Yeparipa O! Femi Kuti Is 60! – By Azuka Jebose-Molokwu
On September 4th, 1984 the Federal Military Government under the leadership of General Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon arrested Fela Anikulapo Kuti for violations of the foreign exchange decree. He was arrested at the Murtala Muhammed International airport as he attempted to board a New York flight to begin his US tours.
After months of made-for-media trial, Fela was found guilty of violating the draconian decree. The government needed to make a statement in pursuit of its War Against Indiscipline mantra and Fela was a readily available famous poster child for such nuisance.
He was allegedly found in possession of $1200 as he attempted to board a flight for the year’s summer concert tours.
His arrest, as his character, became a circus. I was a young restless reporter with The Punch, aggressively seeking anything news. I was also seriously flirting with entertainment beats at the Onipetesi newsroom office of the newspaper organization. Ladi Ayodeji, a celebrated entertainment journalist, discovered my passion for entertainment journalism.
Earlier years, before I joined The Punch as an intern student from the Times Institute Of Journalism, I moonlighted as a local disc jockey in Mafoluku, Oshodi. Oshodi was a trench town outskirts of mid-metropolitan Lagos, a populated but modest slump. After a few weeks of freelancing for Mr. Ayodeji on the entertainment beat, he went to the news editor’s desk and requested that I should be transferred, permanently, to the entertainment Desk.
Eric Teniola, the then news editor denied his request: ‘No I can’t give you Jebose, he is one of our young resilient reporters and very aggressive.” Teniola protested. The next morning, ‘Baba Erico’, Teniola transferred me to the City office located by the Marina Bay, inside the bustling commercial center of Lagos, to assist the city editor, Feyi Smith with news coverage.
The absence of Fela created a sad emptiness in our music industry and in the lives of everyday people. He was the fierce and unafraid voice of the people, brazenly and bravely expressing our struggles for the basic necessities of life and liberty. Fela educated us, through his music on our rights as human beings and encouraged us to be fearless, demand our rights, and question our governments, as disenfranchised and victimized Nigerians.
The fearless spokesman for the people had been seriously silenced by a military junta eager to restore discipline to our society through its War Against Indiscipline.
Fela was considered an indisciplined man of the people. Buhari and Idiagbon were determined to make him irrelevant.
And The Band Played On
Fela’s protégée, Abdul Ndubuisi Okwechime, was the creative, influential arts and features writer with the defunct Sunday Times. The best part, Abdul is from Onicha Ugbo.
I traveled every Sunday late mornings, from my home in Mafoluku, to Idi Araba, where Ndubuisi lived with his brother. We would eat lunch and then leave for either Femi’s house at Bariga or Afrika Shrine at Pebble Street in Ikeja, depending on time and traffic. We were passionate about afrobeat music, lifestyle, the movement, culture, and the Anikulapo Kutis.
We craved for the music and its lifestyles to continue in the absence of Fela; determined to support Femi’s emerging music career. In the absence of Fela, Femi became a temp front man for his father’s Egypt 80 Band.
Femi was an exciting, terrific and hybrid energetic young musician. Though Femi fronted the Egypt 80 Band while Fela was serving his jail sentence, Femi also decided that those moments were privileged periods to create his own pathways> Therefore, he formed his own band within the Egypt 80 called The Positive Force.
Those days, he wrote songs and rehearsed his new compositions, along with his best friend and roommate, keyboardist, Dele Sosimi. Femi was also recording his debut. He was, no doubt, the heir apparent to the afrobeat music empire.
Those days were his opportunity to step into the limelight and continue with the afrobeat music, culture and lifestyle. Femi resisted being identified as Fela’s shadow. He rejected the comparisons or narratives that he was following his father’s feet steps in music and performance. He wanted desperately an identity of his own. He hated being referred to as the heir apparent.
Those were the early years of pressure and maturity for a youngman whose dad was a beloved national iconic hero of the disenfranchised and marginalized Nigerians, who had through those years sacrificed his life, family music to challenge military corruption and brutalities of innocent Nigerians in the hands of those vicious military juntas. . To prove that his music, identity and ideology, though like his dad’s, were variant, he worked hard, rehearsed every day, supported and encouraged by a close-knit loving family environment that included his grandma, his mother Remi, sisters Yeni and late Sola, Dele Sosimi and that damn huge mean black German shepherd dog.
