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The Many Lessons Life Has Taught Me @ 60 – FEMI ANIKULAPO-KUTI

Coming from a long line of influential activists, fighting for change and advocating for the vulnerable is not new to Afrobeat Maestro, Olufela Olufemi Anilkulapo-Kuti.

In fact, if you really want him to talk at an interview session, ask about the situation in Nigeria and the African continent.

You would not but see the passion with which he addresses the issues of the black man.

Femi Kuti is passionate about Nigeria. Femi Kuti loves the African project.

But, don’t call him an activist as he says he doesn’t understand those terms being bandied about.

He believes in a better Nigeria and Africa but says he doesn’t think the needed change would happen in his lifetime.

A humanitarian to the core, Kuti has worked with several advocacy organizations including the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to help and support vulnerable children across Africa.

In this interview with IYABO OYAWALE, Kuti talks about his upcoming 60th birthday, his Grammy Nominations, his relationship with his siblings, and why he doesn’t go out of his way to listen to other people’s music. It’s a real expose to his life. Enjoy it!


You use your music to inspire, change, and motivate African people, is that all there is to your music?

Is that all there is to my music? Well, yea, I hope my music is educative. You see, with music, there’s always so much more that one cannot always interpret.

Now, you have been nominated for the Grammys 4 times.

Excuse me, six times. Technically, you can say seven times because I was nominated with Coldplay as well. Technically, you could say seven times.

This year, you were nominated with your son, Omorinmade. How do you feel about these nominations?

I feel good about the nominations because it shows that the biggest awards ceremony in the world has recognized my music and they’re listening to my music. This last nomination with my son is awesome, fantastic because it’s his first album. For him to have that kind of recognition with his very first album is very encouraging.

What does the 2022 nomination portend for you?

Like I said already, it’s great for my son. For me, I’ve been nominated so many times. It still feels good but I’m very happy that this last album with my son brings greater joy for me.

You mean you love the album out of all your albums?

Very much so. Every album is very important but this is very special because it’s a new dimension. It’s a new phase. It shows my son is starting his career in the music industry and with his first attempt; he gets a Grammy Nomination. So, this is for a father, this is great news for me. I could say it’s my favourite nomination because it’s special.

You boast of a career that spans 4 decades, how has it been?

Like everything in life, it has its ups, it has its downs; it has its joys, pains. It has been a journey (sighs).

It’s been a journey. I love to hear that. In an interview you did after your listening party at the Sheraton Hotel in 2018, you said you read a Miles Davis book which influenced you not to listen to other musicians. Do you still retain that stance or you’ve changed?

No, I’ve not changed. I don’t go out of my way to listen to anything. Well, you could say I listen to my son’s music now because we stay practically in the same compound so I hear him; I get to watch his concerts. I listen to him for pleasure and joy. I mean like I said for a father to see his child doing so well whilst you’re alive, for me, there is no greater joy. So, this is very special. Other than that, I don’t go out of my way to listen to anything, except I’m at a party or somebody is playing music somewhere I am. I’m at a point where I want to do music from inside me. At the time of my passing and leaving this life, I want complete satisfaction that I produced the best I could from myself. So, that’s where I am. I probably will change one day, I don’t know, but as at now, this is the way I want to be and I’m very comfortable. Because I think I’ve not researched my soul enough. I think I can still give more music from deep inside me.

What’s the basis of your arrangement with Chocolate City Music?

They manage me. They manage me in Nigeria and Africa.

Why did you call your band Positive Force?

The name I gave my band at the initial stage was The Universal Revolutionary Front and my mother thought it was too much of a political name or something like that. So, she advised I call it Positive Force. I always listened to my mother and named the band Positive Force which meant I was leaving my father for good reasons. Because there was a lot of controversies when I left my father. I thought it was a good name to show the world that I had to go on my own, I had to start to experience my life, I had to start to live my life and not live under my father. So, it was a good name to step out of my father’s band.

That means your mother influenced you a lot.

Yes, she was of great influence to me.

What are the fond memories you have of her?

She was very loving, very caring, I could not have wished or hoped or had a better mother. She was everything a mother should be.

How do you manage to remain positive in the midst of so much negativity? I’m talking about the environment in which we live now.

