I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t a small house in Edgware. It’s something of a change of pace for a man who set up Jimi Hendrix’s first European tour, managed the Moody Blues, and played a key role in orchestrating Broadway and National Theatre shows that have played to hundreds of thousands of people. Oh, and he was the manager of the indomitable Fela Kuti.
There has never been, and probably never will be, a musician as feared and revered as Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Many artists have more impressive record sales; others enjoy greater critical acclaim. But the adulation inspired by the Nigerian transcended that induced by Elvis, Michael Jackson or the Beatles. He was a giant of a man brought down to his knees by AIDS in the 1990s, his funeral attracting over a million people. Even those who had hated him when he was alive queued up to pay their respects.
His flaws were larger than life: he was reckless, often endangering the lives of many of those around him; he could be stubbornly ignorant, refusing to inform the women he slept with of his AIDS; and there exists plenty of aural evidence of his male chauvinistic tendencies. But even these flaws pale into irrelevance when we look at a man who suffered countless beatings and arrests for the Nigerian people. He fought fiercely for freedom from corruption, militaristic authorities and postcolonial hangovers. And no matter how many times he and his followers were brutally beaten, or his house razed to the ground, he refused to give up the fight, defining the word ‘courage’ in the process.
Knowing this story of violence, human rights violations and uncompromising integrity in the hot Nigerian sun, I feel an odd dissonance as I step into the unprepossessing North London house of Rikki Stein, Fela’s long-time close friend and manager. The plumbing is just being done, making the place a little dusty, but the homeliness of Stein’s abode is undeniable. I sink deep into a fluffy armchair as he lights up a cigarette and we begin the interview.
I ask what Fela would have thought of Edgware. “He’d probably have said it’s boring,” comes the reply. “You come outside and look, and there’s nobody there! Given the choice, I’d live in Hampstead.” The Walthamstow-born Stein, who has Polish and Russian blood, formerly lived in Stoke Newington. He left school at 15 to enter the music scene, soon setting up a weekly jazz club at a local hall and hiring such luminaries as Johnny Dankworth and Tubby Hayes to play for a fiver. He then moved onto the promotions wing of Radio Caroline, before beginning to connect with music industry people from Belgium and beyond.
Stein is full of surprises and anecdotes. He tells me that in 1981, when he was helping organise the Glastonbury Festival, he met renowned bluesman Taj Mahal, and introduced him to a girl. Years later, he found out that the girl was to give birth to Taj’s son.
Not unlike Taj’s, Stein’s voice is a sonorous velvet rumble; this probably isn’t unconnected to the cigarettes rarely absent from his fingers. He does a mean Nigerian accent, an unsurprising talent given the amount of time he spent with Fela in Nigeria. “I’m the self-appointed guardian of his legacy,” he says, and it shows: over the course of the interview, I get the impression that he assumes I haven’t done my homework, as he slips in phrases that have appeared verbatim in other interviews he’s done. “Fela was a giant of a man, but he was [just] a man.” “The word ‘compromise’ did not exist in Fela’s dictionary.” “Fela is Nigeria’s favourite son.” Well-honed as these phrases are, though, it’s hard to accuse the man of being hagiographic – all these sentences are undeniable. Not for no reason has there been talk of erecting statues of Fela.
The progressive Babatunde Fashola, governor of Lagos State, recently invested $250,000 of municipal money in converting Fela’s old home, Kalakuta, into a public museum. I ask if Fela has become part of the establishment he battled so vociferously. Stein doesn’t seem to think so, pointing out that Lagos State ≠ Nigeria: “the [national] government is still equivocal [in its support of] Nigeria’s favourite son.” The Kuti estate has tried hard to resist institutional overtures: it has refused to sanction the use of Fela’s mother Funmilayo’s face on a 5,000 naira note, on the grounds that no apology for her murder by the Nigerian military has been forthcoming. Stein himself has dismissed the idea of a public statue of Fela as something the man himself would have hated.
