won‘t be able to prove that the same government is frustrating you. So in that respect, I won‘t be surprised if I am singing or talking like my father in these times that Nigeria is being hypocritical about corruption. I am sure they would try to frustrate me as an artist. They would close the Afrika shrine down and say many things to frustrate me. They would say this man is talking rubbish, but the world is enlightened for that kind of thing. I am a serious musician. If I not, I would not be nominated at all. Now I am not concerned with winning the award. But the nomination in itself is a big thing, especially coming at a time when I am fighting to get my album released in my own country.
Some are insinuating that the success of your dad is rubbing off on you and that is why you have gone this far. Do you think so?
Those people are jealous. They do not want to accept that I am a hard worker and I am doing very well, if not better than my father. Those people do not want to accept that I am taking afro-beat music to a higher level. They are jealous because they believe Fela is the greatest and they do not want to give credit to what I have done. I am sure that Fela, my father, would be very happy with my accomplishment. They are envious because they cannot stand up to their own fathers. They are scared of their fathers. I stood up to my father and I went on my own and I am making progress without my father. Why do they refuse to give me credit? The world gives me credit; so what is their problem? I have been touring for over twenty- two years. I have been playing professional music now for thirty years. So if they do not want to accord me my due respect, I believe they just want to console themselves. Those who are looking for excuses are just jobless. So if my son is successful, are you going to say it is because I am successful? The world does not look at it like that. I was not nominated because of my father. The nomination came because my work is good. It has nothing to do with my father.
But I learnt that the first time your work was nominated for awards you did not win because your contract was terminated. Wasn‘t that politics?
To be nominated, your records company must enter your album for the awards. The company that put in my album withdrew it and I felt that was the reason why I did not win. I did not know that they would submit my album for the awards and it is not a committee where you can go in and start dragging things. You cannot influence the voters. They are going to sit down and judge, based on technicality and lyrical content. And they would vote among themselves. I do not even know how they do it. I don‘t believe I can influence them either. So when the company refused to meet me at the airport, I knew that I was not going to win and that was what happened.
Apart from playing in the Afrika Shrine, you don‘t seem to participate in music concerts around the country. Is it that you are not interested?
They don‘t invite me to play because they don‘t want to pay me good money. How can they be paying American artistes so much money and if I ask them to pay N5 million, they say it is too much? But I hear they pay some people as much as one million dollars, 750,000 dollars. I am not asking to be paid in dollars, all I ask is just N5 million. They are the ones that are difficult. They are the ones giving excuses. They say people are smoking Indian hemp at the Shrine. You have seen that I put signs outside asking people to shun drugs. We invite the police to help us here and we have people checking for us here like the NDLEA. But, for no just reason, they say that people are smoking Indian hemp in Femi‘s shrine. Is it Femi that is smoking Indian hemp? I don‘t smoke and I don‘t drink, but they still heap blame on me. So I cannot understand why they are giving me a bad name, even though I have done nothing wrong.
Do other artistes interact with you as they ought to do?
Well, don‘t forget that many of the new generation artistes are not my mates. My mates are very few in the music industry today, but when we invite them to play here during Felabration, they come. King Sunny Ade was here the last time; Shina Peters was here. Even Lagbaja was here. So I don‘t think I have any problem with fellow artistes.
Maybe the reason why you are not invited to perform at music shows is because you will come with your band, unlike a hip hop artiste that will only mime on his CD.
I have to go to the stage with my band. That is how we were taught. Having said this, I have nothing against hip hop artistes. At least, they are trying their best. If they become stars and make money, I will be happy for them. They are Nigerians, after all. But if my son wants to do that, I will tell him to pick up an instrument or two. Now I shall turn 50 in two years. I have lived well and I have achieved what I did not dream of in my life. I have been nominated for Grammy award twice, something we used to watch only on TV in those days. I never dreamed of being the first Nigerian to win KORA award. I will just continue to work very hard and do my best in the industry.
You just mentioned that you neither drink nor smoke. Where do you get your kicks?
It is my work. Hard work.
But it may be difficult for people to believe you.
