“Heavy is the head that wears the crown”. Apply this analogy to a heritage bearing the world-famous name of KUTI, it becomes overwhelming to contemplate, considering what the name has stood for, spanning a notable four generational period to date. If you are a Kuti, chances are that you either happen to be a pioneering contributor to the Nigerian state attaining her independence from colonial rule, or that you are a legendary, universally renown multi-instrumentalist musician, activist and one time presidential aspirant who had a habit of making the Nigerian seat of power quake with utter discomfort with the release of each composition, or maybe, still, you are a multiple times Grammy-nominated World music maestro who, besides fearless acts of activism, randomly holds ridiculous records on the horns, besides releasing a bunch of groundbreaking records and earning the reverence of so many world-famous music geniuses.
Or, you may be a highly gifted progeny of all the above combined. Whew. The head of Made, the son of Femi Kuti, nephew of Seun and Yeni Kuti, grandson of Fela Kuti and great-grandson of Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti, may be heavy, but certainly not with the pressures and perks of descending from such colossal greatness. Rather, the young man’s head is presently heavy with the burdens of his own gifts, creativity, dedication to his art, his journeys as a growing man and his concerns for his people in the land of his birth, pretty much like his predecessors before him.
From starting out at the tender age of eight playing bass and saxophone in his father’s band; Positive Force, to unveiling his own band; The Movement, a debut single in 2020 and subsequently his debut album “For(e)ward” in 2021, on which he played multiple instruments in the recording process, Made’s stack of experience from music, academics and travel has only polished him and earned him a steadily growing but albeit well deserved recognition in his home country and internationally. “For(e)ward“, coupled with father Femi Kuti’s “Stop The Hate” record, and released as the double album “Legacy+“, just earned a nomination for the Best Global Music Album category alongside Beninese legend Angelique Kidjo and pop giant Wizkid at the impending 64th Grammy Awards.
We spoke with Made Kuti and he shared a good bit about his life as the progeny of one of Africa’s greatest music heritage, his come up and challenges as a musician, his musicianship, his perspectives on present-day Nigerian music, and his projections into the future.
Read full interview below:
Talk us through your background, growing up and where you are right now?
I grew up in a family that allows freethinking, philosophies and ideologies. Growing up in the shrine allowed a lot of liberal thoughts and under the guidance of good parenting, I was very engaged with music and musical instruments which gave me a means to reach an objective because I was free to find my own goals and get access to things that will allow me reach those goals. I had a very nice childhood, and of course there were difficulties like every other person but the freedom of self-expression is what has really influenced everything positive that has come through in my life.
You come from a strong, historical lineage replete with real-time legends deeply rooted in arts, music and activism. How has this impacted you as a person and your music?
To have an understanding of yourself you have to know everything that has been as far as it concerns you, everything that is, and where you want everything to go.
Understanding the legacy and heritage that I come from, musicians like Fela, my father “Femi” and Uncle Seun to very strong activist like Funmilayo Ransom Kuti, Dr Beko. I understand that as basic as it is, there have been people in my country that were concerned with the wellbeing of the people around them and growing up with that kind of mindset I’ve always been conscious about how what I do impacts my environment.
So if I’m making music, it has to be relevant, if I wanted to do arts or sciences, whatever I do has to be fruitful, not just for myself but for my entire nation, for my people – so that we are represented well on a global scale.
“Knowing my heritage and its legacy helped me understand that there is fulfillment in living outside of selfish desire.”
In line with your family history, do you feel the pressure to live a certain standard in your way of life?
There’s a belief that the Kuti family are expected to be or act in some certain way, and sincerely, that’s the truth but like I mentioned earlier I had a very free childhood. The choice to pick up an instrument, play in my Dad’s band and study music was mine.
Everything I did regarding my musical career was a choice that I made for myself; all my father ever did was support my choices. As far as pressure, it never comes internally, it tends to come externally but luckily for the kind of upbringing that I had, I’ve always had good value about what I want to do over any expectations that people might have, but luckily everything that I want to do is based on what I want to do. I’m the type that absolutely blocks out noise; I did not get on social media (Instagram) until 2018, so I do what I want to do.