This interview is taking place in the middle of a revival of Western interest in Fela. The events of his life in the late 1970s, during which time his home-turned-commune was burnt to the ground by the Nigerian army, his followers severely beaten, and his mother thrown out of an upstairs window (dying months later from her injuries), were turned into a smash-hit Broadway musical produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Stein admits that without being able to boast such big names as producers, Fela! may not have made it from off-Broadway. He credits DJ/drummer/producer ?uestlove as instrumental in the show’s success: “The guy ran home after the show and blogged about it. He said, ‘I went to see Fela! tonight. I was asked [by Rikki] if I would help; he had me at hello. The only excuse for not seeing this play is if you’re dead.’ Three days later, we had Beyoncé, Jay-Z and David Byrne in the audience.”
The Tony-winning production has had different successes in different areas. “When you see the show in New York, it’s a story. When you show it in Lagos, it’s history,” explains Stein. “The younger audience obviously know Fela, but they don’t really know too much about him, ‘cos he’s been gone 16 years now. So from their perspective, it was educational…. We opened at [Fela’s old nightclub] the Shrine, which was an amazing experience. They never used to applaud Fela in the Shrine, because Fela [would insist on] playing the ‘underground spiritual game’… you have to be implicated, whether you’re a drummer or a member of the audience.”
I try to press Stein on the show’s shortcomings. Peter Culshaw said that Fela! made the eponymous character seem “cuddly”, while Mark Hudson accused it of “sanitising” and “rationalising” its subject, who could be violent even to his own supporters. Stein brushes these aside: “Nobody was suggesting he was perfect, but then again, I don’t see a reason for putting on a musical saying that sometimes he had a temper, or could be out of order. We’re all out of order sometimes…. We told a story, and it was a story that was faithful to what Fela was.”
Helping fuel the revival are this year’s comprehensive reissues of Fela’s entire studio output. Given that Fela released 46 albums between in 3 decades, the remastering of every track was a Sisyphean task: it took 10 years, with the remastering crew working hard and still only managing to remaster 5 minutes per day. “The recording circumstances in Lagos were pretty funky,” admits Stein. “It was a very fiddly job. But we did it, and we were proud.” Even the release and licensing of Fela’s output has had a troubled history, with Motown’s $1m offer to buy the rights to Fela’s work falling through after Jheryl Busby, the head of Motown’s subsidiary label dealing with African music, was fired the month the contract was due to be signed. That Fela hesitated to sign the contract for years, on account of ‘the spirits’ warning him not to do it, was probably a factor in the deal’s failure.
The biggest problem Stein faced in releasing Fela’s prodigious output? Piracy. Stein names and shames one rapscallion in particular – John Matarazzo, member of a global piracy network. “There had been correspondence between Fela and John Matarazzo, and so when we started getting on his case, he sent us a contract with Fela’s signature on it. And I knew Fela’s signature, and it was Fela’s signature, unquestionably…. But there was no way Fela would have agreed to the shit that was written in this contract. So I asked for their correspondence to be faxed to me. One day while chatting on the phone, I was flicking through this correspondence, when I suddenly noticed something… I got some tracing paper, and traced the signatures… it was to the millimetre, man. He’d forged the signature.”
Stein and the Kuti family sued and won, but headaches ensued when Stein had to communicate this to retailers across the world, who then had to remove the pirated stock. “That was a big job, and a very expensive one. I had to cross the Atlantic three or four times. I think it cost us something like $60,000. And we never got a penny from John Matarazzo.”
Such experiences have not dimmed Stein’s love of Africa and its music in the slightest. “When I [first] landed in Africa,” he says, “I thought, ‘Africans, man. They’re just as confused as the rest of us, but on a living level, they’ve got it sorted out.’ I just connected with that completely.” I’m not sure exactly what he means, but he looks so happy, with so much belief in the vague words he intones with such reverence, that I’d feel churlish to probe him about it. He admires the people’s activism, and politicians’ accountability: “In Guinea, if a minister gets caught with his hand in the till, [the people] go to his house and take it apart. They walk out with armchairs on their heads. I love that. I love the immediacy. Here, it just gets covered up.” A fair point, although in Africa, emerging from the webs of corruption and nepotism with a tenable indictment of a politician is easier said than done.
