Interview: Made Kuti Talks Afrobeat, Activism & Family Legacy
We speak with Made about his debut album and the part he's playing in keeping the Kuti heritage alive.
It's all about happiness for Made Kuti. He wants to spend his entire life making music and living contentedly while doing so. This is why he is living above pressures, people's expectations of what the legendary Fela's grandson should look like and the kind of music he should be making.
"My goal is to attain internal happiness and I know that this can't come externally. It can't come from what people think of me and it can't come from me searching for other people's approval and I understood that long ago."
While he was alive, Fela Anikulapo Kuti—the legendary creator of the afrobeat genre—had bragged multiple times about his immortality and how he would never die. Many had understood his claim to be literal, when he in fact meant that his work and legacy would forever be remembered. Proof of this is a joint album project by Femi Kuti and Made Kuti, son and grandson of the man who is arguably the greatest musician to have emerged from the African continent.
As an extension of the Kuti legacy in music and pan-African sociopolitical activism, Made Kuti, 25, made his debut into the scene in 2020 with his single "Free Your Mind," which encourages the listeners to live above the shackles placed on them by Nigeria's seemingly limiting education system. The single preceded his For(e)ward album, released together with Femi's Stop the Hate as Legacy + in a bid to show the world the bond he shares with his father and how important the message of his music is to him and the entire Kuti dynasty.
"I thought that it would be really cool to drop a joint project with my dad. My dad and I then searched to see if any father and child had done any such thing before, but we couldn't find any. We are the first to do this, to the best of our knowledge."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Made Kuti.Image courtesy of the artist.
What were the conversations like while working on the album with your father? Give us a glimpse into its creation process.
We just wanted the message and passion of music and our bond—our relationship to be out there. It happened in a very good and fluid way. I recorded my part of the album and for the mixing, we listened to each other's side of the project and made sure everything blended. That was it.
Most of the tracks on Legacy + and For(e)ward have sociopolitical message. Is this who Made is or is it pressure from your family's heritage?
It's very much what I care about. Music to me is just sound being manipulated. And what I know about sound is that it has a clear effect on the human mind. Sound can make us happy, it can make us sad, it can prepare us for a fight, it can spice up our lives when we are down, it causes us to dance sometimes. We have to move our bodies in tune with rhythm—it is pretty much everything. So I just use sound to express what I care about. And since we know sound is powerful enough to do these things, we also have to know that power comes with responsibility. If you are one of the custodians of sound after nurturing your skill and everything, what do you use your power for? What message do you pass? So I had just gotten back to Lagos after studying seven years abroad, and everything hit me. Power ceases every two minutes, most roads are bad, and all those things. My music addresses these ills that are real to me and most African people.
"My music addresses these ills that are real to me and most African people."
What is "Free Your Mind" about?
"Free Your Mind" is about education here. I did primary and high school here in Lagos. The song is about breaking the boundaries of education. Asking the necessary questions and finding their answers, even beyond the formal things they tell us in classrooms. It was madness for me to wear a tie in 40 degree weather. I once had an encounter with a police officer and it wasn't good. I was really angry. I called my dad and he calmed me down. He told me to relax and know why the policeman had acted that way towards me. To know why the force is corrupt and to know the true enemy. That's where my song "Your Enemy" is from. The real enemy isn't the guy in the uniform. The real enemy is the government.
You showed so much support to the EndSARS protests in Nigeria last year. What's your take on the state of things in the country since then? How worth it were the protests?
My greatest worry from the start of the protest was that it would get bloody. I have heard so many second-hand stories about the extremely brutal character of Nigerian policemen and I just knew that when you push a rat to a corner, it will eventually attack you. So what happened was that we were finally speaking our mind in unison. We were finally telling the government that 'if you don't listen to us, nothing will work in this country', because we are the ones that make things happen. The power belongs to we, the people. We run this country. It's democracy. And I assumed that it would get violent. When the whole thing happened in October, I wasn't surprised because I knew the government would try to fight back and maintain the status of things. I was actually hopeful for the movement. You know, I had hoped that all the work of activists, starting from Fela and even to myself, would finally work and Nigeria would be better, but these people responded with violence and turned the movement bloody.
Made Kuti - Free Your Mind (Official Video) youtu.be
Everything just broke my heart and it just reminded me why I write the kind of music that I write. The last track "We Are Strong" on my album reflects what I think of the End SARS protests. We are strong because we have the numbers. And because we have the numbers, we can change things to our own benefit. We can build our own society because if we try to wait for the government to do that, nothing might happen. The only way to make things better is to outsmart the government and begin to take society decisions into our hands; do the right things and care for each other, start our own parties and act like one body of people, fund our own things and fight together. Just as the Feminist Coalition had raised over 200 million Naira to fund the protests and handled it so well. We should have more of those and on our own, become a system that out-powers this military rule of a government.
What's behind the name, For(e)ward?
So forward first means progress. As in, we have to know where we are coming from to know where we are and understand where we are headed. Secondly, 'foreward' (with the 'e') to mean my first body of work and my debut in the industry. It's my introduction into the system.
Tell us about growing up in the New Afrika Shrine.
It was liberating, empowering and enlightening. Because I was my dad's son, I could do as I pleased which got me into trouble once or twice. I used to play a lot. I used to jump all over the shrine, ride bikes and skate-board where people sat to eat and everything. I just used to be everywhere. So while I used to play, I would ask my father questions about things I saw in the Shrine. I asked questions about Malcolm X, Fela, and he gave me answers. Most times, those answers led to further questions and the cycle continued until I fully understood everything. When I turned 16, I read the 'Scramble for Africa'. I think that was the first book I read. And it made me understand certain things about where I come from. So it all started from the Shrine. I got to understand what my father was singing about every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, what the struggle was about and all of that. It made me ask the questions and helped me find those answers. So when I went to high school and I was being told what to do without having to learn for myself, I didn't like that kind of thing. School was supposed to make me conscious of my surroundings. They were supposed to make me happy, but I was getting sad instead. So Shrine was my escape from all of that. Shrine was the starting point for my music.
"I make the conscious effort to sound like myself."
What would you say differentiates your sound from that of other afrobeat creators in the game?
For one thing, I make the conscious effort to sound like myself. Some people just try to replicate my grandfather—which is a laudable skill of its own—but I work to sound like me and be original with it. I try to create music that is entirely myself. I like jazz, reggae, rock, highlife and so many other genres. I use classical techniques and blend them with my other genres. I started off with an intention to not sound like anybody, but to know what exactly I sound like.
Do you have plans of exploring other genres asides afrobeat, jazz and Ghanaian highlife?
Yes. Many, many, many.
Would you describe yourself as alté?
Well, even that in itself has become a category of its own. I try to not box myself or put myself in any of these categories.
What would give you that sense of fulfillment and satisfaction at the end of everything?
My goal is to attain internal happiness and I know that this can't come externally. It can't come from what people think of me and it can't come from me searching for other people's approval and I understood that long ago. My dad always told me to be myself. I let myself experiment with different things; the trumpet, the saxophone, the bass guitar, drums and everything. I just want to do authentic music. And then somewhere along the line, I became really politically conscious and most of my writings are in that light. I will feel fulfilled when I make music that makes me happy.
There's this lyric from an Incubus song that says: "If you let people make you, they'll make you paper mache. At a distance you're strong, until the wind comes. Then you crumble and blow away." But if you make yourself, you can look at yourself, judge yourself, criticise yourself and still be strong.
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