By focusing on what I have to do. The world will always have problems. Probably that’s why the world was created and we’re always supposed to find a way to overcome these problems. I’m like everybody else, I just try to find a way to survive, to make ends meet, inspire people, inspire myself, not just people, because as a musician, I understand I’m a medium that probably higher forces use to bring joy to peoples’ lives. So, I try to do my work to the best of my ability and I just keep going and I’ve been doing this all my life. I don’t remember a time in Nigeria where it wasn’t hard for a lot of people. I don’t remember a time in Africa that it wasn’t so painful for people to survive. Again, one has to understand the gravity of what slavery did to this continent, what colonization did, what bad African Governments have done, and I don’t believe it would end in my lifetime. But if there weren’t people like Mr Patrice Lumumba, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, my father, my grandmother, probably people like me would not care. So, I think I just have to play my part in enlightening people, my children and always showing that they have to remain focused and steadfast. There would be light at the end of the tunnel. Do I believe it would happen in my lifetime? I don’t think it would happen in my lifetime but I think I have to contribute as much as I can to positive change in my own environment.

How many instruments do you play now?

I would say professionally two, three. One very badly. I’m not a great pianist but I’ve found a way on the piano to enhance my creativity. So, I would say the saxophone, definitely, the trumpet, yes. I know how to fiddle with all the instruments. I mean I’ve touched them in my career but professionally on stage, I play three.

How did your father feel when you decided to leave?

He was very upset but later, he understood my reasons and accepted my reasons and he was amazed at my development. He said it so many times. But at the initial stage, he was very upset. He wanted me to stay a bit longer.

What are the fond memories you have of him as a father?

Sitting down, discussing political issues, listening to him telling us stories of his past, he was quite a very funny man, especially when he tells us when he used to get into trouble with his mother or his father. He used to tell us stories of his life in England or when he used to be what would I call it? Let me use the word ‘hip-hop-hurray-boy’ in Lagos before he became very popular. He used to tell us folk stories like ‘The Tortoise and the Antelope’ or ‘The Monkey and the Lion’, ‘The Monkey and the Tortoise’. I remember those stories. I’ve told my children these stories. He used to like to tell a lot of stories, probably because he knew I loved to sit down and listen to these stories. So, we had a kind of intimate relationship in that respect.

Would you say he was a hands-on father?

In his own way, yes. He wasn’t a conventional father. I think he was too liberal. I think probably because he didn’t really have the time to be that kind of father. When we look back, we don’t complain but that was the life he chose. Everybody has their own life to choose from. He was very against so many systems of life. He didn’t like the educational system so he didn’t care if you went to school or not. I don’t agree totally with the educational system but I understand that my children have to go to school. When they come back home, I correct what I think needs to be corrected. I make them understand that tradition, culture, our pride as African people is of utmost importance. So, I make sure while they go to this colonial structure educational system that we have, I try to still install the discipline of our culture and tradition in my children, making them understand Africa comes first and must come first in everything they do in their lives.

You’ll be 60 in June. What lessons has life taught you at this age?

I would say too many to mention in such a short time. 60 years? That’s a long time. That’s 6 decades! Hopefully by the creator’s grace when I turn 60, I’ll sit down, reflect on my past, reflect on my present and reflect on where I’d want to be in the next 5 years after I reach 60, and plan for that. Most importantly for me is to become the greatest musician I can. This is a personal goal I always set. I want to always do the very best I can in my life. As of now, I still try to perform 3 hours at the shrine 2 times a week. I push myself beyond the limits I can push myself to. I’m completely exhausted but I enjoy doing this. I just enjoy performing. I enjoy my practice. My life rotates around music. So, I want to do as much as possible. I understand my call as a musician and if I have life, I want to just keep doing this for as long as possible. Most importantly, always giving my children all the love I can.

Do they live with you?

Yes, but I adopted 3 children. One still stays with me. 2 are married and have children so I’m a grandfather in that respect. I looked after them since they were six. Unfortunately, their parents passed and they became my responsibility. But, my biological children all stay with me. Omorinmade stays with me because I built him a house in my compound. So, we stay in the same compound but he doesn’t stay with me. The rest are too young to be on their own. They’re just 13, 14, and 15.

After you and Funke parted ways, you didn’t marry again and one is wondering if you don’t want a female partner.

