Finding Fela delves into the uncompromising life of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian band leader of Africa 70 and Egypt 80, who fused together the tight-trousered funk of James Brown and the high-life jazz of his home to create a new musical form: Afrobeat. He stood up against the oppression of the Nigerian state, speaking before gigs at the Shrine, the venue in Lagos that became the center of his music. In retaliation he was beaten, his mother was attacked and his house was burned down. But in the midst of the chaos surrounding him, Kuti is remembered as much for his humor, strength of character and lavish lifestyle that included his marriage to 27 women in 1978. Former manager Rikki Stein has helped look after Kuti’s musical legacy since the artist died from an AIDS related illness in 1997: in recent years he has served to bring the Broadway musical Fela! to the world and worked as consultant on director Alex Gibney’s new documentary, excerpted here for the first time. Below, Stein looks back on his time with the man who changed the course of African music.
How did you come to manage Fela?
Rikki Stein: We met at the very beginning of the 80s. Someone played his music to me, and I was completely gobsmacked. I went to see him, to propose a project to him. It was the winter, so I was wearing a hat and a coat and a sweater and a scarf. I went into this unbelievably hot room because he used to carry additional heaters around with him. He was in his Speedos surrounded by lovely ladies, and the hat, coat, scarf and jacket came off. The thing that impressed me most about him was the candor with which he operated. Everything was as clear as a bell, which is not easy to find in the world unfortunately. He had such amazing courage. He took licks from the Nigerian authorities—the guy had scars all over his body, but it didn’t ever stop him. He just said, “Ah well, they didn’t kill me.”
What was it like to try and manage him at that time, when he was at the center of a constant, violent political storm?
RS: You just rode the wave with Fela. He was a great deal of fun to be with. He loved telling stories and had a deep sense of irony, pointing out the ridiculousness of much human endeavor. He wasn’t a cynic, but an optimist, and he insisted on excellence. If you were an audience member, you had to listen to what was going on, and play what he called the ‘Underground Spiritual Game,’ which involved everybody. If you were a follow-spot operator, he’d work your ass off because the guy was everywhere on stage. He enjoyed life. He was somebody who just wanted to make music and fuck and eat. When he came to London he’d perform at the Academy in Brixton. I would say 90 per cent of the audience were Nigerian. I remember him saying, in front of 5,000 people, “Oh, I’m staying at the Russell Hotel, room 439, if anybody wants to come by.” He was looking for ladies, but he accepted anybody. Whoever you were he’d let you in, look at you and say: “Sit down.”
Is he still held up as an important figure in Nigeria?
RS: Yes, definitely. Taking the musical Fela! to Lagos was an amazing experience, because when we put on that show in London or New York it’s a story, but in Lagos it’s history. Young people know Fela and his music but they don’t know much about him. Presenting the show there, we effectively took Fela home. It was a very moving experience.
Do you think he contributed to real change in his country?
RS: The mess in Nigeria during the 70s and 80s I am afraid to say is still there. But when the Nigerian government removed the oil subsidy two years ago, which doubled the price of petrol, people from one side of the country to the other came out on the street and shouted: “Listen to what Fela was saying 30 years ago—it’s still true today.” His music became anthemic to that process. The part of Fela’s legacy that is most significant in Nigeria is that all those licks he took for speaking his mind, people are now speaking their mind without getting the licks.
Finding Fela opens in cinemas September 5.