The hustle and grind of Femi Kuti

Olufemi Anikulapo-Kuti holds his favourite musical instrument - the saxophone - and plays some notes as he practices ahead of his regular Thursday rehearsals at the Afrika Shrine.

He takes a cursory look at me, stretches his hand out for a handshake and continues with his saxophone as well as occasional checks on his phone.

The Kuti name is royalty. Irrespective of the prefix (Ransome or Anikulapo), the Kuti family is a dynasty. In modern times, it started from Josiah Ransome-Kuti, a clergyman and composer who is credited as the first Nigerian to record and release an album.

Omorinmade Anikulapo-Kuti, Femi Kuti’s first child is the fixer of this interview. He is an unassuming young musician now playing in his father’s band. He understands the weight of his family name and is not pressured to impress anyone other than himself.

A week later, I am back at the Afrika Shrine and Femi Kuti has arrived just in time for the interview. Workers and patrons at the Afrika Shrine hail him as he walks straight to the office of his senior sister, Yeni Kuti.

In the Afrika Shrine located in the state capital, Ikeja, Femi Kuti is king, the unrivaled leader of Afrobeat. Unlike many stars that rotate in the same orbit as him, he is very down-to-earth and jovial. He is more of the quiet neighbour next door than a music star with four Grammy nominations.

‘Shoki,’ as many of his female admirers and friends love calling him, is in a bright mood this Thursday as he speaks on his artistry, life, philosophy and legacy.

Femi Kuti has spent 41 years as a musician either as a member of the legendary Africa ‘70/Egypt ‘80 or as the leader of his own band, Positive Force.

At 56 years old, he is still electric on stage. His four-hour performances are stunning. On Thursdays (rehearsal days) or on Sunday Jump (his weekly gig at the Afrika Shrine), Femi Kuti’s performance has the same energy. His band performs with military like precision honed by hours of practice and years of experience.

I'm going to give four hours whether I like it or not. So it's not a case of ‘are you tired?’ Are you feeling sick? Is your body paining you?’ I don't give myself any excuse. I mean I must be like close to death to say I will not climb the stage. Even if I had malaria for instance, I will still play today” says Femi Kuti about his steel-like discipline.

As the King of Afrobeat, he is extremely busy. Every year he hits the road to tour in Europe and North America. This obviously takes a toll on his body but for Femi Kuti who joined his father’s band when he was 16, he knows no other option than to go hard. He does admit that it is difficult recently due to age.

“It is hard, this is hard. I don't know how long I will be able to continue for, it's scary. Now it's getting scary. I mean, I'm so hyper that I can't fall asleep. After a performance, it takes me hours to fall asleep. I mean, at a point when I don't even realize I'm sleeping. I wake up and I'm still so active that it takes me days to recover” he reveals.

“Imagine doing 30 shows. It means by the time I come back...whoa! I'm completely dead, but then when I get my rest, I find the strength to continue again, and then my responsibilities are so much I have about 10 children adopted and biological so I need to pay school fees so I can't's better to die than fail every night like tonight” Femi Kuti further says.

With so much touring and energetic performances, he looks lean and fit despite almost being in kissing distance of 60. The only feature that betrays his age is his thinning hair with grey strands.

Today, he reminisces about how his career began in the shadow of his father, the late creator of the Afrobeat genre, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Femi explains that his foray into professional musicianship was an experiment and a big risk taken by Fela.

He (Fela) took a very big risk, maybe he was in a very prayerful mood, hopeful mood that I better be successful because he even took me out of school so I didn't have the general education everybody had, but then when I moved to Kalakuta, he gave me books like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King... books on African history so I went really crazy in reading these books so I'm quite informed on historical facts of Africa and so on” he informs Pulse.

Leaving formal education, playing in his father’s band would be a school of hard knocks for Femi Kuti. This type of training (informal) instilled in him the creativity and work ethic he needed to excel. He rose to be the assistant band leader also.

Femi Kuti still wishes he had gotten a more intimate training from his father though.

He took that big risk, decision and I think he realized he should have still giving me that fundamental training between father and son. Because if he, even if somebody else had taught me how to read and write music, it would not have been the same like my father. That is just that family connection that will have been there forever that I will be able to pass to my own children” he explains.

However, Femi is quick to say that he misses Fela’s sense of humour.

“His jokes, you see, he was quite a funny man, he had a way to just make the most terrible situation funny and we will all just laugh about it,” the ‘Bang Bang Bang’ composer tells Pulse.

Living with the legendary Afrobeat musician, Femi lived the fast life at a very young age. Narrating his childhood, he reminisces on how he used to drive a car and a Harley bike.

I was driving the car at 12. Can you imagine a 12 year old boy (doing this?) I'll put two pillows on the driver's seat...I had a motorcycle Harley Davidson and I would go from Ikeja to Surulere to see a lady in like in five minutes,” he recounts.

Living in Kalaluta Republic, Femi Kuti would also be a victim and witness to the countless beatings and raids by the Nigerian Police and Army. The 70s would be rough for Fela and people in his commune. It would be no different in the 80s.

In 1984, the maverick composer was jailed by the Buhari-led military regime. The incarceration of Fela would be a pivotal moment for Femi Kuti and his career.

When Buhari jailed my father, the responsibility of leading the band fell on me, and we were playing. We arrived in America and my father called me and said, ‘I don't think they're letting me come oh, you are leading the band’.

“This big weight just fell over me and I said, ‘No, you have to come’ and he said, ‘no I can't come, okay, bye’.

