Afro beat exponent and social crusader, Femi Kuti, remains one of the biggest talents ever to come out of Africa. He was recently appointed a judge on the Nigerian Idol show. Kuti replaced Charles Oputa better known as Charley Boy. In this interview with LANRE ODUKOYA, this immensely-talented musician appraises the contemporary music industry in Nigeria among other issues
ASSESSMENT OF THE NIGERIAN IDOL SHOW...
Considering all our problems in Nigeria, I will say that the Nigerian Idol show has been quite revealing. I've enjoyed my time so far in terms of talents. It will be an understatement to say that we have great singers. The challenge is just how to groom the talents and make them flourish properly. The o nly problem I have is the fact that it is called the Nigerian Idol. I hope in the future, it will be more African in its presentation and we will not be singing great American hits when we are supposed to be focusing on African or Nigerian hits because Nigeria Idol is shown all over the world. If we sing Whitney Spears song as a hit, of what good is it to us as a people? If we're singing our hits irrespective of the artiste in Africa, we are promoting the African culture to the rest of the world. So, Nigerian Idol should be seen as African more than American.
WHAT THE PLATFORM OFFERS...
I just spoke to some of the contestants. I told them that they are very lucky because whether they like it or not at least they have two million viewers watching them. In our own days, you have to start right from the scratch. Even being Fela's son didn't guarantee any followership if you didn't prove yourself. Jeffrey Daniel, Yinka Davis and I have been discussing. The problem we have here is that we don't have a structured industry. The nation building of America was achieved around entertainment, be it Hollywood or the music industry. For instance, if they want to shoot a movie in America, they can shot down the whole of Ikorodu Road to make a plane land. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, or even Africa, we want to go from A to Z without being through other alphabets. In America, even if you have a band, people want to see you from the smallest town.
You'll move from there to the cities and everything keeps moving from stage to stage. To tour the whole of America, you'll be talking of months of being on the road. But here in Nigeria, artistes just want to have one hit song and find themselves in point Z. We still need to build a very good foundation for the generation to come because what we are seeing in Nigeria is that we are 160 million people and we're going to have a big problem if infrastructures are not in place. Even if we are teaching music in schools and the industry players are not there to absorb these young people and keep them under labels, we're still going to have problems with programs like this. Even if you don't win and we know you're a great voice, the industry players should be able to engage you especially if you're one of the top 12 contestants.
Somebody should still pick the guys who lost in the contest but have great potentials because the good thing about Nigerian Idol is that they already have the fame from the show. People already know them, when music entrepreneurs just pick these guys and sign them for album deals, what they just need to do is to get producers, song writers and a team that will work with them. Many singers can't write songs. Michael Jackson didn't write all his songs. He was buying from people who were writing. I learnt from the road, probably in my time I wouldn't even qualify because I was just teaching myself on the way.
For any singer to be my protégé, he must be able to write songs, play instruments, understand the nitty gritty of music making. I don't think I've seen any like that yet. But I'll like to produce any of these voices if I have the opportunity. I can write songs for them, I can do a duet with them, if I have the means. Unfortunately now, I don't have the means. When I was building the shrine (because we were rushing it) we did not put a studio in it. Normally, we wanted to have a studio in the shrine. If I had a studio there, I'd have just agreed to make a song with one of them easily. There are at least three voices here that I know are very unique and I can incorporate that in the kind of music I play which is Afro beat easily. I don't judge in the American perspective. I make my judgments from my experience as a singer and entertainer. I ask myself, what can I do with this voice? Is it unique? Can it stand the test of time? If we give this voice and fellow an opportunity, will it go to another country and do us pride? I'm particularly looking at the texture of their voices not which American hits they sing.
THE FUTURE OF AFRO BEAT...
Afro beat may be less popular here among the youths, but it can never die. In America there are over fifty bands doing Afro beat. In New York alone, there are over twenty bands playing Afro Beat. Same in San Francisco, Australia, Japan and so on. So, when we are thinking that Afro Beat is dying in Nigeria, it's actually getting bigger around the world. It does not matter where Afro Beat originated from. We are all humans from the same planet and I'm not going to get caught up in the foolishness of being a Nigerian. I'm an African first of all. When you understand the formation of Nigeria, you would understand that it is just a colonial structure given us by Lady Lugard. It is not our name.
When you understand the history of Africa, then you would not be foolish to fall into that category of calling yourself a Nigerian. First, you'll say I am an African because Africa was first divided in 1885. When you look at it from that perspective, you'd understand that people appreciate the talents that came out of this part of the world. If Americans are playing Afro Beat and we are not playing Afro Beat here, then you have to ask yourself a question 'why?' The simple answer is because it is too difficult to play. What it takes to compose an Afro beat number; you're thinking of a melody, conception, lyric and you have to be confrontational to sing a song like 'Bang Bang Bang'. People are going to expect you to stand on behalf of the people to sing a song. The foundation of Afro beat was built for the emancipation of the Africans.
It was fighting against corruption and injustice. The uniqueness is in the truthfulness in the music like what Bob Marley did with Reggae. Afro Beat is deeper than Bob Marley's reggae because Fela stood and confronted the military dictators and corrupt civilians in his era. So, a die-hard Fela fan wants to see the replica of that. For me to break out from my father's shadow wasn't easy and for my son to carve his own niche differently, he would have to be extraordinary. In Nigeria today, the biggest dullard can create a hit song, all you need is a catchy slang. That is entertaining, but it is not like classical music, it's not like jazz. Why has classical music lasted centuries? It is because you're going note by note, the way you touch the chord, the way you sit on the piano, every detail is so important. My son, Made started playing instruments at age five because I knew what he would need to excel.
ABOUT THE CENTENARY CELEBRATION
When did Nigeria turn hundred years? Whose calculation is this folly? I cannot join that kind of foolishness. History of Africans dates back to thousands of years. If they're going by the colonialists' calendar, I will not follow them into that. It is colonialism. Nigerians are not even looking at the time factor of tracing the Edo, Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani's culture and so on. The government should be probing stuffs like where do the Yoruba people even come from? Some have said they're from Egypt.The government should have set up committees to investigate where we truly originated. Books are saying these things and they are facts known in the historical world. How can we be giving credits to people who came to take us as slaves? If we're to celebrate at all, we're supposed to be mourning the lives of those were lost during the slave trade.
ABOUT MY SON...
Made is studying classical music right now and from there he's going to Jazz. He's in the college, doing very well and I'm very impressed.