Fela Kuti: The King of Afrobeat Interviewed, Part 1

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...
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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.

I WANNA BE ELECTED

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.

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.

"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.

“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."

"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."

PROMISED LAND

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."

“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."

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."

Click here for Fela Kuti: The King of Afrobeat, Part Two

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