"His best friend at that time, Mr. J.K. Braimoh was there, and he said ‘you have to do it and you know what? You better get ready because we are playing at the Hollywood Bowl’. The Hollywood Bowl then was where Michael Jackson used to fill... It wasn't for me, it was for Fela, so how can I lead the band? I think this was ‘84 (when) I was 22,” Femi explains.

He performed at the Hollywood Bowl which would give him enough boost and confidence to be his own man.

On June 17, 1986, Fela would be released by the Ibrahim Babangida administration. By then, his son had gotten enough experience leading his father’s band to start his own.

In 1989, Femi Kuti struck out on his own to form his band, Positive Force, thanks to a N20,000 fund from his mum, Remilekun Taylor.

With nine albums presently under his belt, Femi Kuti is a global star with many foreign celebrities paying homage to him when they make the obligatory trip to Afrika Shrine when they are in Lagos.

Femi Kuti explains how he has been able to set an uncompromising standard which has kept him and his band a force to reckon with on the global music scene.

People will say why do I work so hard? My band leader, Ope, is always amazed about the standards I've set. He's always saying I don't give room for anybody in the band to even give [an excuse] and most of them are 20 or 15 years younger than I am even much.

I don't give them any excuse not to turn up at [every performance], we don't say because we don't have money we musn't perform because this was my training. It is not because of money or material wealth we decided to play music and if this is your motivation you can't be in Positive Force, so all the standards are already there.

“First is focus, give a good concert and the money will come. I don't know when the money will come. The money has never failed to come, but don't come and tell me you want that money before [performance] you must deliver before the money comes. You can't deliver a bad show and expect someone to pay you says Femi about his work ethic. It’s performance before pesos.

Femi Kuti also goes on to explain that in order to have a very good band, you must be loyal as a leader. Loyalty he says is important in having a professional band.

Also, he treats everyone equal including his son, Made.

Made joins my band (and) there's a salary structure. So they come and meet me… ‘Oga, you must put Made tops because he's bringing a lot to the table in at least over half way’ but I said ‘no matter what, we start right from the bottom of the ladder and he works his way up’.

“He's not going to get any special treatment. I'm not going to treat him better than you when we go on tour. Made will share a room with somebody, he will not have a room on his own. And if there is no room to share Made will share with me, but I'm not going to make anybody uncomfortable because of Made,” Femi Kuti says.

In 2018, Made Kuti, joined the Positive Force after graduating from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, the same institution Fela attended.

Now Made has a point to prove and has proven me right, and (I am) proud because he's bringing more to the table. You could say Made is a star on his own. Made can survive on his own even without his father. But Made understands because if he's going to have his own band, if he's going to be a man, if he's going to earn respect then he needs to set those principles he wants, and he has to live by them even with his own children.

“If he starts to make his children special, then he will spoil them, and then how do you win loyalty? How do you win respect? A lot of people might not respect me, but those close to me that know me will defend me. This is true respect” he explains.

He then goes on to reveal that Fela and Made had a special relationship that surprised many of them.

Made met him, they started to connect and we were like, ‘wow, see Fela and Made having a good rapport’. We were amazed, and it was very emotional for us because we didn't know it could be like that. He and Made really connected as he always wanted to see Made.

“It was very funny he was doing things that he never did to his first children that he had in the 60s. I think we will have loved to see this transformation because I'm sure he would have taught him how to read and write music.

“I'm sure he would have come out of his comfort zone to be a good grandfather with Made. We saw this in him at that time so I think I missed that, we missed that as this was a very big part of our life at that time before he passed away,” he says.

Like Fela, Femi has also had brushes with the government after establishing the New Afrika Shrine.

Yes, of course for a good eight years the police were raiding the Shrine. Where were the people criticizing me?

“Where were they when they were locking the shrine for eight years, we built this Shrine in 2000 and was open to the public on October 15, 2000.

“When the police was coming here raiding like every week, where were they? Who came to defend us? Nobody. The last raid was in, I think 2008,” he says.

Does Femi Kuti have any weakness? He is a self-aware man and admits to being flawed.

We are humans, we must make mistakes. The first mistake you make as a human being is when you don't realize you are human or you are allowed to make mistakes or you're prone to mistakes.

“That is your first mistake. And even if people think you are successful, you are really a failure where you are arrogant when you are pompous,” he states.

He agrees to having a soft spot for women but argues it’s not his weakness saying, “I find it all okay to say I am weak towards women, but I don't see it as weakness because it would be very hard for a woman to fool me. I could be a nice person but you can’t fool me twice.”

Femi Kuti has a liberal view concerning money too. “I'm a nice guy”, he admits, “because I've helped so many people in my life.”

He goes on to tell us a story of how he helped a young man achieve his dreams of playing football internationally.

“I met a guy coming on the plane,he says. He plays football in Turkey and was sitting in business class. 

He said ‘excuse me sir, you don't know me?’ and I said ‘I don't know you’ and he said ‘should I remind you? I came to you one day in shrine and nobody helped me to get an International passport, and I had no money. I just walked up to you, and you just put your hand in your pocket and gave me the money to go and get my passport’.

“He said he got the passport, got his visa and is (now) playing professional football in Turkey. He said that ‘I owe you everything’ and I said I don't remember him. He reminded me of so many instances actually and I still didn't remember” confesses Femi Kuti.

After the interview, Femi Kuti goes on stage to rehearse with his band in front of a live audience that has come to cherish him as a superstar but most importantly a man who lives his truth.

They don’t make superstars like Femi Kuti anymore. It’s been 30 years since Femi Kuti left his father to be his own man. With the average lifespan of a pop star 5-7 years these days, Femi Kuti is an icon who got to the top through determination, hard work and grit.


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