Afrobeat King, Femi Kuti has come of age. In this chat with Entertainer, the four-time Grammy Awards nominee opens up on his battles with his late dad, the recent national protest and why his marriage to Funke crashed among other interesting issues.
This year marks 40 years of the destruction of Kalakuta Republic. Do you have any memory of the event?
I was coming back from school when I saw soldiers going there (Kalakuta Republic). I turned back, told my mother what I saw. But by the time we returned, Kalakuta had been burnt down. I thought they had killed Fela. Women were raped and beaten mercilessly. My grandmother was thrown out from the first floor and she later died from injuries sustained.
Today, people refer to you as the King of Afrobeat. How has the journey been for you?
It was never about taking over from my father but the need to build myself, find myself and achieve my own success. When I left Fela, everybody wrote me of. So, I decided to make name in Europe and America. Here people wanted me to be the replica of my father and I did not want to live in his shadow. And he did not accept the fact that I protested against him. I was disliked because they felt I was rebelling against the idol. It was never my intention to be like him. Of course, I should look like him and sound like him. If I did not, I would have to ask my mum who my father was. But I can identify myself in the chaos and that is what many people cannot do. Over the years, I have developed a strong fan base that appreciates the fact that I rebelled and I became successful. People attribute my success to him but they don’t know the story because if they do, they will know that they are lying to themselves. Anybody who gives the excuse that I am here today because I am Fela’s son is either envious or doesn’t know the story or is trying to comfort himself because he is not successful and still living under the shadow of his own parents.
Can you tell us your story?
I left my father and found myself. When I had my success with Wonder Wonder, people they said it was my father. Then, my father passed on and I did Bang Bang Bang! an international success and they couldn’t give the credit to my father. That was when they started giving me my credit. When I had my first Grammy nomination they said it was because I was Fela’s son. Many of them I found out don’t even watch or listen to me. They only read about me, hear about me and are judgmental.
Was there any time you felt like giving up after you rebelled?
No, when I stepped out, it was a matter of succeed or die. The day I stepped out, I knew I was going into the wilderness. When you make that kind of move, there is no turning back. You either succeed or die trying.
Let us talk about the state of the nation. Right now we are wondering what is happening to President Buhari. What is your take?
(Laughter). It is sad that our leaders cannot be honest with the nation. If the president is sick so what? Is it a sin to be sick? If he is sick you tell the nation he is sick and that is why there is a constitution and government. If he is sick, the vice president takes over. So, there is nothing wrong in it. What is wrong is lies, pretence and deceit and that is what happened during Yar Auda’s administration. The same people who criticized Yar Adua’s handlers are doing the same thing today. It is wrong to put the nation in suspense.
Recently, there was some controversy over a protest against the Buhari administration which was supposed to have been led by Tuface Idibia and you were called a coward on social media.
Can you recall what happened?
They were so rude and I was like how could they descend so low. Is it because of social media? I spend six hours a day practicing music. I don’t have time to argue on social media but I took time because of the protest that was to happen recently. I had a hard time explaining to everybody a simple fact. Some people wanted to hold a protest at the (Afrika) Shrine. They put it on social media and I saw it and I was shocked. I heard that Tuface was part of it and I made an announcement that I didn’t know about it and everybody said that I am a coward, and as Fela’s son, I should be joining. When you go back to occupy Nigeria, I was called by Campaign for Democracy. I never saw them as politicians because I knew them from Uncle Beko’s time. I know NLC used to compromise so, when they called me for the meeting, I was like, ‘what is your plan B because I know from historical facts that every time the government calls you, you leave us, they settle and you call of the protest and nothing happens. When they call you what happens?’ They said no it can never happen. So, we got there and they called them and they called off the protest and we were all still standing there at Ojota. And before I knew it, I heard that it was politically motivated. I said ‘where did they get the money to print T shirts, hire speakers and make posters and placards?’ Really, if there is a protest of the masses, they will not have time to start printing posters and T-shirts. Anger does not let you think. It is spontaneous. I said ‘chai, they fooled me-o’. I will never participate in anything like this again. So, when this started happening again, I said wow! Could it be another plan to shut down the Shrine because in the last two years the shrine has been very successful? What can they not understand? That before somebody uses my place he shouldn’t ask for my permission first? Don’t you see that this could be a plan to close the Shrine? I placed it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and they said ‘your father can’t do this’ and I laughed because they don’t even know my father. My father never took part in one single protest for the people. The only protest he ever took part in was when he went to Dodan Barracks with his mum’s coffin and he didn’t tell anybody to follow him. It was Beko that used to do protest with Gani Fawheimi and he was never in support of them. For him, if you want to protest, everybody should sit at home and lock up the country until government changes and not to march on the streets destroying property and looting. Fela was the one that gave CD the idea of staying at home. He groomed Uncle Beko. Beko only joined the struggle after the burning of Kalakuta. They were both beaten up and ended up next to each other on their hospital beds. Fela now said ‘you see what I am saying? Now we are on the same bed, broken bones.’ So, when Uncle Beko joined the medical association, Fela supported him when he led the first doctors’ strike.