Femi’s hard work was distinct in his debut, Madness Unlimited. His afrobeat was fast tempo, laced with upbeat techno funk appeal. Fela’s creation was traditional, native, primitive and polyrhythmic. During Sunday Jumps at the Afrika Shrine, Ndubuisi (Abdul) and I watched Femi’s performances, progressions and utterances, we would strategize on how to help him to become the headliner. We further reasoned that the opportunity to release his album was while Fela was in Markurdi jail.
So one Monday morning, before the rainy season in 1985, Abdul and I met at the Bariga home of Femi. We decided that day, to market Femi and his new music to the record companies.
Thus, Femi, Abdul and me went to EMI on Oregun Road, Lagos: and held hours of meetings with Frank Ifemesia Iferenta, the A&R manager and media relations for EMI. He told us unequivocally that EMI would not be interested in Femi’s music because of his father’s controversial appeals.
Fela was bad news and business, especially since he was in prison. His charged character and characteristics trickled down on Femi at EMI. The sins of the father visited an innocent aspiring musician and creative young talent. We felt the disappointment on Femi’s face but shrugged off the first rejection.
Welcome to show business, a cut-throat business.
We moved forward because we believed in the music Femi had on Demo. On our way out from EMI, we decided to visit Polygram Records that afternoon. As we drove along Ikorodu road, Femi asked we pulled under Anthony Village Bridge, over to rewrite the lyrics to Madness Unlimited. We sat in the car and watched him write part of the song. I was in the heavens. I didn’t know that Ndubuisi and I were witnessing the evolution of new afrobeat music and movement. Polygram and Wole Iyaniwura welcome us to music merchants’ reality. Femi got a deal!!!
While Fela did his two-year term in Borno State prison, I became a regular visitor at Femi’s house in Bariga. The family adored and embraced me. Femi’s mom, Remi sat on the couch early mornings or evenings, smoking cigarettes and always offered me a cup of tea.
Remi once promised that I was going to write her autobiography whenever she was comfortable and ready to tell all about her love and marriage to Fela. I never got that opportunity to work with her. May her amazing soul continue to rest in Grace. Dele Sosimi, a
skinny and smooth keyboardist was also living with the Anikulapo Kutis in Bariga. Femi and Dele were inseparable then. Femi, Sola, Yeni and I became a family. Yeni was experimenting with her new passion: fashion designs; specializing in Adire fabrics. She would design special clothes and make sure I wore them during visits, sometimes helping me to tuck in my shirts, like a caring big sister. She made sure I looked good whenever I visited. She and Sola were like sisters watching over me.
Sundays were spectacular visits. Femi, Dele, Abdul and I would hail taxicabs from the front of their two stories building Bariga home to the Afrika Shrine for Sunday Jump. We built trust, dependence and loyalty among ourselves. Young, unconditional love, respect and one family!. We were loyal, faithful and dedicated to the new Femi Fela positive force brand and lifestyles of popular culture as its founder served out his jail sentence.
So. I understood why Femi drove to the Punch, in 1986, to confirm if Fela had been released from prison after 18 months by the new military administration led by Ibrahim Babangida. He said he heard the broadcast on the national news on Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria’s 4 o’clock news bulletin that Fela was ordered released immediately. He didn’t want to believe it until he visited me at The Punch to confirm. I said ‘Yes baba is coming home’… that night, he drove a long distance to bring his father home.
A few years ago, I called Femi on a Sunday and informed him I was coming to the Shrine with my new fiancée to introduce her to him. I also wanted Alhaja to experience the afrobeat music and culture at the new Afrika shrine. He requested that we waited after the Sunday jump show that ends at 10 pm to meet in his office located at the back of the stage. We did. Abdul Okwechime was with us that night. Alhaja and her sister and sister’s husband were also part of my entourage. After the Sunday Jump we retired into Femi’s dress room and hung out into the early mornings. The stories of our lives he shared with Alhaja were so unforgettable, truly and affectionately. Those are how great memories are made.
These were a few happenstances of our lives, these years that I have been privileged to share friendship and brotherhood with a great son, an awesome musician and a dear friend that turns Sixty today. It seemed like yesterday. He is human and my purpose is to capture those young wondering years when we wandered and sought a defined pathway to our creative existence, focus and identity. Here, my dear friend. I am still trying to understand where yesterday zoomed. Happy 60th birthday, omo abami eda… what a privilege to belong to this generation with you.
– Azuka Jebose is an award winning journalist