A day after Fela Anikulapo Kuti died, Rikki Stein, his longtime British manager, landed in Nigeria to begin another journey with Fela – this time protecting the late icon’s legacy. And for the next 19 years, Stein will continue doing this: cataloguing Fela’s album, running and managing his brand and name. Even in death, Stein still believes in Fela, his message and music.
Now 75-years-old, and blessed with a hair full of grey and blonde strands, Stein and I conversed over millions of optic cables.
Stein is bespectacled, clad in a marooned coloured shirt, and seating on a swivel chair, the night serving as a backdrop of sorts. He swings back and forth on the chair, occasionally reaching for something – that I couldn’t see – on his desk
His image from the United Kingdom covered up the mid-section of my phone screen; bushy eyebrows waving up and down, giving a subtle dramatic air to his storytelling and laying emphasis to his words as he spoke about music, Fela Kuti and Africa.
We had agreed to have this interview over Skype as Stein was in London, and I tucked away in a corner of Lagos, Nigeria.
At the beginning of our conversation, Stein’s voice crackled. Network is terrible, I tell him after a few awkward back and forth, with him asking: “Can you hear me?”
But regardless of the horrid network, it is easy to see that Stein – despite his age – is an adventure seeker: the kind of person that will take off on a wild adventure on a moment’s notice. Age might have tampered down his spirit a bit; still, Stein gives off that impatient and skittish vibe.
WHEN FELA DIED
“How do you think I felt, man?” Stein said when I asked him how he felt the night Fela died. He chuckled, looked away from the screen, before lowering his head slightly.
A month after Fela’s death, Stein would author an obituary, wherein he beatified Fela, acknowledging his weaknesses and human failure but still arguing – albeit, subtly – that Fela’s failings only made him (Fela) a greater person.
“Fela was sweet,” Stein wrote, “perhaps not an adjective that would normally be used to describe the tornado of a man, but Fela was sweet to me. The sweetness that I perceived in him emanated from his love for humanity; particularly for those who had drawn life’s short straw.”
Fela’s songs were particularly agitating and biting, he spared no one who oppressed others – especially government, religion, big businesses. So I asked Stein if he ever got in trouble for having such a close relationship with Fela.
“We had a few funky moments,” Stein said, his laughter spilling in hasty hiccups through the phone’s speaker. “A few funky moments,” Stein repeats, “but I came out from it with all my fingers and all my toes. So I won’t complain. I won’t complain”
A SCARY ENCOUNTER
Stein, during his fifteen years with Fela, never faced a physical attack – although he had “some near misses.” One of such “near misses” occurred on a particular day at 4am, when Stein and Fela were on their way back from Victoria Island, Lagos, in Beko Ransome-Kuti’s (Fela’s demure elder brother who would later play a role in setting up Nigeria’s first human rights organisation) ambulance.
“Fela was driving,” Stein recalls – as he told a story that I imagined he must have told a thousand times before. All of a sudden the late hitmaker screeched to a halt in the middle of the bridge, jolting Stein. Apparently, a gigantic truck tire was laid on the bridge, blocking off the road.
“But there was nobody there!” Stein said.
The second the vehicle stopped, the people who had blocked the road with the truck tire came over the sides of the street with weapons (“machete, iron bars and all kinds of shit,” says Stein), charging towards the car.
Stein isn’t certain how many the assailants were – “about a dozen or more” was his estimate. Despite the number of people, Fela wound down his window, put his body out of the window and screamed at the assailants: “bastards!”
Stein does an imitation of Fela. He leans on one side of his chair, using the armrests as support, Stein pressed his hands down, lifting his body and craning his neck as if he was projecting his body out of the window of a car.
On hearing Fela’s voice, the would-be attackers took off, disappearing into the night.
DISCOVERING HIMSELF IN AFRICA
At 30, in the early 1970s, Africa found Stein. Growing up, he had always felt like a stranger in a strange land. And although he still can’t explain the feeling, Stein agrees that being in England never really felt right to him but that was still he visited Africa.
It was on this continent, thousands of miles away from London, that Stein began to find himself, finding this comfort and peace that had eluded his skittish soul, unraveling the mystery of his own being and blooming like a flower planted in the right soil.
Stein discovered himself – the very essence of his being – in Africa amongst the growing voices of nationalistic struggle, independence, communal living, culture and beautiful music of the early ‘70s. And in the years that followed, Stein came to occupy a space in the continent’s fast-growing – modern – music culture, playing a huge role in the careers of most artistes on the continent from the southern coast of Africa down to the western coast.
“The minute I put my feet on African soil, I just went ‘aaha,’” Stein said, he has found where he belongs, truly and finally.
In the years that followed, Stein became a bridge of sorts between African music and western audiences, often arranging tours, concerts and festivals for local talents across multiple countries in Africa.
‘I PLAYED MY PART’
Is it a reasonable argument to make that Stein was partly instrumental in the development of present day tunes from Africa, uniting them and presenting it to the world? This tunes that have come to coalesce evenly as they borrow richly from each other’s culture, fused together to arrive at a musical tune that is easily relatable regardless of identity or cultural heritage.