“Nigeria’s a pretty crazy place… I love it. They’re a freedom-loving people, which probably explains why they never stop at traffic lights. But it’s tough – power is still in the hands of the few, and they jealously guard what they have… you still can’t get light there for several hours a day; water is a problem; education is a problem… and if you get sick, you might as well shoot yourself. And those things haven’t changed, so I’m sure Fela would have been disappointed. He’d be a grumpy bastard, man… [the authorities] didn’t heed him.”
Two years ago, the Nigerian government suddenly removed the oil subsidy. The population took to the streets in outrage, invoking Fela’s messages and continuing relevance. “His music became anthemic to that peaceful protest,” remembers Stein. “The Kuti children were at its forefront.”
Stein and I agree that the West, or at least Britain and America, pay little attention to Africa beyond geopolitics and charity appeals, but Stein feels optimistic about levels of Western interest in African culture, as well as about Nigerian political affairs: “I’ve been banging my head against a glass ceiling for 30 years or more; I have a decades-old love affair with Africa. And I can see some quite significant cracks in the ceiling beginning to appear.”
Fela is a household name in Africa, and there are between 50 and 100 Afrobeat bands around the world expressing their own ideas, melodies and lyrics through the musical forms established by Fela. But little is known by many about the man himself. This is surprising, given his power, influence and charisma. Stein remembers: “In the early ’80s, there was a curfew… the only vehicle on the road was Fela’s brother’s VW ambulance, full of ragamuffins. You’d get to a roadblock, and there’d be an ugly guy with a submachine gun waiting there… he’d lumber over to the window, and suddenly jump and exclaim: ‘Fela!’ Fela would mutter ‘Bastard!’ and drive away. Nobody else could do that… I was very lucky to have lived in Fela’s Nigeria.
“The first time I went to Lagos, I remember being in that same VW bus, stuck in a ‘go-slow’ [traffic jam]. And when one person saw Fela, the whole street came. But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh look, it’s Paul McCartney’; it was like, ‘Fela. Abami. Chief Priest.’ They were giving him energy. I’ve never felt such love coming from every direction… I just melted. They knew that [Fela] was fighting for them, taking licks for them. Amazing experience.”
Social consciousness seemed to run in the Kuti family. Fela’s younger brother Beko was President of the Nigerian Medical Association, and Chairman of the Campaign for Democracy; his elder brother Olikoye was Minister of Health, and became Deputy Director-General of the WHO. “They were all people who jumped into the fray,” says Stein. “And [Olikoye] was one of the few ministers who refused to line his pockets.” Despite the familial pedigree, however, it was Fela – a diamond in the rough, fighting against and outside of established institutions – who is most strongly remembered and loved.
I keep trying to press Stein on Fela’s shortcomings; I feel this would better contextualise and valorise his triumphs. Did he ever discriminate? Against gays, for instance? Stein answers straightforwardly: “He wouldn’t have understood homosexuality. At the end of the day, however radical he was, he was still a ‘good Yoruba boy’. But I don’t think he cared [if a person was gay or not].”
Stein also remembers not always being able to understand Fela’s spirituality and belief in reincarnation; he found it “a bit naïve”. But while reluctantly acknowledging some of Fela’s weaknesses, he quickly defends his love for the man: “Whatever shortcomings he had weren’t important to me. What was important was the man and how he conducted himself. He was a man of the people. He’d announce to 5,000 people at the Brixton Academy exactly where he was staying, and for anybody that came, the key would be in the outside of the door – except for when he was engaged in Nyami Nyami [sex].
