On first impression, the joie de vivre and passion that emanates from his personality is so palpable you can’t but feel it. Obsessed with the spirit, style and message of the legendary afro beat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, this multi billionaire in energy entrepreneur decided to share his infectious passion with the world…
Where and how did you first hear about FELA?
I bought one of his records about 10 years ago. I never heard anything as brilliant, as powerful with so many dimensions and depth to it. I basically became obsessed with the music, and then I read books, and sort of became obsessed with the idea of somehow finding a way of creating a theatrical presentation of the music and the life.
What exactly attracted and endeared you to his kind of music?
It’s complicated dance music, its sensual and sexual, with the most amazing foreign arrangements. It’s music that gets inside your body; you can’t sit there and not be physically moved by it. It makes you feel like it’s inside your blood stream, inside your muscles, and then the lyrics, unbelievable! For example: ‘Water no get enemy…” If water kills your child, you must still use it! He used his music to speak out against social injustice and speak for the necessity of being treated with human dignity.
What inspired the initiation of Broadway, and how did it all begin?
We didn’t choose to have Fela! On Broadway, we almost had no choice. When we started, we looked at the potential it had to determine the options. We developed it in an Off Broadway theatre, but we knew it wasn’t an Off Broadway show but we needed a space. It was a relatively inexpensive space, and it was available when we were able to do the show. I wanted it to be a theatre piece; it was always basically an avant-garde theatre piece was created by performance artistes. We opened and got amazing reviews, we sold out the show, and we were like “Now what do we do with it?” I thought of taking it to London, which has got a more sophisticated audience, and a larger Nigerian community and I thought, -and it’s cheaper also as there were people in London who could do the show. But looking more closely at the piece and not wanting to take the opportunity from the original cast so we developed it into Broadway.
What can you say about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti himself, as a person? What do you think of him?
Well, I don’t know him, he’s a complicated man, he was a man who was bigger than life, and obviously controversial. I know that he lived a very counter cultural lifestyle. We didn’t do an essay or biopic on Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Fela was perhaps the greatest composer of my lifetime. And in the end, he was perhaps the most courageous musician of my lifetime. He could have been an international rockstar touring with Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton but he chose to stay because he knew he was expressing, through his art, a universal message of human dignity and social justice, and I think that’s what we concentrated on in the show. Yes he had 27 wives, and smoked a lot, but does any of that really matter? What matters now all over the world is his message and his music.
Tell us what ‘Fela! On Broadway” is all about?
It’s a performance piece. We don’t connect the dots, it’s not a biopic. It is a work of artistic imagination, what we try to do through the music, the dance, the performances is take the audience to a world of intensity, of performance, take them on a journey; you will never know what’s coming next or how the piece is going to end.
So, what does it take to bring a show of this magnitude to life?
Endless commitment, energy, passion perseverance, it takes being totally committed, it takes unwilling to be defeated, it takes more than I ever possibly imagined it would.
Who are the people pulling the strings with you?
You know, we have a huge team. One thing is, we have local Nigerian producers so we are very grateful.
Why didn’t we have a Nigerian cast in the show?
We did open auditions in New York. We didn’t pay attention to where they were from, just how they danced, sang or played an instrument. One Nigerian-American auditioned and was cast, but we couldn’t take him strictly on that basis. Fela was Nigerian, but Fela for us is a global artiste, with a message of today. What we set out to do was create a global entertainment and we cast the best people that showed up for our auditions. And if no Nigerians showed up or some Nigerians showed up and we weren’t able to cast them, that’s the way it went. We didn’t have on our checklist ‘Cast Nigerians’.
I mean but don’t you think having a Nigerian cast would make it more unique?
When we started this, we didn’t know where it was going, all we know is we were going to cast the best artistes that show up for the audition .We performed last week at the New Africa Shrine run by Fela Kuti’s family and the crowd there loved the show. Femi got on stage and blessed the cast. No one there said, “how come there aren’t any Nigerians in the cast, or how many Nigerians are in the cast?” At the end of the day, you know, this is a show about a Nigerian but it’s a global show. And I’m sure there’ll be lots of Nigerians over the course of time in the show.
How much does it really cost to put this magnitude of a show together?
Well, that’s a private matter but it’s the original show, it’s the original cast, it’s the original set. It was a first class operation and people who came to see it had a first class production.
