"With Fela, we grew up the tough, disciplined way" says Fela's first daughter, Yeni Kuti - Paul Ukpabio's Blog


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Wednesday, 12 October 2016

"With Fela, we grew up the tough, disciplined way" says Fela's first daughter, Yeni Kuti

Up close and personal with Yeni Kuti the eldest daughter of Late Afrobeat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is an opportunity to go down memory lane in the lives of the musical family and also enjoy good company. 

We met gorgeous Yeni at her stylish home in the outskirt of Lagos for this interview. It was here we saw the other side of the acclaimed dancer and entertainer. Yeni is passionate about dogs. She has about 12 dogs of different breeds. And the dogs show evidence of ‘good living’.

Yeni’s house has a plush artistic taste which goes a long way to reveal her nature. From the comfort of a cozy settee, she revealed her innermost thoughts in this interview with Paul Ukpabio; how they received the news that soldiers had struck at Kalakuta; how Fela survived afterwards, the love life between Fela and her late mom, artistes and drugs and much more.   

Now that you are in your early fifties, how do you feel?

In a way I feel different because once you reach my present age,  people give you some level of respect that they didn’t give you while you were in your 40s and now they don’t look at me as another omoge or something, but they look at me now as over 50 year old, I prefer being over 50 to get that respect.

When you were much younger, how did you use to view people who were over 50, like you are now?
I used to see them as old (laughs heartily).

But do you feel that same way?
I remember an incident a few years back when I was to travel, I had to fill the immigration form. So I was already 50 then. I therefore wrote 50. Afterwards, I said to myself, so you are 50! I said ‘wow’ to myself. It’s ok when you are 50 but when you actually have to write it, then it becomes a different ball game. Then when somebody is over 50 like I am today, you look and say the person is old. That must be how our kids look at me now; my daughter says when you are old you are old and I tell her will you shut up! (Laughs). So I now know how my parents felt when we called them old at over 50. But I guess old is old. But surprisingly though, I am still doing some of the things I used to do when I was much younger. For instance, I still dance professionally.

How is your body now?
The body talks to me everyday. The other day I was training the girls and I was doing the dance routines, and realised that I was panting. I told myself that yeah this is old age.  Even when I try and do exercises, my body pains me for like three days. So the body talks to me.

So does that mean you don’t dance on the stage again?
No not on stage anymore, I just train the girls and do choreography. Though I danced on stage some months back when one of the dancers did not come, I danced the whole routine. I felt good after because, it was as if I had lost weight. That is one good thing about the dance, it keeps you trim.

Do you still control your size?
Yes, I try to control my size right now. When I turned 50, I did a bad job of taking care of my size. I turned 50 and just let it go. But weeks before I turned 50, I trimmed down because I wanted to be an omoge at my 50 birthday celebration. But after that celebration, I’ve slowed down. Three weeks after that milestone celebration, I started exercising again. Since then till now, pressure and pressure has affected the size of my body from time to time. I know that I have to always put my shape and size in top form. I lose weight when I need to; right now I’m not fat.

You are the woman at the centre of everything at the Shrine. How have you kept it going?
With the help of my staff, I can’t say it is easy, but I don’t believe that our creator will put anything on one’s table that one will not be able to deal with. Right now, we are dealing with it. Yesterday I had a meeting with my staff till late in the night. We are always having meetings from time to time to deliberate and re-strategise concerning some of the factors that disturbs us from time to time at the shrine.

What are the challenges that you face managing the shrine?
One of the challenges is the boys outside. We can’t seem to get rid of them because there is no grammar that we say. When we first moved there, there were so many empty plots. A lot of the boys stayed in the empty plots but now the owners have claimed their lands and are now building. So the boys have moved out to converge in front of the shrine and its so difficult to move them and people complain about these boys standing outside. The boys on the other hand, feel it is their birthright because Fela was a man of the people and this is Fela’s shrine: So one is trying not to create enemies with them. So that’s one of the difficult challenges that we now face.

Are you afraid that it may turn out to be another Pebble street when Fela was alive?
We will never allow it. For instance we don’t allow shops outside the shrine, if you allow it outside your property it’s your business. But again, more people are building so they will soon be driving them and I don’t know where they will go then.

