May 26, 2014

Fela Kuti

Originally published @, written by Len Brown

Despite his death over a decade ago, Fela Kuti is undergoing something of a resurgence with the re-release of his back catalogue and the award-winning musical, Fela. Here's part one of an archive interview with the great man...

Hot-foot from Broadway, the award-winning musical Fela! arrives at the National Theatre in London, while his complete recordings have just been re-released.  But who the hell was the real FELA KUTI?  Back in the autumn of 1986, I spent several heady, hedonistic days with the cocksure, copulating King of Afrobeat. Was Fela ever a serious contender for the Presidency of Nigeria? A truly revolutionary force in world music? Or was he simply a polygamist with dodgy politics and even dodgier underpants?

IT’S AS HOT as hell in here.  The heat is on, 12 floors up, mid-80s. A gaggle of colourfully clad-women stare at me, amused by my sweaty pinkness. It could be sun-stroked Lagos, anywhere typically tropical, but it’s Paris in October.

A big-eyed, very naughty, very small boy continually punches me in the leg; his sister giggles at my discomfort. As if this wasn’t enough, the man next to me is wearing only red and blue underpants. Apart from spiritual blasts on his saxophone and scratching his scrotal sac, he assures me he will soon be the President of Nigeria.

He is, how you say, a hero; a celebrated musician of some 50 albums; a world famous political dissident; a man who married 27 women in one day; the possessor of a legendary libido. In layman’s terms he’s a cross between Robin Hood and Bob Marley – a Nigerian James Last, a bandleader whose fame has risen above and beyond the category ‘superstar’. For nearly two years, until April 24 (1986), he languished in Kirkiri gaol; found guilty of a trumped-up charge of currency smuggling. No jury, no appeal. He was released when the judge, who sentenced him to over five years, admitted the trial was rigged.

His detention was politically motivated. He’s a rebel king, a pretender to the presidency, and for the past decade he has been a continuous thorn in the Nigerian authorities’ side. He refused to be silenced and used his music as a means of exposing the dishonesty and corruption of successive governments. At 48, and despite prison, his love of life and his life of love have preserved his physique. In Africa where the ample girth and wealth of leaders is often associated with power corruption and lies, this muscular torso could be interpreted as a sign of honesty.


THE PRE-weed, pre-coital Feta Anikulapo Kuti is a rare find. He blinks, he stretches, he scratches. He stares out over Paris in the late-afternoon light. He’s worked his band, Egypt 80, through the night, procreating his familiar brass-and-keyboard dominated big sound, based on traditional African rhythms and featuring the call-and-response vocals of Fela and his queens. It will be his first album since prison, Just Like That, and it’s going to be more political, more direct in its attack on institutional injustice, declaring war on bureaucratic bullshit.

“No one wants the military, the country is telling them to quit,” he growls. “The military are saying they are laying the conditions for a civilian government, but how can you bring a tailor to lay the foundation for a building when he’s supposed to sew clothes. A tailor or a shoemaker cannot construct a building. Yet in Nigeria soldiers want to lay the foundation of government. It’s madness.”
Fela’s solution is to stand for the Presidency – in the 1990 elections if not before: “My popularity is so great now that I could even be made President by acclamation. I don’t think anyone will have the guts to stand against me”.

Undoubtedly he takes his political ambitions seriously. Why else would he have suffered so terribly for his belief? In ’77, during the reign of Obasanjo, Fela’s self-proclaimed independent state of Kalakuta was invaded by the military. Along with many of his followers he was brutally assaulted and gaoled; the Kuti women were raped (some with bottles and bayonets); his home was burnt down; and his 77-year-old mother died from her injuries. In ’81 he was detained again, charged with armed robbery and, he claims, the authorities tried to kill him.

And yet, while some take his Presidential candidature seriously and even fear his election, others regard his political dream as laughable. He’s been compared to Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party or the late French comedian Coluche. John Howe of West Africa magazine wrote that Fela “wants to purify Nigerian society, not from the paternal posture of a real politician, but like a cheeky small boy jeering at the open fly of the passing banker”.

His elder brother Olikoye is a minister in the current government – “you can not make a wrong system work,” Fela argues, “he’s trying his best but they’re using him to give them credibility” – so he clearly has the contacts. And, in the face of the unpopular military, Fela’s vision of democracy combined with his rebel superstar status surely has all the romantic ingredients for mass appeal.
But what exactly would he do for Nigeria?  “I want to go everywhere and play my music. I want to make people happy. Imagine the President playing music to announce budgets and policies. I want to preach spiritual and political changes, that Pan-Africanism is the stepping-stone to human internationalism. That all human beings are one race; black, white, any coloured shit, it’s just a superficial cover of the inside of human life. Africa will teach that racism is negative, an institutional problem.