It was my father that helped him organize it. But when they now decided to support Abiola, trouble came between them, because Fela did not see any reason why he should support Abiola, because they booth knew Abiola and how he was part of the problem. It was a big internal conflict between them. Fela was never part of any of those street protests. If you remember, that was why they kicked Fela out of Ghana back then. He told the students to shut the government down. Close the universities, don’t let the government think that they owe you a favour by shutting you down and then telling you when to come back. Ghanaians listened and shut their university and the entire country shut down. They now tricked everybody that the only way forward was to plan a coup which they did and everybody went back to work and it was business as usual before Rawlings came and killed everybody. When Fela came back they deported him. They said ‘you are a trouble maker. You left Nigeria to come and cause trouble here.’ But you see, the Ghanaians listened to him but it was the same thing he was telling Nigerians and they never listened. When they labeled The Shrine on Pepple Street ‘armed robber zone’ and made raids upon raids, how many people came out to protest for him? How many came and fought for his release? Then somebody comes out on social media today to utter drivel. Do you know how many times I was arrested and beaten? Don’t you think that because of my experience, before I make any move I must be sure of what I am doing especially after making that mistake with Occupy Nigeria? Then somebody just goes on social media that he is using The Shrine for a protest? Shouldn’t I react?
What I saw was a plan to close The Shrine. Somebody in government or somewhere is planning a protest and the objective is that at the end of the day, they close The Shrine. If it was genuine, they went to meet Tuface but they didn’t come to meet me that owns the place. Doesn’t Tuface have his own place? Can’t they use his place? I became very suspicious so I had to quickly clarify and they were still abusing me, so I now took time out for one week to answer them. And if they had come to meet me, I would have asked questions like ‘who are you? Where did you get money to print placards, posters and T-shirts? Who is behind this?’ If you are that hungry you cannot think of placards and T-shirts so, who is sponsoring you? If it is a true and kind-hearted Nigerian, he should come up with a name that I am sponsoring this because I am tired of the state of Nigeria, because if I had that kind of money, I will come out and say I am the one doing it. And when I want to lead my own protest, I will lead one like my father. I will tell everybody to sit at home. I will not be deceived again.
Any plans to marry again?
I have never believed in marriage. And I still don’t believe in it but I am happy I experienced it. I believe if I probably hadn’t married my wife we would still be together, and because of my upbringing, my wife and I are very close. I have a very open mind; I don’t let the marriage break-up get to me. And see what we took away from the marriage. We have a very handsome son who is doing us proud and if we did not meet we probably wouldn’t have had him. This overrides all the bad times we ever had. And we did have some good time. And I know why it did not work. When we got married we were young and then success just came from nowhere, and while I was becoming so successful, the same thing that happened to my father started happening to me.
Everybody was misunderstanding where I was coming from and piling pressure on me. Even Fela did not have that kind of success I experienced back then with Bang Bang Bang!, at that time in Nigeria. My dad never had a hit like Bang Bang Bang! Internationally, every radio station was playing it. I am out of this country for eight months in a year. At every major festival I was headlining, it was Bang, Bang, Bang! It was incredible!