Inside the shrine, it is written that drugs are not allowed, that’s you, that’s your administration. So how far do you checkmate that?
It’s very difficult but we do.

The music at the shrine is very interesting and comes with energy expressed in gyration, generally it’s so with the kind of music Fela played and Femi now plays. What has drug got to do with music?
I really don’t know, I suppose that a lot of artistes that take drugs do it for inspiration, but I don’t know because I don’t compose. It can also be because musicians have hard times for instance they are on the road for months on end, while on tour, shows, I suppose maybe it is an outlet for them to just smoke a joint. You find out that lots of artistes take one drug or another. When it is soft like Igbo (marijuana) it is not that bad, as against when they are into cocaine or heroin. When you go into those ones then you are crossing the threshold, because it kills a lot of them! They think it is to relax them,  but they get addicted to it. Which I think is very sad.

Since we now have marijuana around us would it be right to say that marijuana is an African thing?
You know our land is very rich. Anything can grow here. Even English apples that people thought could not grow in Nigeria, grows here, in other parts of Africa. I don’t know if it’s an African thing, I just know that our soil is very rich; government should pay attention to our vegetation not concentrate on oil alone because oil profits their pocket. Let them encourage the planting of food across the country. Having said that maybe that’s why we have marijuana farms everywhere because it is profitable for the people doing it. Since I don’t own a marijuana farm, I don’t know about the profit. And I don’t ever intend to do that.

So why do fans take drugs more than the musicians whose songs they enjoy?
I think that is an assumption. I don’t think it is a correct assumption too. I know a lot of people who come in to listen to Femi play, who do not even drink beer and have never taken a joint before. I know a particular guy who comes every Sunday, who I have never seen with a bottle of beer. So that assumption boxes everybody together and that is wrong. Femi performs and he doesn’t smoke, he does not drink, it is individual taste. 

Lets talk about your childhood.
My childhood has helped me because we didn’t grow up as silver spoon kids like a lot of people think. Fela did not spoil us with money. I had friends who were spoilt with money. Even to get school fees from my father was war not to talk of enjoyment money. But that taught us to appreciate what you have. It has helped me a lot because when my friends were going to London my father said to us, 'London for what?' So, he didn’t let us go, we were here. It taught us to appreciate more. I used to wash my own clothes, what they didn’t allow us to do was to iron our clothes. We did all those things without house helps and that helped me a lot to become who I am today. That helped my brother too because, he grew up the hard way. My mom is from the Taylor family they are Lagos people.

Did your mom spoil you?
My mom ke?

Some people say you are tough, is it the childhood you had that makes you so?
I don't know, its the people that don't know me that say I am tough. The people that really know me know that I am soft. People who know me say that I am just too soft. Its easier to get to me than my other siblings. If Femi says no, that no is no. But me, my compassion is much. I don't even know where I got the title 'iron lady' from because, I am not an iron lady.

Is it then because of your soft nature that you are the one that manages or oversees the family business?
I think it was just a natural progression. I don't think I was allowed, it came naturally perhaps because I am the oldest in the family. I don't know how it came about. That is why I said earlier that God cannot give you want you cannot handle.

Did your parents see that relationship mastery quality in you?
I don't know, and did I even see that in myself? I don't know, I just do what I have to do. There are even things that I do, not because I like to do them, but I have to do them whether I like it or not.

In a family with name, talent and people some of who you don't even know but tells you they belong to your family, how has it been for you to carry everybody along?

It hasn't been easy but we have managed. We have learnt to adapt to the situation.

What gives you the stay power when under pressure?
Determination to succeed that gives me that stay power. I hate to fail. I know as a human being I say 'hey the wahala' is too much, but when I get to that point I sleep, I tune off, I rejuvenate myself and move on again.

How did you come about being a dancer?
I’ve always wanted to dance right from the time I was 5. When Fela’s dancer was dancing, we were there learning from her. She used to teach my sister and I. We loved the way she danced. In secondary school I was in the cultural troupe, I wanted to go to an advance dancing school then, but my father couldn’t afford it, they have burnt his house by then. So what I did was to do a secretarial course, worked as a secretary for a while, and when Femi said he was ready to start his band, I ditched my job. The rest is history.