“I think artists will remove this negative stereotyped trend in peoples’ thoughts. Artists must be the future leaders of men: they will aim for more freedom of thought, more wanting to meet people, more participation in what will bring happiness. People will tend to remove themselves from what causes violence; the Reagan/Thatcher type leaders cannot do this. Their mind is too institutionally stereotyped.”
Radical idealism, you can’t beat it; fighting talk for cultural freedom, spiritual enlightenment, peace. But what’s this? He says that when he becomes President he will “create a law to make all citizens members of the police and military forces so as to legally annihilate violence”.
Sounds ominous; shades of Robespierre.  And what’s to stop the Babangida military government from gaoling Fela tomorrow?
“The people!  My popularity has gone beyond that now. My last experience has really broken the camel’s back as far as the people are concerned. You can’t keep harassing one man in Africa like that for a long time, people will go against the government. It was getting too much for them even before I went to prison, too attritious. But I’m not putting my guards down, I expect anything at any time.”


EIGHTEEN MONTHS off the job may not have affected Fela Kuti physically, but he’s been altered spiritually by the experience and his music is now more “truthful” as a result. Before prison he was influenced by the teachings of Professor Hindi; often described, in derogatory fashion, as a “witchdoctor”, Hindi was last seen on these shores slitting throats, burying the victims and bringing them back to life days later. Now Fela’s developed his own brand of spiritualism, utilising his experiences in ’60s America with the Black Panther movement, and uniting traditional Yoruba mysticism with the ideals of leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

But, I remind him, these spiritual heroes were assassinated, doesn’t he fear a similar fate?

“Nothing happens in this world that is not supposed to be. I know who Martin Luther King is, I know who Malcolm X is. I don’t want to say was because they still exist. They were special entities, not just politicians, who came to do their bit and die. They were supposed to die and they did. I have found that in my life it’s almost impossible for man to kill me. They’ve tried, I have physically experienced death and went through it and came back.

“When about 15-policemen turn their gun butts and hit you on the head and you don’t have a single scratch on your head and you don’t die, that is power. There is a spiritual life, a life that people don’t see, that people cannot explain. This life is there and you cannot kill anybody whose destiny is not to die. They try to form scientific philosophies on what this life is about but really the truth lies in the spiritual knowledge of the human race.”

The implication of Fela’s argument is that Europe is spiritually bankrupt. The colonial governments raped Africa and tried to impose institutionalised morality and religion on her peoples. But now, according to Fela, the boot’s on the other foot.

“I see Africa as the teacher of this new philosophy. I call it truth. The knowledge is not in Europe, it is in Africa, the formula of the spirit world is known in Africa. The secret is there. This information was placed in Africa at the beginning of civilization, in Egypt. Africa was supposed to pass this information to the Europeans and the Europeans were supposed to learn from this. But the powerful entities in European society did not want to wait for this systematic change and instead they came to Africa and took the powers, not wanting to learn how this power was developed. Because of this science was born. They disrupted the systematic plan for the universe, that was made for human beings to progress, so now the knowledge has gone back to Africa, to start to teach again.”
Well, I can swallow this. I’ve been spoon-fed centuries of institutionalised, proudly-revised English history. I usually welcome alternative interpretations. But what’s this…

“There was a witchpot,” Fela continues, “a witch-craft pot. Civilisation was placed in Egypt, all races were there to learn civilisation. But because of evil the maker dispersed all human beings away from Egypt. He gave the power pot to the Yorubas but instead of it remaining there, in 1470 Queen Elizabeth came to steal the pot. Mungo Park came with the story of exploration and brought the witchpot directly to Buckingham Palace. The pot gave the power of technology to Europe but technology was the wrong step to take at that time. And that’s why the whole thing has to go back again to Africa. Queen Elizabeth at that time was an entity, she knew about the pot, she had powers and that’s how she changed the whole plan.”

Mm, it’s an interesting theory.

“Okay people may call it theory, people always call things theories but I’m giving you fact whether people like to know it or not. When you give spiritual information it sounds like theory. Science uses words like theory to debase spiritual happenings. Science to me is doing a lot of harm to people by not allowing them to see the spiritual importance of their lives.”


