Femi Anikulapo Kuti recently played host to our reporter and spoke on his Grammy nominations and why he didn’t attend the award at the Staple Center, in the United States of America.
Will you be in America for the Grammys?
Most likely not; What I want to do is to kill two birds with one stone. My sister is going to be in America for the launching of a very big documentary on my father, Fela, so since she will be there, I am trying to convince her to spend four extra days after the launching to attend the Grammy for me. I think that saves cost for me –air ticket, feeding, ground transportation and so many other logistic expenses. If she goes, I think it is better financially, for her to represent me. In those days, 10 years ago, recording labels/companies would finance musician’s Grammy attendance, now the artiste has to pay his or her way. And now, the artiste does not sell. Those that used to sell two million CDs now sell maybe 100,000. Everybody is downloading all our work. I have discussed with my sister and she is willing to do that for me and that saves me a lot of money.
Will she be allowed into the hall?
The label has agreed to pay for her ticket; she is supposed to go with my ticket but the law of Grammy is that only the artiste is allowed that free ticket. If the artiste goes with his or her manager, I believe that the manager or whoever accompanies the artiste has to pay for their tickets. That is not the problem. The real challenge is flight ticket from Lagos to New York and accommodation in Los Angeles, I can assure you that except you are in a very, very cheap hotel, is expensive. If I go to Los Angeles, I will not stay in a cheap hotel. Me sef I have standard and if I cannot meet my standard, I will rather sit in my country and suffer. I don’t compromise my integrity in that aspect.
But unfortunately some Nigerians do not want to understand.
Is this why your friends are all over twitter saying that you shun Grammy. Or your decision not to attend is because you are not sure if you will win?
I don’t think those on twitter are my friends; I think they are looking for how to make their blogs interesting so that people can read them. My friends will look at it economically like I am looking at it. Let us be reasonable; it is not confirmed if I will win, there is no assurance I will win; I appreciate the people that were nominated in the same World Music category with me; they are great musicians – the band from South Africa, Ladysmith Black Mambazo with the album Live: Singing For Peace Around The World, Savor Flamenco with his album Gipsy Kings (incidentally, Flamenco is on the same Knitting Factory Records like Femi). Ravi Shankar from India; he won the last Grammy before. He won it with The Living Room Sessions part one. It is the part two that has been nominated now. Most likely he will win. When I look at it objectively, I know I have a great album, there is no doubt, No Place For My Dream is probably my best work; I believe so, many of the critics believe so. Now I will spend about $5000 to go to the Grammy, let’s be objective, everything I do in my life I think of my family. We are in a time that is so difficult to make money and I have got school fees, feeding and other bills to pay. I will now take $5000 from my savings to go to America because of Grammy and then end up not winning. Don’t you think I am a foolish man? If I now see somebody that is capable and who is already in America and who has agreed to represent me, instead of spending $5000 she may just probably say ‘pay for my accommodation.’ So if someone is doing that for me why should I not grab that opportunity? If she wasn’t there, the next alternative will be for the recording company to represent me or they will pay for my flight ticket to attend? But I know the recording company will probably say ‘no, we are not’ or they will probably say ‘Mr. Kuti, let us look at it objectively. You know your sales have not really been that great and we have spent a lot of money on promotion. It is best we represent you. I hope you don’t mind’? And they will expect me to say ‘I don’t mind’. So if she doesn’t go, they will go. In show business, everybody, except people like Maddona, Jay –Z or Beyonce, is cutting cost. The last decade has been problematic for everybody – financially. Look at Europe; if they told Europeans that they will be in this kind of financial crisis they are now, they will not believe. Before, everybody used to talk of problems of Africa but now talk has shifted to Greece, Spain and France. I know a lot of my European and American friends that are broke; I mean broke. And when a European tells you ‘I am broke’ he is not joking. When he is living on social security, it is a very big deal to them. In the 1990s nobody knew that Europe will go broke. So, right now, everybody is cutting his coat according to his cloth. So I cannot waste money on such venture. Though, I am happy that I am a nominee. This is my fourth time and I think it is a big deal but am sure I will win? God has not spoken to me that I will win and even if God has assured me that I will win, I must think of the financial implications of going to America for the award which will cost me nothing less than $4000 to $5000 to make that journey which is more than a million naira. That can do so much for me in Nigeria. And if I win, Charles, we will just get drunk and if I lose, I will be happy that I have been nominated four times and I will wait for my next album to be nominated again.