Tell us briefly what life as a dancer has been to you?  I enjoy dancing, so it has been a pleasure to dance. It was fantastic going all over the world.  Places I would never have gone to.

Would you say you were too young when the Kalakuta catastrophe took place? Did you understand what had taken place?
I was not too young I was about 16 we had gone to school we were not living with Fela. But Sola’s school was on that path. So we used to stop over there since she had to pass through there to get to her school. So Femi and Sola rushed home from school that day, woke up my mom, it was in the afternoon she was having her siesta. They chorused that there were plenty soldiers in front of Fela’s house. My mom thought it was like one of those other times, when they came home like that and said the same thing and they would go round looking for where the soldiers had carried him to. But this time around, Femi and my sister said that the soldiers did not allow them to enter the place. We tried to get to Kalakuta, it was about 2pm.

In those days, school closed at a reasonable time 1.30pm not 3pm when the brain is tired. On the road, the traffic was bad. So we went back home. Femi was outside playing when some boys were passing and said to him, 'you are here playing your father’s house is burning.' So Femi rushed in and told my mom and my uncle. His message was taken literally as we do in Nigeria whenever there is trouble.

We didn’t know that it was real fire. The traffic was heavy; we didn’t know that it was the fire in Kalakuta that was causing the heavy traffic. This was about 5pm, We finally got there at 8pm. When we got there my mom started to scream, we couldn’t drive down there totally. We walked and people had their hands over their head. It was my mom that told us to crouch on the floor because we thought they were looking for the Kutis’. My mom was shouting that they have killed them. It was a really emotional day for us all. We now went to my god father. We didn’t find Fela until 3 days later. He was in a military hospital. It was really sad. So I remember very well. It was 1977.

Was he able to make a come back after ‘government’ destroyed Kalakuta?
He lost everything. Fela was a very resilient man. He told me about his dreams while he was in jail that when he gets back, everything will still be there. But in reality, everything was gone. He didn’t have anywhere to stay and he had about 70 people to take care of. He had one hotel that he had been using for his girlfriends. So the owner allowed him to stay there. What happened was that because he was spending so much money on hotels, he eventually ran out of cash and he had some aides who were duping him. He lost virtually everything. He picked up from beginning again. He never got back to that state financially but at least he was able to survive.

How was Fela’s relationship with your mom
My mom loved him very much, but Fela had plenty of women. My mom accepted his women. She loved him. Towards the end, she gave him gap, and she never divorced him but gave him a long gap because of his wahala. I guess towards the end of his life, he realised how so much she loved him because, each time we went to greet him, he used to send to her lots of rolls of Marlborough cigarettes, peppermint and trebbor. My mom loved these things and when we brought them from him to her, she used to exclaim ‘wow!’ That was the extent of their relationship at that time.

What do you miss about Fela?
A lot of things, the gistings, I miss him; he was my father. But me too, I’m an old woman now; so I have to forge ahead.

What can you say about Femi’s career
I think it is a misconception for people to say I play a big role in Femi’s career because Femi is in charge of his career. I can help out where I can, that is, in the dancing and also act as an intermediary in booking him a show, but that’s about that. He’s a strong man, he always knows what he wants. I’m just an assistant.

If Fela was to be alive today, what would you say to him?
Not too sure.  I can't really answer questions in the abstract.

What does the Afrikan Shrine mean to you?
It is a legacy.  It was built as a memorial to Fela.  It is a continuation of a legacy our father left for us: a legacy for Africa.

Describe an evening outing at Afrikan Shrine. Is the place representing, what you and your brother had in mind?
Yes, it is.  I am not the person to answer that question.  You will need to ask one of our customers. They know it so well.

How different is todays Shrine from what it used to be in Fela's days?
I guess it is better managed. We try to make sure the toilets are always clean and drinks are cold. Fela was playing so he could not manage as well.

Pix credit: Daily Post, Encomium, Nollywoodnow, Paul ukpabio blog 

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