IN STUDIO Davout near Montreuil, in the middle of the night, Fela pushes the 22-piece Egypt 80 through ‘O.A.U.’ in one take; threatening to sack the next “motherfucker” who falters; laying down his own sax solo sublimely, almost lazily. Then it’s his vocals: an attack on the red-taped incompetence of the Organisation for African Unity, answered by his queens with chants of “O.A.Eunuchs”, “O.A.Useless”.

In his blue-embroidered pink suit, he’s a benevolent dictator, hard but fair, a Brian Clough of a bandleader. Although Wally Badrou’s co-producing Just Like That, Fela’s in charge. He’s still bitter about ‘Army Arrangement’– an album released while he was in prison – being given the dance floor treatment by Bill Laswell, with Bernie Worrell on keyboards and Sly Dunbar on drums. “There was no permission, no asking. He didn’t see the beauty of what I’d done.”

Nevertheless he admits that, as the military’s aim in imprisoning him was to stop his music, the album’s release – with Egypt 80 led by Fela’s son Femi and held together by Fela’s younger brother Beko – was a triumph and drew attention to the injustice of his imprisonment.

And despite the polishing Laswell gave ‘Army Arrangement’ it marked a return to form, featuring the excellent title track and also ‘Cross Examination’, his strongest song since ‘Colonial Mentality’. It may lack the raw, energetic, freshly recorded quality of his past, but ‘Army’ still ranks alongside his best, his most politically outspoken work: ‘Why Black Men They Suffer’ (’71), ‘No Bread’ (’76), ‘Sorrow Tears And Blood’ (’78), ‘Vagabonds In Power’ and ‘International Thief Third’ (both ’79) and ‘Original Sufferhead’ (’81). Before he called his music Afrobeat; now it’s classical African.

"I want to play music that is meaningful, that stands the test of time,” he says with uncharacteristic modesty. “It’s no longer commercial; it’s deep African music, serious music, so I no longer want to give it that cheap name.”

The truths he sings about, the political and spiritual statements he’s making, are often hidden in analogies.

“The tune I’m thinking of now is about African women who palm oil their hair. It’s becoming so disgraceful that every African woman’s hair is shining like white man’s hair. It’s a chemical from America, big business. I will ask these women one question. Why the hair on the head is shining, but not the hair down there? What happens to the hair at the cunt? I want to discourage women from doing this thing because it destroys their hair.  African women have not learnt that having hard hair is a gift, that every time you comb your hair, it creates much electricity, so you can communicate much more with the spirit world. That is the only reason your hair is hard. This chemical makes their hair soft and it destroys it. It’s unnatural. In the same way that woman is treating her hair to make it look artificially nice, how many of our bureaucratic leaders are looking artificially nice?”

THEY’RE EVERYWHERE. Hanging around the studio, sleeping in the hallway, cluttering the room.  It’s like a medieval court; Fela’s subjects, his women, some of his 27 queens, mistresses, lovers. Of course, in the West he’s taken some stick over the years for his “traditional” views of women.
Let’s recall that he wrote ‘Lady’ (’72) and ‘Mattress‘ (’75) attacking women’s liberation, ridiculing demands for equality and, in the case of the latter, depicting women as mere procreation machines, vessels for man’s desire. But, since his release from Kirikiri prison, Fela’s technically divorced his 27 wives. Hasn’t he?

“I’ve not divorced them. I don’t believe in marriage so divorce does not arise. Marriage does not belong to my own environment, it’s evil, and it doesn’t go along with freedom. If I’m singing to marry then I’m telling a woman that she belongs to me, that her cunt belongs to me. But how can her cunt belong to me, it’s not possible to institutionalize her cunt? She moves about with it, she can travel to America with it. If they put you in prison you cannot take her cunt with you to prison.”

But what of his attitude towards women?  Has that changed? Cynics will say that Fela Kuti, while giving his wives freedom, has really just reduced his possessions and is back playing the field. Does he regret the sentiments of ‘Lady’ and ‘Mattress’?

“You see, what I said in ‘Mattress’ then, I did not know I was going to arrive at this conclusion of marriage today. It was a different period of my life and I did not know how to say it. Man must not take woman matters seriously, he must not put woman matters in his head. If you do you will get sick. I’ve seen myself having pain in my stomach, shitting, going through this syndrome people call jealousy. I’ve seen myself sick to the bones. That cannot be a good thing. So you must see woman as something you sleep with, not something that you let go to your head. Woman are mattress, but you must be nice to them, and make them happy. That is what they are and that is what life is about. Use your money to make women happy, make them dress well, make them fine.”