Whether you attend or not, what do you think are your chances of becoming the first Nigerian to win a Grammy?
I don’t think my chances this time are brighter than the previous times. I think Day By Day stood a fantastic chance when it was nominated but the award went to an American musician who to our surprise was added into the world music category. I though the album, Fight To Win which had people like Moss Def, stood a great chance too. Everybody believed that year that I will win; that year I attended but before then I had sacked my French manager. And my recording company in France had equally dropped me but they did not notify MCA which was their sister company in America and which had already submitted the album for the nomination. So when it became a big deal that I was nominated, the French company called MCA to say ‘we have dropped this artiste’. So on getting to New York, nobody was there to meet me and I knew immediately that I wasn’t going to win because I didn’t have any backing. The recording company that put me up for nomination has abandoned me. I was there by myself with my lawyer alone. Though, everybody that saw me on the red carpet kept saying ‘saying congratulations, you are going to win’ but knew I wasn’t going to win. The album was a big hit with big names like Mos Def, Common and Jaguar Wright featuring on it. De Angelo’s bassist played in it, many accomplished producers worked on it and everybody thought that was it but it wasn’t. So, this time, I think that it is most likely I will not win like those previous times I thought I will win. But I do know that No Place For My Dream is the best work that I have done. When I consider people nominated alongside with me, my chances, I think, are very slim. The South African band has been nominated over 13 times and I think they have even won it but they were never in world music category. They were in traditional music category before now but that category has been abolished and now they are in the world music category. Since they have been brought to world music category, they have not been able to win because they now compete with live bands and people like me. They get nomination anytime they release an album. So this could be their first time of winning. Gipsy King, I know them; they are a very good band. I have known them since my father’s time. They are based in America; they too stand a good chance. I think the only chance I have, if I look at it critically, is that this is my biggest and greatest work – composition wise, lyrics and production. It is super great; when you listen to it the clarity is excellent. Sodi (his French producer) did a very good job; so I think it stands the greatest chance in that sense.
The title of the album is quite deep, is it a reflection of your thought?
Yes; and also what I went through while growing up. When I left my father’s band I set out to achieve this dream and everybody kept saying ‘you can never achieve this dream; you will never get there. Look, forget it; Malcom X is dead, Martin Luther King died, see what is happening to your father. Why do you think your own will be different?’ and I kept saying ‘I must follow my dream’. Though, these were discussions among friends, all I did in the album was to summarise the discussions that there is no room for my dream because if you purse it, you may end up a dead hero. Corruption will always be there; there will always be a war and so on. That is what the album is saying not me.
You are so passionate about this album, if one accuses you of blowing your trumpet how would you react?
My father will say ‘if you don’t blow your trumpet who will blow it for you?’ I don’t think it is about blowing my trumpet; I am a very objective person. If you ask me to be critical about my work I will tell you where I think I have failed many times. However, I don’t think No Place For My Dream is my best work. I think Africa For Africa might stand a better chance but production wise, it beats Africa For Africa which earned me my third nomination. When Africa For Africa was nominated I was surprised because technically it wasn’t sound. So they must have nominated Africa For Africa because musically, all the horns parts were sound; I knew it was sound and any musician will tell you that this is a great album, musically. Production wise, I recorded it in Nigeria, so it lacked the technical flavour that will win a Grammy. That it didn’t win, I wasn’t surprised but that it was even nominated, I was a bit surprised but I quickly reasoned that they must have loved the compositions in the album. Composition wise, Africa For Africa will stand the test of time like No Place For My Dream. No Place For My Dream is technically sound; I know the amount of work that was put into it. When you listen or read what international critics have said about the album you will agree with me that it is a great album. Most of the critics have scored it five over five, four over five. In fact, the lowest it has scored is four over five marks from people that are schooled in critiquing music and most of them don’t like the musician and if they give any musician a pass mark, it means they really appreciate what such artiste has done. So when one factors all these, it is not like I am blowing my trumpet, I know it is a great album.
