Yeni, daughter of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, tells ‘Nonye Ben-Nwankwo about her father, siblings and growing up
The annual show you conceived, Felabration, is getting more recognition than when it started years ago…
The committee of Felebration is mostly family and friends. The friends are the genuine fans of Fela. We are all dedicated and we put in our all. We put in our money. The person who decorates the stage does that because of the love for Fela. Felabration is getting bigger than the dream I had. It is getting much more powerful. We did envisage that it would be big. The show is not about me. It is not about the Kutis. It is a Nigerian and even an African thing. Felabration was my idea but I called in friends because I knew I couldn’t do it alone. But now, it has grown so big. People have already started calling me to perform at the show. Most Nigerian artistes still see Fela as their father. They perform at Felabration for free. We can’t even afford to pay them but they still come. We have had KSA here. He didn’t ask for a dime and he enjoyed himself. The biggest Nigerian artistes have played here and they don’t ask for anything. But I would even love a situation where we could even start paying artistes. We may not afford their normal performance fee, but at least, we could be able to give them even if it is N1m, as a thank you fee for the support they have been giving us.
Do you still miss your father?
I miss him a lot, especially when things happen and I want to talk to him about those things. I remember when we were opening the museum, I had to go to his room and sort out his clothes. It was a very emotional time for me.
Even with the fact that he married so many other wives apart from your mother, you still love him…
We were very close. Remember I was his first child and first daughter. He didn’t have so many kids. We were just seven. Most of the other kids came much later after me, Femi and Sola who came from the same mother. The three of us are even close in our ages. The next sibling is like 10 or 11 years younger than I am. We are much older than the rest so the three of us had time to bond. Looking at his marriage now from an older person’s perspective, I can imagine what my mum went through. But back then, to me it was exciting that my father was marrying so many wives.
Are there times you wished you were not a Kuti, given the fact that your father was surrounded by a lot of controversies?
Never! I am proud of my heritage. I am proud of my name. I am proud of the legacy of my family. We are now talking to Ogun State Government. They want to establish a museum on the Kuti family and not just on Fela. The only fly in the ointment for me is when I ask myself if I would be able to achieve what the Kutis have achieved. Will I be able to live up to this legacy? My grandfather, my father, my uncles, they were all strong people. I am already 52, so I have this fear that I might not be able to meet up.
How come the museum in Lagos State is not functional yet?
We are still looking for sponsors to finish it fully. Lagos State Government gave us part of the money. We are talking to other sponsors. We are not fully operational. We just opened it for people to go there and look around. We are not charging money right now. We need a lot of funds to open the souvenir shops. The museum is a lovely place. I am so proud of it.
How would one describe you- a singer, dancer or just Fela’s daughter?
I am Fela’s daughter, but I hate it when people introduce me as Fela’s daughter. If you just introduce me as such, then it means I haven’t really done anything in life. So my claim to fame is just that I am Fela’s child. Is that an achievement? I don’t really like it when I am introduced as that. In fact, I don’t just know how anybody should introduce me. Just call me Yeni Kuti. I have danced, I have choreographed, and I have performed. I no longer dance on stage anymore anyway.
So you never sang?
I was just a back-up singer.
Was it by choice that you never became a singer?
Yes. I don’t like my voice.
How was it like growing up with a father that everybody knew?
That is what I find most fascinating. I will never forget when my father died. When we laid him in state and people were coming to see his corpse, I saw a lot of children coming with their mothers to see Fela’s corpse. I didn’t want that. I tried to stop them. One woman almost fought me when I tried to stop her kid from seeing Fela’s body. I apologised to her and I left them. I eventually understood that Fela was not for us alone. He wasn’t just for Nigerians but for Africans. Lagos State didn’t do a disservice to Nigerians by giving them a Fela museum.
How come you don’t perm your hair
This is really my natural hair. I now wear a scarf to cover the roots in front because they have turned grey. My father didn’t approve of us to perm our hair. You wouldn’t want to perm your hair and get into trouble. I had to develop a style I was comfortable with. I learnt how to style my hair on my own. I remember when my father died, I wanted to perm my hair but then again, I felt it would have been an abuse of his memory, so I didn’t do it again. I don’t relax my hair but I touch it up a little to strengthen it. I don’t wear hair extensions. I don’t wear artificial nails. My nails are no longer growing because of my age. I don’t wear fake stuff. The make-up I wear is enough ‘fake’ for me.
Do you think your father would be proud of you wherever he is?
I am sure he would be proud of me. He was proud of us before he died. He came to watch our shows before he died. He was proud of my brother, Femi. He knew we were hardworking. I think it was our choreography that made him to start teaching his dancers choreography himself. He was using an outside choreographer but towards the end of his life, he started doing it himself and I am sure it was our choreography that inspired him. He must have seen how we were doing it. There was a time I wanted to be his choreographer, but the politics with his wives was too much and I didn’t bother again.
Did your father’s name make you so arrogant when you were growing up?
No way! We were even bullied. You know that my father didn’t have money when we were growing up. We stayed at home a lot because our father couldn’t afford to pay our school fees. In those days, artistes didn’t have money; they lived from hand to mouth. And then, Fela wasn’t playing popular songs. We couldn’t afford to go to school all the time. I remember in school then, we were so much bullied by other kids. They used to laugh at us that our father didn’t have money. We used to cry a lot then. But it worked in our favour. That was why Femi, Sola and I became very close. We only had ourselves. We stuck together. It was us against the rest of the world.
Did it continue even when you got to secondary school?
