Growing up at the iconic New Afrika Shrine can be both a blessing and a burden. It’s a blessing because it comes with a hefty generational influence, wealth, and loads of achievements; and a burden because of the huge shoes to fill. But Made Kuti, the son of Femi and grandson of Fela Anikulapo, sees it as a blessing and holds the lifetime experience in high esteem. In this interview with TheCable Lifestyle’s Kunle Daramola, Kuti discusses his music career and the roles his grandfather and father played in his journey to stardom. He also reflects on the themes of his songs and happenings in the country’s socio-political landscape.
TheCable Lifestyle: How does it feel to be born into a family of music makers?
Made Kuti: Every day, it has never escaped me that I’m from something a lot greater than me, something that a lot of great people have been part of, and tried to ensure progressive attitude and consciousness in certain directions.
People like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, even as far as professor Wole Soyinka, Fela, and my father. So, I have always been aware that it’s a family that sort of brings about intentional great people.
What it does for me is that it inspires my mindset. It allows me to reflect on the things that have come before me and allows me to think of what I want to do.
They inspire me, so all of those things fill my state of mind. What I choose to learn, the way I choose to behave, and the morals and values that I have.
TheCable Lifestyle: At what point did you decide to start making music professionally?
Made Kuti: I found that I enjoyed music before I started thinking of it as a profession. When I was three years old, I decided to pick up my father’s trumpet. And when I produced sound from the trumpet, everybody was shocked that I could do it. From then on, I started to attend trumpet lessons. After trumpet lessons, like a child, I decided to pick up the sax; tired of the sax, I picked up the piano, bass, guitar, and drums.
I immaturely navigated through instruments and then I used to see my dad play at the shrine four times every week and somewhere along the line, I was so overwhelmed by his performance energy.
So, those things as a child made me feel like doing the same. It was like seeing a superhero and thinking you want to be batman. That was what made me initially decide I want to be a musician. Seeing my dad on stage, touring with him, entering the studio with him.
TheCable Lifestyle: How many instruments do you play?
Made Kuti: Proficiently, I’d say five: saxophone, the trumpet, the piano, the bass, and the drums. But on my album, I played those instruments and I extended to some families of other instruments, I played the guitar, percussion, baritone sax, tenor sax, and piano.
TheCable Lifestyle: Did you go into music because it’s a family business?
Made Kuti: The family is definitely the influence. To say I did or didn’t is difficult because it wasn’t forceful. So you can say being in the shrine and being influenced by music was why I became a musician.
It wasn’t imposed on me to become a musician. I never thought that because Fela is this or my father is this I have to become this. I just liked the music.
When I used to tour with my dad, I didn’t have any specific role, I was just a carry-along. Some days, I would play sax, some days, I’d run to percussion, and some days, I wouldn’t even perform.
He always let me do whatever I wanted. I never felt like I was forced to do music. Because I was never forced, I always have my own personal collection of music. So, at the point I decided to do it professionally, it was a choice.
There was a time I wanted to be a footballer but music was always my priority.
TheCable Lifestyle: If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you have taken?
Made Kuti: Definitely not a footballer. If I wasn’t a musician, I imagined I would have spent the time I used practising to do something else like focusing on history, the details of it, and writing about it.
Because, we need more black historical writers, especially in Nigeria. If not that, then maybe astronomy.
I’d probably have decided to take physics seriously and be good at maths. But if it’s not music, it’s something else that would take the same amount of time and effort for my mind.
TheCable Lifestyle: Speaking of astronomy, some people might say music is simple, while astronomy is difficult, do you think you made a lazy choice?
Made Kuti: It depends on the kind of musician or music you produce. I have received training as a classical pianist, I know to survive as a classical musician and to be on par with anyone else in that field, I needed a minimum of six hours of practice every day and I couldn’t escape a day.
If I couldn’t do six hours, I’d make sure I do four, If I couldn’t do four, I’d make sure I do two. And the day I didn’t practice, I’d see the immediate physical effect on my play the following day.
If you’re a composer, you have to know the theory behind music. You have to understand early renaissance music, Baroque music, Classical music, Romantic era, modern era, contemporary, the avant-garde composers.
Music is so complex that from a theoretical and practical standpoint If you take it seriously, it requires the exact time if not more than I imagine any other field of profession demands. What I realised was that as a child, especially as a musician, the people that were practicing in other fields say law or medicine never put in the same hours of work as I did.
I couldn’t go a day without my four to six hours. Ideally, as a multi-instrumentalist, I had to do about eight hours a day. That is consistent work hours. It is not sitting down and waiting for it to work.
TheCable Lifestyle: What is it like growing up in the New Afrika Shrine?
Made Kuti: I don’t know how it was growing up anywhere else. The truth is that the shrine is a very lively place, as a child. The shrine was so full of energy and there were fewer people around. It wasn’t an industrial complex like it is today, so, I used to take a lot of walks into the street, far into Agidingbi.
I met interesting people because different kinds of people come to the shrine. Very funny people. People of all classes and ages. The one thing I think it did for me that I don’t know if any other space would have done is it forced a liberal mindset. It made sure I never took anything as given because the shrine always challenge the status quo and people’s thoughts.
The way I thought in the shrine, I couldn’t have thought the same way if I was in school. It made me an independent thinker because you can’t be here and be normal or average.
TheCable Lifestyle: You sing about mind emancipation a lot, what’s the goal you aim to achieve in relation to this woke generation?