What do you think you are doing right that has earned you four Grammy nominations in the last 10 years?
Probably I am good; however, what I know is that I work hard. I don’t cheat when I am writing my music; I don’t copy, I don’t say because I am Fela’s son, I am going to take out of his music to enhance my creativity. I will be 52 this year and I still indulge in six hours of rehearsal every day, no matter how tired I am. I live, eat, drink music and I don’t take a holiday. I think probably all these have a hand in the nominations. I have maintained my band since 1986. All these are in my record and anybody that is following my career will say ‘this man has been on the world scene since 1986.’ I started my international tour in 1988 and there is no year my band has not been out of this country touring and promoting African music. On the world stage there is no festival I have probably not been on, there is no club I have probably not played in, there is no big article I have probably not had; so I have tried to maintain the integrity of coming from Nigeria, my culture, my life all in my music. I think all these are responsible for my nominations.
How do you feel when people say that your father was critical of government and that you are not?
I think that they are just being biased. First of all, I have known that I can never be my father; yes, he is my father but I can never be him. It is impossible; I knew this from my early age. I appreciate him, I love him. He was a great musician. It is not like I am in competition with him or that I want to put him down. I appreciate my father’s life just like I knew from my early stage that I am going to have my own pain, my own joy. I can’t be him and he can’t be me. I don’t want to be his replica; I was trained to be like him. I used to dress like him, play his numbers, leading his band and but later in life my spirit refused. I didn’t want to take over Egypt 80, I wanted my own life, my own band, never wanted to live under his roof or shadow. I wanted my own life. So, there is no way I can write the kind of music he wrote because of the pains he felt while writing them. His house was burnt, his mother was killed, the beatings he got, his many incarcerations. All of these informed how sentimental and emotional he was while writing and recording the songs. Another reason I don’t like to answer this question is that if I start to blow my trumpet they will think I am bringing my father down. But let us look at it this way, before he died I was already breaking into the international market not because I am Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s son. I was breaking in because people love my music. And then when Bang! Bang! Bang! hit the international market, it entered clubs where my father’s music had not entered, it cut the attention of a generation many of whom had not heard the name Fela Anikulapo – Kuti or his music. Even when Bang! Bang! Bang! first hit the scene, they loved it before they knew I am the man behind it and before they knew that I am Fela’s son. I broke into a generation before they know who I am and who my father was. My music has achieved greatness not because I am Fela’s son or that I am taking advantage of the name. So it is unfair for them to compare me with Fela because I can never be Fela. He was unique. The same thing they are doing on twitter and all blog sites on whether I will attend the Grammy. They keep saying ‘Femi shuns Grammy; says he won’t attend’ without stating my reason for saying I won’t attend. And there is no sane person that will hear my reason and will not agree with me. I got a phone call from a woman in Australia who wanted to know if it is true that I will not attend and when I gave her my reasons she just started laughing and said ‘oh, very wise.’ These people that keep comparing me with Fela or saying that I shun Grammy do not wish me well and that is the truth. And let us face the fact, not everybody wants me to win the Grammy; many will be envious if I win because in Nigeria the Grammy is a big deal whether we like it or not.
All of your albums that have earned Grammy nomination are not popular in Nigeria. What are you doing about it?
