BY DAMILOLA FATUNMISE AND ANIBEZE SYLVESTER
THERE are two things Yeni, eldest child of Afrobeat creator, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is eager to achieve in life.
She wants to see her only child, Rolari, become a graduate and then a mother. But if the dancer has achieved the former, she’s yet to become a grandmother. In this chat, Yeni, who recently turned 55, opens up on what it’s like being Fela’s daughter.
How was your growing up like?
I remember we lived with my mum and dad. I remember vividly when my grandmother came to live with us. She was 64 or 65 and I was probably four or five years old. I remember that night when she arrived from England because she brought us sweets and gifts. At a point, we lived with my maternal grandmother, my father and mother. We lived like that until my mum’s health started failing in the early ‘70s after which she moved out and my father rented an apartment for her. Fela used to come and visit us. But anytime we visited our father, it was a full house. We loved to spend the weekends with Fela because it was exciting; but as soon as we returned home everything became normal and quiet.
Have you ever regretted being Fela’s daughter?
Never. I am proud of my father. I am very proud of who I am. I am proud of the entire Kuti family. Beyond that, I don’t believe in regrets because when you regret something you can’t do anything about, it is a waste of emotions. I can’t regret being Fela’s daughter.
You pioneered Felabration, how did you come up with the idea?
Fela died about three month to his 60th birthday. He had been planning for his 60th birthday and was always talking about it. So, when he died, I was like since Fela loved celebrating birthdays, instead of celebrating his death, why don’t we celebrate his birth? That’s how Felabration came about. Felabration is celebrating his life and legacy. He left a very strong legacy behind.
Now your daughter, Rolari is married, how much do you miss her?
I miss her but we talk regularly. I can’t call her in her husband’s house the way I used to call her before. I am a very happy mother because my daughter is married and settled, and they both love each other. Before my daughter went into the university, I used to smoke and suffer chest pains. I was like ‘if I continue smoking I may die before my daughter graduates’. That was the inspiration I needed to stop smoking because for years, I had been telling myself that I would stop smoking on the first day of January, but by January 4 I was still smoking. But this time, I didn’t wait for January 3 or 4. I simply told myself that if I continued smoking, I would die and never see my daughter graduate. And that was just too important for me, so I just stopped. I have stopped smoking for three years. The fear of not being able to educate my child gave me that inspiration. I was like, who will educate this girl if I die?
What do you cherish most about yourself?
It is my hair. I remember when I burnt my hair and thought I was not going to have hair again, I was like ‘Oh God!’ Well, I think the most important thing is good health. Like I said earlier about my daughter, I want to see my grandchildren, so I think what I cherish most is good health. I am so eager to see my grand children (Laughter).
Who is your closest among all of Fela’s children?
I am close to all the children, especially the boys, but Femi and I are closer due to our age difference. You know, Femi and I grew up together. However, they used to look up to me as the eldest so it is inevitable that we will be closer because we grew up together unlike my younger brother, Kunle. He is about 44. By the time he knew Fela, I was already 11. Talking about Seun and Motun, by the time they knew Fela I was already 21. So, what Femi and I knew about Fela, they don’t know. They didn’t experience what we experienced with Fela because they were much younger. Seun experienced Fela when Fela was much older but we experienced the young and vibrant Fela.
What was that thing you found most exciting about your dad?
Fela is a very lovely person. He was a kind hearted and honest man. He was genuinely interested in people. Like all human beings, he had his weak sides. He smoked so what? I remember the other day I heard that Muhammad Ali had died and I started crying. The reason was that I remembered my father because he loved Muhammad Ali a lot. Fela loved watching Rumble in The Jungle and he looked a lot like Muhammad Ali, so it was very nostalgic for me.
Who were Fela’s closest friends?
His best friend is still alive but he is old now. J.K Braimoh lives in England. Most of Fela’s friends parted ways with him because of his lifestyle. Maybe they were fair weather friends but a lot of big people you see in Nigeria today were actually Fela’s classmates. (Oba) Tejuosho was one of his classmates. I was with Fela once when he went to ask Tejuosho for money. He was broke, they had just burnt his house and he didn’t have money.
As Fela’s daughter, what advice do you have for President Muhammadu Buhari?
I believe President Muhammadu Buhari at his age should be a kingmaker and not a king. If I were in his shoes, I would have said, ‘let me support this person or that person to be president because I can vouch for him’. 16 years ago when we first built (Afrika) Shrine, I could walk from here to the gate two or three times a day. Today, I can’t even walk once. The older you get the less energy you have, so the energy Buhari has today is not the energy he had 31 years ago. However, since he is there, it is better he listens to the cries of the people because people are really suffering. It is easy to criticise but when you are on the seat, the story changes. It’s not going to be easy for him ruling at his age. I watched him on television recently and I felt pity for him because he looked so old and tired.
What’s the best thing Fela’s name has done for you?
It has not brought millions on my table but I wish it would. Well, you know Fela was an icon. Whether I do anything or not, people respect that name and they also expect a lot from me. People keep asking why I don’t want to go into politics. And I say the reason is that I don’t want to tarnish the good name my father left us. You know, the name has made us one with the man on the street. I prefer that world because the man on the street is the pulse of Nigeria. We feel the pain of the man on the streets. These are the important things that my father’s name has done for us.
At 55, you still look beautiful. Could you share your beauty secrets with us?
I just try to sleep and laugh a lot. I think laughter works a lot and you hardly find me miserable. Even if something makes me sad, I still try and overcome it with laughter. Laughter is very important in our lives.