interviewBy Benjamin Njoku
Dede Mabiaku is a versatile musician, who has come a long way in the Afrobeat, Highlife and Jazz music genres. He has over the years proven himself a force to reckon with in the Nigerian music scene, within and outside the shores of the country. His display of stagecraft, showmanship and knack for audience participation are in present day Nigeria, unequalled. A protégé of the Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Dede indeed learnt at the feet of the master himself. For more than 10 years, he was an integral part of Fela's daily life and his band Egypt 80. Dede opened all Felas local and international shows, performing on vocals and playing the saxophone. Today, he remains unchallenged as the best Afrobeat artiste ever. Dede, who recently featured in a movie, Render to Caesar, produced by Desmond Ovbiagele believes that the Afrobeat king lives on. He relives fond memories of his 10 years sojourn with him, his romance with actress Bimbo Akintola and the women in his life.
Let's talk about 'Render To Caeser', a movie you featured in that will soon be released. How come you gambled into acting?
I didn't gamble into acting. I'm a Thespian by training. I went to the University of Jos and University of Benin to study Theater Arts. I was admitted into the university in 1968, so, I'm not a kid. And I happened to be the first actor to ever win an award in this country in 1987.
At Nigerian Festival of Films and Nigerian Television Productions, I won the Best Actor in this country. First of all, I am a Theater Artiste and it encompasses every unit of the arts, including music. That's why I've been into music.
But you are more popular in the music arena than in acting?
Music is theatre. What Fela did and which we all saw is referred to as Total Theater. So, I happen to be studying that realm. Fela also acted in the movie, "Black President". It was after his starring in that movie that the then, military regime went and set ablaze his Kalakuta residence. Fela studied music in the university. And I studied Theater Arts. So, my delving into acting is based on credibility.
You were like Fela's forerunner while he lived. Do you think his prophetic songs have found meaning in our present day Nigeria?
All the things Fela said back then are happening today.
So you call him a prophet?
I don't need to call Fela a prophet. I was simply an Orisa(god). That is what it is for someone to stand there and fight for the people, open their minds, wake them up to realities and their rights, and not for anything other than the peoples' value. Fela was not an ordinary person. He was an orisa to us.
Fela went through torture and degradation because he was fighting for us. Ask anybody to tell you about the beatings, how his head was broken, legs were broken, how they used sharp objects to cut his penis, how he was whipped and stripped naked and thrown into the gutter...all because he was speaking the truth but yet the people were not told all that story.
Long time ago, Fela started singing about "African emancipation." He started telling us to make use of our senses and stick to our ways of life but we didn't listen to him because we wanted to follow the western lifestyle. How would this help us and make us a better people ?
Do you think Fela's disciples are still sustaining his legacies?
First of all, when you say disciples, I don't believe a man should be marked by his biological offsprings but rather, by the value of the impact he makes on the lives of other people. When you say his disciples, you are also one of Fela's disciples because you accepted the fact that what he said then, are playing out today in this country.
We are all Fela's disciples and you should know it's time we start to stand-up for our rights and embrace his crusade for social justice. I've been a fan of Baba since I was in secondary school. Then, when I became an undergraduate, I joined a band, and after graduation, I worked with the now rested record label in Owerri called Labamba Records.
All through these period, anytime I sing Fela's songs, people usually get inspired. Throughout the shows I staged in the eastern part of the country in 1984, while I was undergoing my National Youth Service, I relived memories of the Fela factor.
So, coming to meet him in Lagos after my service was meant to be. And when we met, the spiritual link started and there's no way it will stop because when I 'm no more, others will take up the baton. If pastor Tunde Bakare could climb his pulpit and said, "a prophet had just left our midst", that was after Fela's demise, then, we should have a rethink.
Then, ask yourself a question, have you ever heard of Ogun and Sango worshipers fighting? Have you ever heard of Igbe worshipers and Aronzi and Ohafia worshipers fighting? But you will always see Muslims and Christians fighting and killing themselves. There are churches in every nook and cranny of this country and the pastors buy jeep, airplanes and jets yet, corruption is at its peak in Nigeria. Fela was a personification of the African way of life.
What would you say is the binding force between you and Fela?
For me, I would say there are three things that held us firmly together-truth, true African spiritual understanding and true African way of life. These three things are the most important things you can ever seek in life and ultimately, you shall have peace of mind.
What's your relationship with Fela's family after his demise?
Great! I'm a part of the family and you can't take that away from me.
Since he demised in 1997, what would you say you missed about Fela?
Truth. You'll hardly find people who are truthful to themselves. Look around you, the politicians we have today are legis-looters and execu-thieves. They are ripping off the common man in this country. Aren't we ashamed of ourselves? The Arabs developed their country with the money they made from their oil.
Don't we have oil too? But our leaders spend our oil windfall on prostitutes and partying abroad, building useless mansions that the masses can't rent. I was in the east of America and they showed me some massive houses belonging to our senators and governors. Truth is missing in the system. People say I don't talk like Fela. Fela was Fela. He didn't wear shoes but canoes. For me, I do my bit until we start to respect the rule of law, accountability and credibility in our system.
I missed Fela's sincerity, his jokes because he was the greatest man in Nigeria. He was the first black man ever to be represented on the Broadway, that's the heights of theater in the world. He was bigger than anything this country has brought down. Look around my house- everywhere, my room, my mind, my spirit- I'm in tune with Fela. Fela lives on.
Would you now say you are living out your dreams?