I am doing nothing about it o! Like I said, we don’t have entertainment industry in Nigeria and Nigerians doesn’t want to accept that fact. The best example I will give you is Nollywood; when you watch an American movie and they want to have a plane or car crash you see a plane or car crash and believe it. If Hollywood wants a plane to land on Ikorodu Road, it will land. If Nollywood wants to do a car crash, we will all die of laughter after watching it. Yet we believe we have an industry but that industry is very far from the reality. The same applies to our music industry; see how they organise the Grammy. The Grammy is an American award and we are here looking up to it. Our awards are less important to us; shouldn’t I be looking forward to winning the biggest award in Nigeria or Africa than looking up to Grammy? Our own should be more important to us than anybody else’s own. We should be the envy of the world. I have tried so many times to get my albums released in Nigeria but what I get is shabby job that gets me embarrassed. If you take a CD recorded in Nigeria and play it side by side with the one recorded in America, the difference is always glaring, technical quality wise. Right now I am even fed up that I no longer try. When I tried to negotiate with many labels in Nigeria to release No Place For My Dream, the feedback I got was so disheartening that I said to myself ‘well, let me focus on where I am already.’ And even when you decide to release it no matter what, the bootleggers will take control of the market. You just do all the hard work and somebody who has been sitting down doing nothing will take it over from you. So what is the point of doing it? I know that anybody who wants my music can download it; it is all over the internet; they can buy it there. When Shoki, Shoki was released, the problem we had with Zmirage, which released it in Nigeria was about promotion. The album started off well but suddenly he was not concerned. Then when Bang! Bang! Bang! was banned and everybody was like take this matter up but he back peddled. Everybody was like you must defend your artiste but nothing happened. It was that time that I lost interest in releasing my works in Nigeria.
So No Place For Dream is not on sale, physically, in Nigeria right now?
It is; I know that stores like Jazzhole brings it in. Sometimes I bring it in and sell at the Shrine. Jazzhole always bring in my albums.
You returned to the concert circuit in Nigeria late last year after a long break, what was responsible?
I think that some people just realised that I am still alive. And I think that social media is helping me too. People can just goggle me and see that I am playing in Paris, he was in America. He is doing quite well unlike before when we relied only on print media and I had a very few friends in the media houses that would write about my progress. Rather what I had here in Nigeria for whatever reason was negative press. But now with the internet one can get facts on what is happening to my career. Probably the work I did with a lot of younger artistes is also part of the reason; many of them came, not just WizKid, I can’t even remember all their names. I have done at least four to five collaborations with younger artistes and they are quite popular in the clubs and among their age groups. So you will hear my sax in many of their sounds. I have also done a lot of collaboration outside Nigeria. My name is in the social media week in, week out on the collaborations I have done. And there is a new generation of promoters right now in Nigeria that have decided to add me to their list. Felabration is another thing that I think has also helped me; after 13 years of organising the festival, it has turned out the biggest festival in Nigeria that runs for a whole week and for that whole week, my name and face are always in the media. Some will even say ‘he is even old now’. And whether we like it or not by Nigerian standard I am old. My CV is also intimidating – four times Grammy nominee and so many awards from so many credible organisations. So they just can’t but reckon with me now because all that is not because I am Fela’s son, it must be because of my work. People just have to give me credit where my credit is due. They can’t give themselves excuses anymore like before for not using me; I have won that battle. Then Nigerian Idols; people got to see me in Nigerian Idols as a judge with all my jokes which was to most people the other side of Femi Kuti. Before then people perceive me as a very strict and political conscious person, an angry man. That was the perception most people have about me. Only people like you, Charles, know that I am a very funny person. That I joke a lot; that I am homely, that I like my children. All these attribute of mine was what Nigerian Idols showcased to Nigerians.
Why the involvement of government in Felabration especially Fela Museum. Did you consult Fela’s spirit before involving government which he fought all his life?
Fela did a lot of things that people did not know; people did not know or have forgotten that Fela played for Abiola (MKO). Initially I could not understand his reason for doing that especially after all Abiola did to him and all that he (Fela) said about Abiola. But when I look at it today I realised that he needed the money because he was dead broke that time. Fela did some things that people should have questioned.