Stein is modest in his answer, “I played my part,” he says, lowering his face till only the crown of his head filled with greying hair was visible on the screen. He leaves empty spaces, dots in the air, on the role he played in shaping the music coming from the continent – especially in talent management and discovery.
“Africans are just as confused as the rest of us,” Stein says, “but on the living level, they got it sorted, man. You don’t have mummy and daddy in Africa. Everybody is your mummy and daddy! And … I just love it. I love the music. I love the women – I’m married to a Ghana girl. I love the food. I love the sun beating down on me. The culture – I love the respect in Africa.”
On returning from Africa, Stein says he began to kiss his parents every time he saw them. “I never used to kiss them before,” he says, swinging back and forth on his swivel office chair, a smile tugging on the sides of his mouth.
Flipping the argument on one side, Stein’s summation and continued reference to Africa as one homogeneous entity, rather than a broadly heterogeneous body with diverse – at times opposing – beliefs, attitudes, identities, and systems, might be surmised as offensive and patronising rather than an evidence of the commonality amongst various ethnic groups in the vast continent. But still, Stein has an opinion that he holds strongly.
PRESENT DAY FELA-INSPIRED ARTISTES
“Some of them are trying,” Stein says of the present day crop of talent coming out of Africa. Although he was a bit annoyed at some of the musicians who put a ‘s’ at the end of Afrobeat, noting that such persons are unaware of the sweat, tears and blood that went into crafting and producing what was initially referred to as ‘Afrobeat.
“There’s a price to pay – and it is not expensive – it is called acknowledgement,” he chuckles again. “It is acknowledging the sweat, blood and tears that went into making that name. The ones that go to the shrine, the ones that go to meet the (Kutis) family, the ones that involve themselves with Femi and Seun and Yeni, those ones that I’ve got time for. The other ones if I meet them, I yab them well well.”
Fela paid a very steep price for Afrobeat. He was beaten (“they beat the shit out of him,” is how Stein puts it) and harassed, but it never stopped him and he was always there, putting out more music, challenging the statuesque.
“You have to ask yourself: ‘what will drive a man to be so determined?’ And the only answer is love, man! Fela had a deep love for humanity – not just Nigerians, but humanity.”
Asking other people to make the sacrifices that Fela did is to ask a lot and not a lot of people are willing to make such sacrifice. Still, Stein agrees that Femi and Seun (Fela’s sons who have continued to make music in the mould of their father) are doing a great job. “They’ve maintained the message. The message which unfortunately is till terribly relevant not just in Nigeria but across the world.”
Going back to the argument on “Afrobeat(s)”, Stein points out that adding the ‘s’ to the end of the word coined by Fela made it sound good. “It is just a marketing ploy,” he says. Regardless of this, Stein says he likes the music coming out of the Nigerian scene.
“There’s a lot that I like. I like what DJ Spinall is doing. I like what Falz is doing. I like what, uh mm, Ice Prince is doing. I like what Niyola is doing. I’m talking of Nigerian artistes now.”
Stein, who has already catalogued over 50 Fela albums, disclosed that he is in the process of extending the services of OkayAfrica – a web platform that has over the years churned out content on the state of Africa – to include digital music distribution. “It’s called OkayMusic,” he said, taking out a cigarette from a pack and lighting it.
Any artiste who signs with OkayMusic will have his/her music distributed digitally to all the major music platforms in the world, he said.
In 2014, Stein was appointed to the board of All Africa Music Awards (AFRIMA) as the international advisor. He recalls going through the names of award winners over the past years and finding names he had never heard of before. He checks them out on YouTube and finds that these musicians sometimes have over a million views on YouTube.
“And I’m like ‘what the hell!’” Stein says, laughing, before pulling from his cigarette. He blows the smoke into the air seconds later. In other words, Stein points out; they have completely solidified their presence to their target audience but are not really known to the rest of the world.
This – and also because the internet has made the world a much smaller place – pushed them to launch OkayMusic so they can distribute music of artistes that are known locally but not internationally.
To attract artistes to the platform, Stein says “So I’ve started approaching artistes and looking them in the eyeballs, saying “hey, nobody knows you!” He agrees that it is a bit hard for these artistes to hear, even though it is true. However, they’ve successfully signed up a few artistes and are in the process of signing even more.
To Stein, nothing compares to music recorded with a live band – even though he notes that there are times when he hears “electronic things that are quite interesting.”
STEIN’s OBITUARY ON FELA
Describing Fela in his 1997 obituary, Stein wrote: “In the centre of this audio-visual feast for the senses, Fela reigned supreme. He was everywhere at once; playing keyboards, soprano or alto, the occasional drum solo, a sinuous dance from one side of the stage to the other and then it was time to sing, the ever-present spliff held in his elegant fingers. No moon and toon and joon for this articulate firebrand. Only eloquent biting poetic social observation, expressed with a breathtaking clarity and natural authority which placed him firmly in an unsurpassed realm in which he had no equal. Perhaps Pavarotti can break a wine glass at sixty paces, maybe Bono can make girls wet their pants with a flick of his sweat laden hair, but for sheer mastery, panache, style and guts nobody could or can beat this guy. To get a bead on who he was, once he had recorded a song, he would never perform it again on stage, no matter how record company execs may plead.”
Not many – dead or alive – knew Fela the way Stein did.
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