I laugh at people who say they are living out their dreams. Do you know what a dream is? I'm living out my reality. I am in this world on a journey. And I happen to be a proud person who is happy to say that I'll rather develop human beings than I would build houses here and there. I don't turn my back on my people and God has used me to educate my people.
I'll rather invest my money on people than on houses, cars, gold. I don't wear wrist watches, I don't wear gold. There are many people who have passed through me and are better people today. Those were part of the things I learnt from the master, Fela.
It has been long you released your last album?
Fela told me he wanted me to spend 10 years on stage before releasing an album. He said I should first and foremost culture my sound, build my stand before releasing an album. Now, many years after his demise, I find it imperative to understand what he said then.
To me, the album doesn't make a man. When it is time, every person will receive it. I can't hide it. Right now, I'm making sure the younger ones sing content-oriented sounds and become more instrumentally and live music conscious.
What do you think prepared you for what you are doing today?
My first attempt to go on stage was when I was 9 years. It was Fred Amata's grand father that took me from my father's home and had me act with the cast he assembled in his native plays during the Christmas celebration. I remember that when I was in primary school, I was highly interested in cultural activities because my father was part of the Benin royalties and he also loved the things of culture.
So, I respect the culture of the people. But getting into the university, I met Professor Femi Osanfiso who opened up my mind a lot more to the essence of African creativity. I left him and networked at the end of the day with Baba(Fela) who then made it concrete.
Were your parents disappointed that you followed Fela?
My father protested to the greatest heights and even disowned me. Even the mother of the girl I wanted to marry then rejected me on the basis that I was Fela's boy. But unfortunately for her, the lady had a daughter for me who is now a graduate. Today, I'm not a disgrace.
I've not let my country down, instead I've brought a good name to it. My name doesn't bring sadness but joy and I'm grateful to Fela for it. I'm over fifty and I can sit here, look at you in the face and say you came to my house, sat and was at peace. The things you heard me say are for growth and development. That's the essence of Fela.
I'm sure that lady and her mother are still alive to see what you've turned out to become?
My daughter Sola is alive and she's a graduate. I don't have any rancour with them. I love my daughter and she loves me too. I have other children and they love me too. They call me by my name, Dede . People don't know them because I shielded them from the world. I put them behind, and present myself for people to attack.
But they don't live with you
That's why you can't find them around me.
So, how do you connect with them?
We know our moments. God's time is the best.
How many children do you have?
Are you ready for this? I have seven biological children. My first child is going to be thirty-one year old soon.
At what age did you have your first child?
I was in my twenties then, during my university days. Don't go that side(laughs). I attempted marriage just once and it was one of the funniest experiences in my life. I'll state this today, that I did it with all my heart. I wanted to try something new, something I thought I never would do. I did it but it didn't work out. I had my last two kids from the marriage.
Are they all in Nigeria?
No. My last kids are in Ghana with their mother. All my children are with their mothers and it gives me the freedom to be the artiste I want to be. But I still have so many children who have gone through school and there are still more in school. They come at different times. God used me to bless some of them. Some are in Nigeria while others are in Sierra-Leone and Ghana.
Did you meet them while sojourning with Fela?
No. I don't even know the parents of many of them. I give God the glory. All I know is that they deserved to go to school but the society didn't encourage them. They'll be better people tomorrow. Nigerians need to change. We must start to focus on the things that will change in the country.
That's why I gave my all in the yet to be released movie, " Render to Caesar" produced by Desmond Ovbiagele. I read the script, I'm a theater person and I know what that script can deliver. I played the role of an Inspector of Police. Playing that role gave me joy because I realized there are things we should start sharing with ourselves. I'm so proud that I starred in the movie and working with the likes of Omoni Oboli.
How did you get the role?
Desmond approached me. He wanted me to play a role in one script he brought to me before now. But I turned down the script because I didn't like the story as I advised him to come up with a better script. He came with this one and I liked it instantly, even though I thought I would play the lead role, but he made me play another lead which is the commissioner of police. The role wasn't bad and I enjoyed it.
Most people thought you were going to marry actress Bimbo Akinola. What happened?
Let me tell you this, I'll say it for the last time. Bimbo and I were friends for two years before we started dating. I never knew her as a woman with any kongo. I knew her as my friend who was in the university of Ibadan whom I supported morally and otherwise.
I like her because she has a wonderful mind and spirit. She's a wonderful woman and you can't take her talent away from her. At that time, I was dating her, I had so many women but she was the main woman. She stood by me and we weathered the storm together.
Then, one day, we sat down and reviewed our relationship after which we agreed that we were better as friends than lovers. And since that day, about twelve years ago, we have remained friends- no sex, romance or kissing. We've kept the respect, value and true love for each other since then.
When it comes to marriage, I wasn't ready at that time. If I was ready then, maybe, I would have married her. Marriage is not a factor to me. It will come when it will come if it has to. But for now, my saxophone is my sweetheart. And one thing is sure, I don't disregard women. I value them and treasure them.
But people believe you dumped Bimbo?
No, if I dumped Bimbo, will I be talking like this? Let me tell you, if I call Bimbo now, the first thing she'd say is "hello darling". We are that close. She's called me twice today. Can't people be true friends? I have true friends but she stands out and that's why you guys are raising eyebrows and keep harassing me about her.
Aside her, what about other women in your life?
The other women in my life? They are my children. The other women around me are particularly not in my life. You've been here for some time now, how many women have you seen walk in? Well, gone are those days when women were all around me. The point is, I've used that time to understudy women and I have to carry on with those lessons I've learnt from friends, Fela, my mother and others.