Made Kuti: My songs are almost entirely about self-awareness and individual thoughts. It is because I can’t disregard what has come before me. So, I’m a very concerned civilian, which means I’m very concerned about Nigeria and the people in it.
I care about it from a personal and communal standpoint, because I want to raise my family here. It means that if we keep going on this trajectory, it will collapse, no empire or kingdom is strong enough to stand constant regression. And if it does and my family is here, that forces me to change that end result into something that is positive.
I can’t imagine regurgitating messages that have been perfectly delivered and still exist for people to listen to. So, I can’t sing about corruption, unemployment, mismanagement, and bad roads, you already know it and experience it. The messages have been there since the 70s.
What bothers me now is the state of mind of an average Nigerian. I think the problem is miseducation. If you are taught to only focus on success as a materialistic accomplishment. When we adopt mindsets that are naturally not to the survival of the communal African state, we are forced to develop in a way that is self-destructive.
I read Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham, Stolen Legacy George G. M. James, Black Men of the Nile by Yousef Ben-Jochannan, and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, the books I read were endless and they opened my eyes to who and what I’m supposed to be.
So, the state of mind matters to me. I think the average Nigerian is compromised. He or she no longer knows what it is to be patriotic. I don’t think there is a Nigeria dream. I don’t think there is anything that is a particular goal as a community to work towards.
I think we are constantly competing with each other. And we don’t support each other enough and worst of all, I think we are now suffering from an inferiority complex because forgetting the middle class, the lower class really does not believe that they are equal to white people and that complex would intentionally reinforce negative behaviour.
The entire system of the country is faulty and you can’t blame the system anymore because I don’t really think it’s entirely their fault. People have to function with a cultural mindset.
The lower class and the underprivileged are in the majority, if they decide to explode, it doesn’t matter who you are or no matter where you are from, you will not be safe.
So to avoid violence and war, I really believe that everything is in the mind. If the people are informed that they have the power to make decisions for themselves and we can come together and empower ourselves, we can look at the structures and redesign and fix them.
TheCable Lifestyle: Who would you say has been your biggest influence in the music industry?
Made Kuti: My biggest influence is definitely my dad. He’s the one that ensured that I read the right books. He ensured that I rehearse constantly as a musician. Once he realised I wanted to take music professionally, he didn’t let me slack, so he always made sure that I put in the hours and the work, and the energy.
He didn’t do it hypocritically. He always uses his life as an example. In his mid-forties, my dad would practice for 12 hours.
Throughout the whole day, he won’t watch TV, he won’t even leave his room, he would eat in his room, and as soon he was done he would start practicing again. So, this influenced me.
When he used to smoke, he did it publicly. He never compromised. If he believed in something he acted it out. He was true to himself. My dad was the type that said if you want to smoke, do it but wait till you are 18.
I was going to wait till 18 before I smoke but then he outsmarted me and decided to stop smoking just before I turned 18.
TheCable Lifestyle: Have you ever been in a position where you feel like you are in the shadows of your father or grandfather?
Made Kuti: No, because I’m smart enough to not be naive and underappreciate everything that has come before me. Fela and my father should always remain sources of inspiration, not oppression.
It has to be that I’m capable enough to look at their crafts and their lifestyles and learn from them, rather than sulk or feel bad for myself. There are avenues that are not yet to be explored and creative spaces always exist.
TheCable Lifestyle: How was it like collaborating with your dad on the Legacy + album?
Made Kuti: The Legacy + album was my dad’s idea. I was working on an album separately from his and we were going to release it at the same time, so he said we should release the first ever joint album by father and son in the history of mankind.
TheCable Lifestyle: How did you feel that the project was nominated for the 2022 Grammy Awards?
Made Kuti: It’s not just my first body of work, it’s the first thing I have put out in my entire career. So to get a Grammy nod is more than enough for me, I have nothing to worry about.
TheCable Lifestyle: Should we be expecting another Grammy-standard body of work soon?
Made Kuti: When I write and make music, I’m not thinking about the charts or the global sense of award or success like that. What matters to me is that I actually grow as a musician and that I’m not lying to myself.
The Legacy + album was an experiment, I wanted to write everything myself and play everything myself. Now, what I want to do is that I want to explore further but this time with my musicians. So, now I have a band called Made Kuti and the Movement.
TheCable Lifestyle: Which artistes would you like to collaborate with?
Made Kuti: I have been featured by Runtown on ‘Mama Told Me’, featured by Kida Kudz on ‘Cherry Mango’, Cavemen on ‘Biri’, and Laycon on ‘New Dimension’.
It really depends on the kind of music, if I feel that it’s the kind of music I want or need, I’d do it but I’d never do it for publicity or commercial purposes.
Internationally, I like what Ezra collective is doing, Alfa Mist, and Nubya Garcia, there are so many great musicians that I will eventually meet and it would be nice to work with them.
Locally, I’d love to work with Brymo, Falz Falana, and so many people.
TheCable Lifestyle: How do you draw inspiration for your music?
Made Kuti: Inspiration for what I do comes from my reality. Not the reality of others. I hate pretending like I know what other people are experiencing, which is why I knew that if I wanted to sing about Nigeria, I had to come to Nigeria.
I studied in London for seven years, and I came to a crossroads to return or not to return. I cared about my life and I thought of myself dying and I decided that before I die I would live my life on my own terms. So, I came back home and I decided to come back home as a writer and composing musician.
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