It’s pathetic coming from the son of Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, a pioneer of women’s rights, who met Mao and Nkrumah (Fela’s Pan-African hero), and set up the powerful Nigerian Women’s Union in the 1940s. He says she makes him see what life is all about, that he communicates with her spirit, and he sees no contradiction. But Fela no longer gets angry when judged by ‘Western standards’: “Before it annoyed me, before I went to prison, but now I find that to be annoyed is something negative. Happiness is the most important thing.”

Just as well. Maybe I envy Fela’s ease with women, but I don’t see woman as merely “something you sleep with”. Okay, so it’s a different world, a different culture, but if we resent the hot-crotched metal muthas and macho rappers for their negative views of women then surely we must resent Fela too. Cultural, social and economic excuses could no doubt be made for every category.

But what of Fela’s wives? Back in ’82, his wives expressed their contentment with life in the Kuti camp. They remain hooked on charisma, they want to be close to him. Let’s not forget that they’re mainly Nigerian women raised in the Yoruban climate of polygamy, and naturally there was a reluctance on their part to express any discontent with their lot.

The one exception is Kevwe – a Kuti queen for 20 years, who suffered terribly in the attack on Kalakuta and remains emotionally scarred by the experience. She feels rejected and is thinking of leaving Fela’s court. “Do you think he’s normal?” she later asked me. “Because I have no babies he doesn’t want me anymore.”

But back to Fela and the value of woman.

“Sex is life,” says Fela, profoundly. “That’s why I don’t understand those spiritualists, those monks who say they don’t fuck women. Women are the source of power in the kind of spiritualism I understand. You cannot have power without women’s participation. Sex is the main source of power. When people say that sex makes you weak, sex makes you older, that’s bullshit. Much more sex, much more energy, much more everything.”

Nice work if you can get it, and keep it up. Trouble is, particularly in the West, promiscuity is regarded as evil, and sexual power is seen as dangerous to the establishment.

“People who start all these moralistic trends and shit they could be impotent!” Fela laughs. “For me, I see with my eyes, I walk with my legs, I work with my hands, my stomach takes my food, and I need my prick. It’s just as important as any other part of my body. For me, sex is everything clean.”
Yeah, but what about sexually transmitted diseases?  How does AIDS fit into your spiritual scheme of things?

“It gets to the point now where they say that there’s AIDS all over the world, so because there’s AIDS I must not fuck? Okay, very soon people will not fuck. But I will fuck because I do not believe that I use my sex wrongfully, so I do not think I will be the victim of sexual disease.

“Sex disease is a spiritually influenced happening. When you die, everything that you do in this world, you are going to get your judgement for every evil. So when you are reincarnated and you have been using sex for evil purposes you’ll be reincarnated as a homosexual.”

Eh up, we’re back at the witchpot.

“That pot breeds societies, it breeds behaviour in societies, secret societies, cults. The pot breeds the misuse of sex in the spirit world, so the punishment for stealing the pot, is centuries of homosexuality in Europe.”

But not in Africa?

“Oh no, we don’t have homosexuals, at least in Nigeria it’s possibly only one per cent” (if true, one per cent of the current Nigerian population is approximately 767,000).

We’ve reached stalemate here. On women and homosexuality we’re worlds apart. But the light is failing, the night’s approaching, and it’s time for Fela to get some ‘rest’. He dismisses his entourage: only the chosen one remains. And me. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says kindly, taking her into the bedroom off the lounge in his suite.

So I’m sitting there, listening to the telly, French telly, to drown the cries of passion. Fela’s back on the job, and I feel a right gooseberry.


YOU MADE me judge him; I didn’t want to do it. No, I didn’t want to do it. He was kind to me; offered me his food, his grass, his hospitality in Nigeria. I could have chucked all this in, woken up in Lagos with a shaker and several wives. I was forced into making these value judgements about him, and I’ve no grounds to believe I’m right. Perhaps I haven’t seen further than my colonial nose and, as a result, trivialized his religion, trivialized his personal beliefs. He let me get close to him, one of my musical heroes, and I can’t be sure that I haven’t betrayed his confidence. I totally disagree with his views on women and homosexuals, but I guess that doesn’t mean I’m right and he’s wrong.
Where will his political philosophy take him next? I totally respect his courage, his commitment in the face of adversity…so who knows what the future will bring for Fela Anikulapo Kuti? With a geriatric cracked actor leading the “Free World”, surely you’re not going to tell me that the man with the two-tone underpants and the red-and-gold horn can’t be President of Nigeria?

 Originally published @, written by Len Brown

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