That is their business. I have smoked before and I don‘t deny it. But I have stopped. I stopped smoking for fifteen years. I did it again for two years and finally stopped. I started smoking after my mother died because I was very depressed. I have not done it for a couple of years now. Because of this same argument, I stopped. I don‘t need to smoke to become a great man. Even some people say that I don‘t smoke like my dad because I am not as strong as he was. I will not smoke.
Why the decision?
It is bad for my health. It gives me chest pains, but the main reason is on moral ground. It is because I address a serious and important subject that concerns justice and values and I don‘t want anybody to rubbish me by saying that I am a smoker or that I smoke Indian hemp. If I am fighting social ills and I continue to smoke, people will not take me seriously and I don‘t want that. Even if most members of my band smoke, I have to restrain myself just to combat issues. There are so many social ills that I am fighting against in my music and I cannot afford to allow myself to be embarrassed and dismissed as a hemp smoker.
What made you so sick recently that people were afraid for your life?
If I die, I die. If I give you all the excuses in the world, what does that give you? Nothing. If I die and I reach heaven and they ask me, did you enjoy yourself on earth?‘ If I say no, they will just slap me. I have enjoyed myself. I am not a novice in the industry. I have been around for a long time and I have achieved a lot and I have no cause to be afraid of death.
Most people used to see you as a gentleman enjoying a happy married life. But all of a sudden, everything changed. What happened?
My wife left. Look, it is very difficult to be an artiste because so much is expected from you. It is very difficult to be a conventional person when you are in this kind of business. But my wife left for many reasons and the media, too, was part of the problem. You see, this matter is settled, yet every journalist asks me the same question. I hope this will be the last time that I will have to answer it. Some journalists decided to give me a bad name and it was a big battle between me and them. They wanted to use it to extort money from me and I was not ready to yield to blackmail. So they went out to write that Femi is broke, Femi has gone crazy, Femi is this, Femi is that and I got angry. Even when I was in France, they were writing that I was in a mental home. At the time, I was working on the music album that got me the nomination for the first time. It was titled Fight to Win. During this period, my wife left and they wrote so many things against me. So if I was crazy, how did I manage to take care of the boy you just saw without his mother? I am taking care of four other children that are not my own, but who are friends of my son. I put them in a good private school like my son, out of the love for the society. There are many things that I am doing that I don‘t need to boast to people about. I believe that If have the means I will love to take care of more people instead of spending money on worldly things. The press did not see all the good things I was doing and wrote things against me. As a result, I shied away from people and my movement was restricted to the Shrine and Akute, and from Akute to the airport. That is why I know that the Grammy would shock many people who were biased because of what they read about me. If I am not a responsible person, I won‘t be able to take care of my home. Now I have four children of my own and another four that are not mine and I care for all of them, their mothers and families. Since many of them have apologized to me and we have forgotten it, I don‘t want them to read this story and feel that I am still bitter. No, I have forgotten about it and have moved on.
You are fond of referring to the women in your life as your girlfriends. Are you confused about whom to choose as your wife?
I am not confused, I love all of them. If the Muslims can marry four wives, why should my own be different? I believe it is the African culture to have many wives. It is the Muslims that say four while the Christians say only one. An African can have as many wives as he can care for. My father had 27 wives. My own women are not more than four. I regard my women as partners and we interact as a family. I don‘t need a Pastor or an Imam to tell me I am married. I am a responsible human being and I know my duties as a father or a lover. So I don‘t need anybody to educate me on what I should do for my women or my children. If you ask me, I would say I love women. If I could marry a hundred women, probably I would do it. But I am contented with the ones in my life and I don‘t need more. If they leave, I will look for another one.
I read somewhere that you pray. How do you pray and to whom?
I pray everyday and as I am talking to you, I could be praying. Nobody taught the African to pray. The place of the Supreme Being is acknowledged in the African culture. They said we are idol worshippers. When you have the statue of Mary or Jesus in your church, what do you call that? So what is wrong when we bow down to the images of Ogun or Oya in our own way? I believe in a supreme being and I don‘t need any foreign religion to teach me that. I know I am just a mere human being and should not be calling the name of God any how. I know that since both my father and mum are dead, they are closer to God than me and I pray to them to guide me. Before I perform in a concert, I pray for everything to go smoothly and I know that when I do good, good will follow me all my life. I don‘t need anyone to teach me that. That is why I know that it is good to forgive and talk to the mother of my son. We still talk.
