Femi Kuti, a world record holder with the sax and four-time Grammy awards nominee, delivered an electric performance to an exclusive audience in Lagos recently. Before wowing the appreciative audience the world-renowned Afrobeat exponent and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s first son chatted with THISDAY. Demola Ojo writes
Fresh from tours to Belgrade and Paris, Femi Kuti was in Lagos last week to headline a concert at the Sheraton Hotel. The event was put together by his management company, Chocolate City in collaboration with Marriot International to achieve two objectives: promote Kuti’s latest album, One People, One World, while also rewarding loyalty programme members (Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest) with exclusive access to the event.
The nature of the event meant there was a pre-concert meet-and-greet over cocktails, which allowed unfettered access to the ace musician. Kuti was cheerful and open, chatty and ready to engage in conversation. The mood was no different minutes later when he agreed to grant an interview.
This was slightly surprising, considering he hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with some sections of the media in the past. He must be in a good place; his enthusiastic demeanour, athletic physique and glowing skin are almost at variance with his greying hair, the only indication that he is 56 years old.
“I feel over the course of my career, the press at certain times did not do justice to me,” he says. “They either used my father or another artiste to undermine my credibility as an artiste. And the social media wasn’t in place at this time so a journalist could brainwash a million people.
“A lot of people have fallen for this stereotype journalism but now, because of social media, it’s opening up for me, slowly but surely. I can put my own stories out and many people can voice their support directly.”
He has made sure not to let negativity from any side hinder him. “I don’t let this disturb my progress because when you look at these things, you feel heartbroken or discouraged and give up. But in the beginning, I used this kind of stories to propel me to be stronger and this is what got me more determined to be where I am today.”
Sax World Record
Among many other achievements, Femi Kuti holds the Guinness World Record for a single note held on a sax in a method called circular breathing. A little over a year ago (May 2017), he blew a note uninterrupted for 51 minutes and 35 seconds, eclipsing the 45 minutes and six seconds set by Kenny G in 1997.
“When I started, I was just showing my dexterity and improvisation and how good I wanted to become on the sax. But everybody kept mentioning Kenny G. I wasn’t doing it because I was in competition with Kenny G.
“Nobody saw the beauty of my improvisation. But the more they said it (Kenny G), the more I thought of going after the record. And I broke it. But it wasn’t my intention. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t want to think about it anymore. I just want to show that beauty of improvisation and my dexterity on the saxophone,” Kuti says.
You can argue that the name Kuti brings up images of rebellion and you may be right. Being Fela’s first son and a one-time leader of his Egypt 80 band, Femi Kuti went against expectations and decided to set out on his own, by forming his own band called Positive Force. He explains why.
“I knew a long time ago that I didn’t want to be my father or live my father’s life for him. Then a puzzle came to me: the child that is waiting to inherit his father’s legacy or inheritance, what if he dies before his father?
“So the sooner you start your own journey in your life, the better for you. If your father passes before you, no wahala – and if you pass before your father, no wahala too. But people will realise you set out to live your life.”
After a long break and so much water under the bridge, Femi Kuti has in recent times performed with the Egypt 80 band now led by his younger brother, Seun.
“I played with Seun in Denmark; he played with me in New York. We’ve played at The Shrine; we have played about three Felabrations together…
“When my father died, Seun was about 15 or so, and I’m 20 years older than him. And people just started bringing controversy that Seun is the next Fela. Seun is better than Femi. And I didn’t know why the press went in that direction.
“It was as if some people in journalism just wanted to keep bastardizing anything I did. It was as if they were just throwing bad vibes at me to make feel bad.
“If I wanted to inherit my father’s legacy, I wouldn’t have left. If I wanted to be like him and play his music, I would have stayed and done all that.
“I used to perform his music on stage but I didn’t see myself; I didn’t want to live his life. I love my father, I appreciate my father, and I respect my father. But where is Femi Anikulapo-Kuti? So, immediately I had to find myself. Even if I lose, let me lose because I struggled on my own. And If I am victorious, let me have a bit of pride that ‘Wow! What I set out to do, I’m quite happy’,” he confesses.
Femi Kuti has been nominated for a Grammy award four times in the world music category in 2003, 2010, 2012 and 2013 but has never won.
“When I got the first nomination, they said, ‘So what? Somebody else has two.’ Then I got two. But when I got the first, why couldn’t this set of people just be happy that another Nigerian has got a nomination, let’s celebrate him? They gave an excuse why not to celebrate it, and then I got two, then three. Then four!
“But again, I didn’t set out to win the Grammy, It was never about awards. And even my father, if you do your research, he never went to any nominations for an award. And if you took the award to meet him, he sent it back to you. He never believed in awards. So this was my training.
“Grammy was never in my reasoning. So when I got my first nomination, I wasn’t excited.” When he didn’t win, he wasn’t disappointed either.