As for your question, the Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, is more of my generation. He is more of a generation that must have heard, danced and liked Fela’s music for him to associate with Fela. Don’t let us forget that it was Tinubu’s government that raided and closed the Shrine many times. Fashola’s government also closed the Shrine for many days before he backpedalled and changed his views. Probably he did it because of yes men around him who are saying that the Shrine is a bad place. It was the ministry of the environment that closed it; the ministry said that the Shrine is a nuisance to the area, causing traffic in the area and all that. They forgot that around that corridor, there are about six other event venues. They forgot that the Shrine operates in the night while the event venues are open for weddings, birthday parties and conferences during the day. So all the reasons they gave for closing the Shrine, if you look at it objectively, were wrong. So they had no reason for closing the Shrine. But when you hear what he said about Fela, he has good reasons why Fela has to be immortalised. From the way he talked, you will notice that he is somebody that must have admired Fela as a young man and now decided to immortalise him since he has the opportunity to do so. But again, I will not say that because he has done that I will not be critical of his government if there is need to do so. And again since his government has extended its hands of fellowship, I think it will be immature and irresponsible on our part not to accept it. It is always better to give peace a chance. And the transaction is very clear. It is not like somebody used the project to chop money. The papers are clear about the project. He did a good deed.
Does it bother you that your home state has not done anything to immortalise Fela?
They are doing; they are trying to do a lot. They don’t even want to immortalise Fela alone but the whole family. They want to turn the whole family house in Abeokuta into a big museum. Ogun State has approached the family several times and I know that they are in discussion with top members of the family. Yeni is representing Fela’s branch of the family while Dotun is for Uncle Koye (Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti), Nike is representing Beko’s family while Yomi Ogundipe is for Auntie Dolu. It is a big project they are trying to do.
A lot of people are of the view that Fela deserves a national honour from the Federal Government for his contributions to music and the struggle for democracy. What is your position on this?
I totally agree with you that if anybody is given an award and Fela has been left out all this years, it is an embarrassment to the Federal Government. But then, I will look at it objectively; for the government to give Fela an award means the government is accepting guilt; guilt of all the harassment they gave him in his life. Then again who are the civilian government that should give him the award? Obasanjo, his enemy, he will never give Fela award because it will amount to accepting Fela’s greatness. Then Yar’Adua who was Obasanjo’s boy would never have done that and Jonathan who is Obasanjo’s boy, won’t do it too because if he does it, it will look as if he wants to get back at Obasanjo because they seem to be having issues. Again for them to give him award, they must first apologise for the burning of his house, for the killing of his mother (our grandmother). The Federal Government must accept all these guilt; the guilt of Unknown Soldier after all, it was the federal troop of Nigeria that torched his house. And they must pay compensation because Fela sued them at that time for N25 million. They disorganised Fela, they killed his music, destroyed his film and he had to run to Ghana. You cannot imagine what they did to him. They must tender an apology and pay the N25 million and see if we will accept. But will the Federal Government be brave enough to do that? No. So the family is not thinking towards that direction at all.
You used to dress in adire in your younger days but not so much of it now. Why?
I still do it; it is just that I wear more guinea brocade than adire now because I have utilised all the adire and guinea brocade became easier in a way. I can do a lot of embroidery on guinea brocade. When I was using aso oke for performance, it was impossible to wash it when I am on tour. By the time you wash it two to three times, it becomes problematic because I sweat a lot. So to keep up with the demand of my performance, I had to look for light material to use. That was the beginning of the change in my dressing. With guinea brocade I can do a lot of African pattern embroidery which was not possible with adire. I only wear T. shirts at home when I am rehearsing because like I said, I sweat a lot but you won’t see me wear jeans and all that stuff.
You are rich by Nigerian musicians’ standard yet you are not flamboyant. You have just one car, a moderate bungalow in Akute, a suburb, instead of Lekki or Victoria Island…
(Cuts in). Probably because I was very poor. I had to start from the scratch and I am scared of being poor again. Anything I do I worry about poverty and when I hear news of how difficult things are, it makes me save a lot and I am very careful with money. I don’t spend recklessly. You hardly see me do that; I don’t take holidays because I don’t like holidays and because I don’t want to spend money gpoing on holidays. If I want to unwind I pick up my trumpet and begin to practice; I have a swimming pool and I have been in it, I think, four or five times since I built it more than eight years ago. Thank God I have children who can swim. The swimming pool is just there. I prefer to work, that is the way I unwind. The fear of not having to put bread on my table, of eating garri so many times is still very strong in my mind that I still have nightmares whenever I remember those times. That is why I keep working and I think I will do it till I die.
What cant you not do without?
My children and my music.
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