I’m with somebody. I just don’t believe in marriage. I would say we’re married. I just don’t believe in that institution. I believe if 2 people love themselves, they understand themselves; I don’t have to shout to the world, and I don’t have to call a party. I don’t have to celebrate. I think it has to be personal between you and whoever. I think many times, people make so much noise, “we’re getting married” and a few years later, they’re divorced and sometimes, it ends bitterly. They can’t even become friends.  Funke and I managed to overcome our differences, so, we talk on the phone. We see each other. Our son is doing very well. She’s happy. I’m happy. I think we were lucky with the breakup of our marriage because we can still communicate. We can still hug. We can still talk in public. We can still talk in private. Not many marriages can do this. I never believed in marriage. I tried it out. I’m convinced that I don’t believe in marriage. Having said that, I won’t discourage my children from getting married. This is my own personal choice and I don’t influence anybody to do what I do. It’s your choice. If Made wants to get married now, I’d support him 100%. I’m just hoping he has a better marriage than I did. Or, than many marriages, I hear about. There are many successful marriages; some people know how to make it work. I just don’t believe in it. But, I am with a partner, we love ourselves very much, we stay together and I’m very comfortable like this. I don’t think I have to make a lot of noise about this.

Looking back at your life, would you say you have regrets at 60?

Regrets? My father used to say “don’t see it as regrets. See it as an experience.” I like that kind of phrase. I probably would have done things differently if I had the knowledge I have now then. But, I won’t complain because most of my problems I’ve overcome. I know life would always give me more challenges to fight; there are many battles I’ll fight. So, I prepare myself for these obstacles. If life wasn’t like that, things would be boring. We’d just eat, sleep, wake up, and do nothing. We have to struggle. We have to challenge ourselves. We have to go to work. Whilst we’re doing this, difficulties would come, death would come. The passing of my mother was hard. The passing of my younger sister shook me. The breakup of my marriage almost put me in depression. Regrets? I don’t have regrets. I’d probably have done things differently if I know what I know now. But, wisdom comes with experience. I have a quiet personality like my mother. My sister is my opposite. We’re like night and day. She’s on TV and if you invite her for a function, she’d honour it. She likes to enjoy her life. I don’t like going out. I prefer to just sit at home and work. Probably this has to do with the fact that I’ve been on stage for so many years and I’ve been everywhere and when I’m at home, I prefer my peace and quiet.

But, you’re close to Yeni now.

We’re very close. We’re unbreakable. It’s just our character that’s different. She’s very much like Fela. I look like Fela. She looks like my mother. After the passing of my mother and younger sister, we became very very close. We were just 2. She was here yesterday. We all stay in the same big compound. My house is like a community and we built our houses in this compound. We see each other like practically every day. We talk to each other every day. My mother brought us up to be close already. There were so many people in Kalakuta (27 wives, over 150 people in the house) so my mother was prayerful and protective of her children.

What is the relationship with your other siblings like Seun?

People just like controversy. We’re very close. Somebody was asking me why we don’t allow Seun to play at the shrine. Seun has been playing at the shrine for close to 10 years now. Don’t forget, I’m old enough to be Seun’s father. I’m like 21 years older than Seun so my relationship with him is not like my relationship with my elder sister. My elder sister is my elder sister. She’s like the mother of the whole family and we get along but I respect her. The family is quite close. It’s just that the age gap is not the same for everybody. There’s Kunle (I think I’m about 11years older than him), there’s Motunrayo, and Shalewa in London. We talk when we talk. Seun we get to see more because we jam a lot in town. Our bond is too strong. We cannot fight. There were problems at the beginning when my father died, but we’ve overcome them. Seun is a man. He’s 39 right now. He’ll be 40 next year. You cannot dictate to a 39-year-old man where his responsibility and loyalty should be. There were people trying to use him at the beginning (he was young at the time). Now, he stands firm. He’s politically sound. He’s making waves with his music, and we’re happy for him. I don’t know what else people want (laughs).

You’re an activist.

I’m not an activist. I don’t understand all these names. I’m just a concerned human being and I sing about things that hurt me. Things that concern me,  things I’m worried about. I love my people. I love my culture. I’d love my country to be the best in the world. I’d love my continent to be the envy. I’ve just been brought up to think this way.

Would you consider politics?

Definitely not.

You want to remain a musician?

It’s not I want to remain. I am a musician (laughs).

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