“If I win one day, we will drink and celebrate but my songs haven’t been in that direction. My songs have been about poverty, bad education, bad roads, no electricity, and how Africa can be at the forefront of world affairs. Why can’t Africa be the envy of the world?” he asks.
“So, will the Grammy make this happen for my people? No. Where I stay is Alagbole; if you come to my area and see poverty, you will understand why.
“I’m in Sheraton today and it looks very beautiful but I’m going back to Alagbole. So I’m not going to trip and feel arrogant that I’m in Sheraton. So what? Because I’m going back to Alagbole,” Kuti says animatedly.
Staying where he does now is by choice. “I’ve had every opportunity to move to Los Angeles or New York, but my training was to be with your people, live with your people, die with your people.”
You can’t help but notice that he feels misunderstood and underappreciated. His tone and body language (he intermittently smacks the back of one palm into the face of the other, and there’s a shrug of the shoulders too) are like a representation of one of his hit tracks, ‘do your best and leave the rest’.
At the moment, he notices more appreciation and recognition outside the shores of his native country. For example, he recently performed with the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra in Belgrade.
“This orchestra director came about four years ago to the previous management that he wants to work with me and they kind of dismissed him. He met me on Facebook in February and luckily I was promoting this album so we worked together.
“This man has studied my music and put all in orchestra form. It’s a big deal. And my management at that time kind of undermined it. If I was my manager, I would have seized the opportunity. Like when I met Mos Def, I quickly seized the opportunity, when I met Common, I seized the opportunity.
“When these things come, I seize the opportunity because I think ahead that these things will be documented and when I pass on, these things will always be there. So you don’t miss these opportunities.
“He said ‘I’m a conductor, I’ve written your music out fully.’ He has written about 15 songs of mine, in the orchestra with strings, French horn and so on. Ahn-ahn! If you see the amount of work this man put into my life. That is tremendous respect.
“If you are from the music school, it’s a very big deal. The music he did, I think they will always stand the test of time,” Kuti says with so much belief.
He puts forward another example of his relevance. “My eldest son studied music. In his college (Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London), my albums are theses in the library. I didn’t put them there. Somebody must have seen that the albums need to be in the library for future generations.
“They’re studying Fela’s music in the most important universities. I know my music too is being studied. So when you’re looking at me like, ‘what has he done?’ Underground…” he trails off.
Like Father, Like Son
Recently, Seal a British musician with Nigerian roots (of the Kiss from a Rose fame) was pictured with Femi Kuti at The Shrine, shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron also visited. This prompted the question: is any collaboration in the offing?
“Seal is like my brother now. He brought out a lot of emotions in me. You never know. But I think the first priority is to bring him for Felabration as soon as possible or to come and perform at The Shrine. But I’m keeping an open mind on working together.”
It’s the same with his younger brother, Seun. “I keep an open mind. If it happens good, if it doesn’t… but nothing is my priority. I will not even tell you I’m thinking of collaborating with my eldest son, Made.”
Femi Kuti’s eyes light up when he talks about his son, who joined his band as a bassist, replacing the previous one who absconded minutes before a concert in the US.
“The way I see him playing these days, I would love him to have his life. I don’t want him to move under my roof. If I can set him up and see him even become greater than me in my lifetime, what more does a father want? And already, I can tell you that at this age, he’s much better than I was.
“My father didn’t send me to school. My father didn’t train me as a musician. Everything I know, 95 per cent of what I am today, I learnt on my own. My father went to the best university in his time. He didn’t teach me music. I can’t read or write music. But my son? He reads the most complicated pieces. He has passed out from one of the best, if not the best university in England and I’m happy I could afford to give him that kind of education.
“My son? Professionally, he plays four instruments; trumpet, sax, piano, bass. Drums… he can play anything. He learnt 81 pieces of my music in two weeks. My band leader, Ope, was shocked. He told me, ‘do you know what your son has done? He has put pressure on all of us.’ Now all of them have to buckle up.
“I will be very happy for my son to lead the way one day while we just lean back and be thankful. That I’m even seeing what he’s doing already, I cannot be more thankful. And I’m telling you, at 22 years, he’s a hundred times better than I was. The way he improvises, I couldn’t improvise like that at 22,” he enthuses.
It’s almost time for the concert to commence. Femi Kuti literally jumps from his seat and darts out of the lounge with the speed of a teenager. So fast, a prospective fan misses him. “I hear you’re a famous musician,” a bespectacled Caucasian says to this writer. “No sir, he just left the room.”
Luckily, he would get to see Femi Kuti perform energetically for the next two hours, with a medley of old hits and songs from his new album, his son Made not too far behind, both of them playing different instruments in turn, to the delight of an appreciative audience.