It even got worse. My father had money then but he was in and out of trouble. He would be in jail today, tomorrow police would come and raid the house. It was very bad. I remember when he would be going for judgment for his ‘igbo’ case. I would be praying all day in school so that my father would not be jailed. People kind of liked us when we were in secondary school. I had a lot of school daughters probably because of my father’s name but it didn’t make me proud. I remember the first time my father was locked up. I saw him behind bars and I started crying. He was telling me to stop crying. He was even excited that he was in jail.
So there were times your father’s name worked against you?
Oh yes. We were bullied and then loved and then it got to a stage where our friends’ parents didn’t want us to associate with their kids. I will never forget one of Femi’s girlfriends. He liked her and she too liked him. But her father found out and warned his daughter severely that he didn’t want to see Fela’s son in his house. When Fela married 27 wives, I remember these three half-caste children. I had a boyfriend who was dating one of these half-caste children as well. The half caste kids were so mean to us then. They would see us and mock us, that our father couldn’t afford to buy good clothes for us; all he knew was to go and marry 27 wives. It hurt us so bad. Then again, I got victimised by the police.
Oh yes. There was this guy back then that took me to a Japanese restaurant. The food was even horrible. After the dinner, he said he couldn’t take me home. I was living at Somolu then. He took me to a taxi park and I took a cab to the house. I got home and I told everybody about the date and that I was taken to a Japanese restaurant for the first time in my life. I went to work the following day. The guy came to the office that morning and said he just wanted to see me. I saw him off and just a few minutes later, two men walked into the office and said they were looking for Yeni. I told them my name was Yeni. They said I was the one they were looking for and that they were arresting me for armed robbery.
I still do not understand. That was how they took me to Panti police station. Apparently, after the guy dropped me off that night, robbers visited him in his house. Policemen asked him the names of the people he saw earlier that night and he mentioned my name among others. And just because I was Fela’s daughter, they said I was the armed robber. My colleagues had to call my mother and also my father, which was a big mistake.
Why do you say so?
When my father got to the station, the story changed. He was already very unpopular with the police. Fela used the opportunity to call a press conference and said that his daughter was being victimised because of him. It was awful. I cried all day. I was put behind the counter. Eventually, they brought me out that day. But my point is that it was so unfair. There was nothing to tie me to a crime, but just because I was Fela’s daughter, I was arrested. But now, it is a totally different transition. Being Fela’s daughter, being a Kuti is a thing of pride. People want to be associated with the name. I have been through so many transitions in all these 52 years of my life. Now, we have gained acceptance.
Don’t you feel perturbed regarding the stigma that is associated with the African Shrine as a place for hoodlums and igbo smokers?
There is no way we are going to give this place another name out of the moon. This is African Shrine and it is our heritage. People have just labelled this place as a place where hoodlums stay and smoke igbo.’Foreigners come into the country and wish to come to The Shrine but our people tell them that this place is very dangerous. The allegation is so baseless. Has anybody come here and experienced any armed robbery attack? For the ‘igbo’, we have tried to eradicate it. We don’t allow it to be sold inside the shrine. We even work with National Drug Law Enforcement Agency.
Do you encourage igbo smokers?
Smoking igbo is just like a legacy that my father left behind. He didn’t deny the fact that he smoked and he even smoked it openly. I know that smoking ‘igbo’ doesn’t make you a bad person. My father smoked it and he wasn’t a bad person.
Do you smoke ‘igbo’?
No, I don’t. I don’t know how it happened, but most of my staff don’t smoke. I can categorically say that 95 per cent of the members of my staff do not smoke igbo. I would leave the rest five per cent for some who may be hiding it or who would even want to experiment. I don’t know how it happened that way, because when they came for the job, I didn’t ask if they smoke igbo or not. People even find it strange when you go to Femi’s show and none of the musician is smoking igbo. I still don’t judge people that smoke in a negative way because I don’t have anything against it. My father smoked it and he achieved so many things more than the people who don’t smoke it.
Did you ever try stopping your father from smoking igbo?
Oh yes. When we were growing up, my father didn’t smoke cigarette, let alone ‘igbo’. He didn’t drink either. It was my mother who smoked cigarettes. But he went to America and by the time he came back, he was smoking. I didn’t know at first. Eventually, he became free with it and started smoking it openly. Our friends then used to say that people who smoke would go to hell. We were against smokers. I would feel so bad because I would say my father would go to hell. But I didn’t know how to tell him to quit smoking. One day, I came home with one of my friends from school and I was praying my father wouldn’t be holding a ‘joint’. We got home and indeed, Fela was holding his ‘joint’. I took it from him. God! You need to see the kind of warning he gave me. He almost beat the living daylight out of me. He screamed! He asked me how I dared remove his igbo from his hand. He asked me if I was alright. That was the first and last time I tried stopping him from smoking. That warning was enough to teach me to mind my own business and which I did.
Would you have wished your marriage didn’t have a problem?
I don’t dwell on regrets. To regret anything will take you back instead of forward. You will not be able to live to your full capacity. If something happens to me, I don’t bother dwelling on it. I will not look at my marriage now and say that I regret that it didn’t work out. We are still friends. How can I regret when I have a beautiful child that came out of the marriage? I am proud of my daughter. She works in England. I am a happy person.
At 52, do we see you getting married again?
I don’t really talk about my personal life. I am in a relationship and I am very happy in it. We are not discussing marriage and we have decided that we are very happy. Why would we want to spoil what we have? I am okay with my life the way it is.
What do you hope to achieve in future?
I want to be very comfortable. I don’t want to be as rich as the Nigerian criminals who steal millions and billions. I don’t need more than I actually need to be comfortable. A lot of people are greedy. I am not greedy. I am hoping to be recognised for my dancing abilities in the next five years. I will keep dancing unless my body cannot carry it again. I may not be dancing on the stage again. Dancing will keep me trim. I hope the Shrine will be the ‘Mecca’ of African music in future.
Culled from Punch