In economic terms, were you looking to profit from it?
I have investors in the show, I have obligations to them and I hope over the course of time that those investors get their money back. I personally think when you create something that can play and reach audiences all over the world; you want to be compensated for that, because otherwise, no one is ever going to do this. I can tell you so far we have not made any money, we have not returned any capital to our investors, and it’s been totally a labor of love by the production and the investors. It was an important part of the show to be well received in Lagos, we are thinking beyond Nigeria. We are hoping to take Fela’s message around the world.
Why did you bring this to Nigeria at this time?
I’m almost 60 years old. When was I going to do it, when I was 70? When I was dead? I do know that at this point, we’ve created something that’s bigger than those of us who created it, with its own momentum that reaches audiences, no matter who you are, whether you are white, black, Nigerian, Japanese, Brazilian. We created something that people respond to, and so we have to take it around and let people see it.
What do you think about Nollywood?
I’ve met Nollywood stars at some nollywood parties in New York and they were extremely supportive of Fela! I don’t really have time to see movies but I’ve seen excerpts from Nollywood movies. I’ve met Nigerians over the last 5 years since I’ve been involved in the show, and I’m overwhelmed by the energy, the talent, the vivacity, the creativity, the entrepreneurship of the Nigerians I’ve met. I feel badly that they are making brilliant lives for themselves in the United States and I hope that overtime things here provide opportunities for such wonderful people, because the human capital in Nigeria that I’ve experienced is mind-blowingly talented. And one of the great things for me of this whole experience was getting to meet so many wonderful Nigerians.
Are you converting Fela! to film?
Well, at some point, the answer is yes. A movie studio has a right to make a biopic about Fela, we have a right to make a film about the musical, and I have a right, to make a documentary about the musical, to make a film about the documentary and use documentary footage. I brought a documentary film crew with me to Lagos, one of America’s great documentary filmmakers is directing the documentary, we came to see what would happen.
Can you let us into your business life?
No… That’s private and I don’t discuss that at all.
Aside Fela!, what else are you involved in?
I’m a father, a husband, a grandfather. I have a job. Just so you know, that’s a lot to do! (laughs). And I really can’t do anymore of that. That really takes a lot of energy.
Yeah but you said you have a job. What kind of job do you do?
I’m an energy trader. I’m a commodity trader. I speculate in the energy market.
You run a company that does that? You run a company that speculates on energy?
What’s the name of the company?
This is about me and what I did in my private time, and not about my company.
What is your favorite FELA song?
Hmmm, it’s impossible to have one. (Laughs). I think my favorite is Coffin for the Head of State. In that song, I see the weight of the world, the pain of the short fall of expectations, and the thoughts of carrying that coffin, of standing up for something, of challenging fate and of protesting against the reality of the world. I think its all in that song. I’m a very rational person, but there’s something in that song that doesn’t exist anywhere else in human productivity. Can you listen to Water and not be happy and be grateful that you’re alive? There are 45 of his CD’s; so there are so many another lovely one is Beast of No Nation. (Laughs). The lyrics are so profoundly accurate in many ways. He said it in 6 words, ‘animal can’t dash us human rights’.
What are you most passionate about?
I have a wife and children and grandchildren that I love, but you know, the reality is this has become my passion. Before this happened I wasn’t involved in anything that could change the world, I wasn’t involved in anything that people would want to bring to Nigeria, or people would want to go see in New York or people would read about in the newspapers. I was a businessman, I went to work, I did my job, I came home I watched TV, I went to a play, read a book, so for me, this has been a transformation.
Tell us about your background
I grew up the oldest child in a lower middle class family, in Eastern Connecticut; a small town. My father eventually became more successful. I was sent away to boarding school, where I took a two year class in African literature and history; at age 16, I read a lot of post independence Nigerian literature, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuolo. Wole Soyinka came to my hometown once with his entire theatre company and premiered one of his plays. That was 35 years ago, I understood what independence meant and what colonization was, and what the post independence jubilation was, and what had happened, what writers were writing about. I became a lawyer, I was raised in a way to value human dignity, and ethical treatment, social justice, as a result I had an openness to, re-experience listening to Fela’s music. Brian Nino, a very famous record producer who produces Coldplay, U2, and the Parking Heads, he said, his life changed the first time he bought a FELA record, that it was the music of the future. My life changed when I bought the music.