“He loved people, he wanted to meet new people. In the recording show, he wanted it to be a party. It would drive the studio engineers nuts, because of all the people tripping over wires. But he wanted that kind of atmosphere. Fela was a guy who loved life. He loved to laugh, he had a great sense of irony, he loved to tell stories. He loved to eat and fuck and play music.” When we listen to Fela’s music – so primal, and yet so sophisticated – this all becomes wonderfully clear.
Did Fela have any regrets? I ask. “Fela lived a very full life, but I think he felt guilty that it was his excesses that were ultimately the cause of [his mother’s] demise.” After her death, recalls Stein, the man became increasingly reckless. When Dele Giwa, editor of Newswatch, was killed by a mail bomb during breakfast in 1986, Fela’s house was awash with journalists within hours. “I was there having breakfast, and they were all asking him who did it. ‘Ha!’ he said. ‘The army did it, man. It’s army business.’ He was not a stupid man; he knew he was speaking to a room full of journalists. The next day, it filled the papers: ‘Fela says army did it’. I’m sure his mother’s death had a lot to do with how he just didn’t care.”
Strangely, Stein’s last memory of Fela was some years before his death, during the deal-wrangling with Motown. I ask him what his favourite slice of Fela on record is. I know his first Fela memory is hearing a cassette of the brilliant Sorrow Tears & Blood (1977); today his answer is ‘Just Like That’, which can be found on the reissue of Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense (1987). It’s a gorgeous track, produced by Wally Badarou, who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Talking Heads, and Mick Jagger.
I ask Stein whom he’d most like to work with in the future. He mentions P. Diddy, for the ongoing ‘Fela meets hip-hop’ project. Fela and hip-hop mix very well; the tribute album Red Hot + Fela, released a few months ago, testifies to this, with artists such as tUnE-yArDs, Baloji, My Morning Jacket and Kronos Quartet successfully giving their own, usually original takes on Fela songs.
As the interview wraps up, I try to plug my favourite find of the last few years: Toubab All Stars, an obscure Franco-Senegalese outfit whose only album, Mekfoul District (2010), is one of the most delightful I’ve ever heard. I ask him whom he’s got his eye on, and he suggests that Shingai Shoniwa (of the Noisettes) and Afrikan Boy are ones to watch. “I’m always on the lookout. We’re trying to develop Dele Sosimi [one of Fela’s keyboardists]’s orchestra…. He does a bimonthly gig at midnight on the last Saturday of the month at the New Empowering Church in Hackney. It’s always packed these days. We might have to move the venue.”
Fela’s profile will be raised over the next few years, with 2014 seeing the release of Oscar-winner Alex Gibney’s documentary on the titanic musician: Finding Fela!. A feature film, backed by Focus Features, is also in the pipeline, with Andrew Dosunmu set to direct; Stein is not sure whether or not Chiwetel Ejiofor will still be playing Fela, but the word on the grapevine goes in Ejiofor’s favour.
For now, though, we’ll have to settle for the comprehensive – and fantastic-sounding – CD reissues; vinyl box-sets curated by the likes of Ginger Baker and Brian Eno; and the periodic ‘Felabrations’ that take place throughout the world, in Britain, America, France, Nigeria and Japan, among other countries.
About a decade ago, Fela’s children put together the first ‘Felabration’ at the Shrine in Lagos. It was free entry to a week of events, always around the time of his birthday. This year, Fashola pitched in, and ‘Felabrators’ played to 4,000 a night, with screens outside for those who couldn’t get in. The regular festivities have been attended by the likes of Flea and Damon Albarn. There’s a big one coming up on Saturday, at 229 The Venue on Great Portland Street; attendance is essential if you have even a passing interest in cosmopolitan hip-hop or Afrobeat.
Until then, I’ll be listening to the five Fela albums Rikki Stein very kindly gave me. They’re compulsive listening from a man who knew what he was doing every step of the way, and who never let his spirit be dimmed by the countless beatings he received. Fela remains, and will always remain, an inspiration.
This article first appeared in Think Africa Press on 13 December 2013.