What if she decides to come back?
I don‘t like to speculate. All I know is that we have all moved ahead. I am not a dreamer. I am a practical person. I know that I will die one day and I based all my actions on that reality, African tradition will tell you that you must be a good father to your son.
Your son used to appear on stage when he was much younger. What does he do, these days?
I want him to go to school now. He has played and he has traveled. Even he made an input in this album that has been nominated in the Grammy award. He has seen the life of entertainment, but I don‘t want him to be a drop-out like me. My father didn‘t want me to go to school. My son doesn‘t want to go to school either. But I know that education will help him greatly. It is important for him to finish school so that people will not refer him as a dropout. I was just lucky that I had a good mother who helped me to make up for the time I lost when I dropped out of school. Maybe I was just lucky, but I don‘t want my son to depend on luck. He must go to school and study classical music and become an authority anywhere he finds himself.
I thought you didn‘t want to encourage your son to pursue a career in music.
No, I encourage him. He plays a lot of piano at home. You know the music industry can be very bad and I don‘t want him to become a drug addict. He may start doing drugs if he is lonely and I don‘t want that to happen to him. What will happen if his wife leaves him? I don‘t pray for that, but such things do happen. If he does everything that a 40 year old does at 15, when he is 40, he might be bored and do negative things. I know that a lot of artistes go into drugs because of boredom. At the age of five, he was on stage and by the time he was ten years old, he had recorded an album. These are things I did at 16 and I know what I had to go through. Maybe I should have waited a little more. So it is good for him to go to school. Later he might become a professor. And if he becomes a teacher of music, won‘t it be great to teach hundreds of children how to make music? Now, because I did not go to school, I cannot teach anybody how to compose music. But I can play music and make people happy. He can break new grounds in music with education.
People still insinuate that your sister probably had a hand in the collapse of your marriage. Is it true?
My sister had absolutely nothing to do with it. I told people then that because of my son, I would not talk about the breakup of my marriage. But because I kept quiet, people blamed me for it and I took the blame. Now I have a beautiful son and anywhere I take him to, people commend me for bringing him up. Let me tell you something: I brought up the child because I learnt how to keep my mouth shut and take the blame. What I realized, which some people failed to do at the time, was that we had a son and where two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffer. If I had allowed the marriage to get in the way, the boy would probably have become notorious today. Because of him, I used the period of the breakup to teach myself the piano and the trumpet. These were instruments that I could not play before. So ten years have elapsed and I can do things I couldn‘t do before. The breakup made me to be more serious about life and I am a completely different person. My sister had nothing to do with the breakup. The only thing is that she must support her brother, just as my wife‘s family supported her. I never beat her and I never did all the things they said I did to her. So why wouldn‘t she stand by her brother? I respect her. My sister controls my father‘s estate and I don‘t question her ability. She manages the Shrine and I don‘t question her, except she calls me to ask for a word of advice or two. She is a sister anyone would love to have and she makes me happy. Even she is always looking for a wife for me and I tell her not to bother. But she doesn‘t want me to be alone.
How do you encourage your little brother, Seun?
There is nothing to encourage, he plays here. My sister is the one that even brought him here and asked me to let him play. Maybe if somebody else asked me, I would have said no. She is the one trying her best to unite the family. I am not a difficult person that people think. Even the Seun matter, who started it? It was Uncle Beko. I am older than him by twenty years. People were just cooking up stories to frustrate me and I couldn‘t take rubbish from them. When she brought him, I said okay, he apologized and I asked him to play here.
Some people even said you were probably jealous of him because he plays exactly like your father Fela.
Excuse me, if I wanted to be like Fela, I would be like him. But I said I didn‘t want to be Fela. I said I wanted my father to respect me. I did not want to be my father‘s carbon copy. When I left my father, everybody thought that I would not succeed. Am I not successful? When Fela saw me, he commended me; even before he died. When I recorded ‘Wonder Wonder‘, they said it was Fela that wrote the song. I was already making waves before his death. I toured the world when he was still alive. So why would I be jealous of Seun? I have won awards that some people only dreamt of. I was the first person to win the KORA award, I was the first person to win the World Music award, I was the one that packaged Nigerian music for the outside world to understand. My success has opened doors for people, too. So, how can I be jealous?