You have been touring since the age of eight, what’s your most memorable moment in those times playing along side your father?
My most memorable moments are off stage. Touring is very hectic and not as pleasant as people think. As a child, I was not responsible for anything; I was just being carried along for everything. When I started to play in my dad’s band, the little conversations that I used to have with my dad before climbing the stage or after, those are the kind of things that I put a lot of value on.
Playing on stage was nice; I’ve been to every continent except South America by the time I was 13. Even at then I did not understand the value, all I knew was that I was going on tour with my dad whom I love so much, who taught me everything that I needed to know in those moments that I was with him on the road. For example, circular breathing with a saxophone where you hold one note for a very long time – that was just a little back and forth that we had just before he had to climb on stage, he gave me a straw, gave me a cup of water and that’s how I learnt, so it’s the little things that matter.
As someone who plays more than one musical instrument, which musical instruments do you find most attached to and why?
That’s a difficult question but the first instrument I ever picked up was a trumpet, after that was a sax and piano, then the drums and the guitar, much later the base. For about 4 years, I didn’t play any instrument other than the piano because I was studying the classical piano when I was 15 till I was about 19/20. Just before I recorded my first album I said to myself what if I play every instrument on the album by myself, so I went into practice mode and was practicing 12 hours a day, I’ll start with one instrument, couple of hours on each and before I knew it I was practicing nonstop for about quarter of a year, luckily it was during Covid and I didn’t have anything else to do. I stepped into the studio, played the drums myself, the bass, guitar, trumpet, saxophone, piano, did the lead and backing vocals, and the satisfaction that came with that was nice but the stress, illness and breakdown that came from that feat was significantly greater.
I won’t say I play any instrument more. To say you play an instrument means that you can play it to your own satisfaction and you’re so confident in it that you are a master of it. I think am a student of all the instruments that I play and there’s not a single instrument that I will play instead of the rest.
How important is it for you to represent Afrobeat?
Representing Afrobeat has become important because I consider myself an Afrobeat musician, it was not a goal to necessarily be the face of Afrobeat music for my generation or anything like that, however as a musician who has studied what I do, passionate about my art, who trains very hard everyday to hone my skills, I know that it is absolutely imperative that I do exactly that.
As an Afrobeat musician, just like the Jazz and classical musicians, I must represent the art form on a global scale at the highest possible stands. That is my choice as a musician.
What will you say is praiseworthy about the present day Afrobeat?
I think what is really exceptional is that music is thriving in a society where it is shun, an average young talent doesn’t have any means to learn an instrument other than teaching himself, or going to church or playing with gospel musicians. Everyone is self-taught and everyone is hustling and to see that the hustle has been so successful in the way that it has been.
Afrobeat is now all over the world, it’s now in clubs, bars, massive stadium and venues, the 02 Arena, and to see the success that has come from the honest struggle from the love that they have for what they are doing is very satisfying.
My problem is the lack of musicianship; the consequence of commercial success is having on the industry in Nigeria. There has to be a means for an instrumentalist to know that by being successful and skilled at his instrument there is a means of survival in the society for it. Every musician in Nigeria has obstacles and challenges that are far greater than any of his peers outside of Nigeria and as a concerned musician who has had countless opportunities to see that those opportunities don’t exist for other people in the country is the opposite of the satisfaction that I get from seeing Afrobeat commercial success.
Take us back to your album music “For(e)ward.” What inspired the name?
My album titled For(e)ward with the e in bracket is a pun. It’s my first body of work; it means two things; the body of work shows my desire to progress, I want to move forward, and everything I do I want to push it, whether its musically, ideologically, my character, I want to always evolve.
It’s also the introduction to everything that I’ m about to do. It took a lot of thinking to come up with that For(e)ward, but how you pronounce it is the same.
Your song in the album “We Are Strong” you speak about sacrifice. Can you tell us some sacrifices you had to make as a musician?
Coming back to Lagos, that was the easiest and the biggest sacrificial choice I’ve made. Honestly I’m a British citizen, after I studied and spent 7 years in London, the choice existed to stay or to come back. But like I said, understanding everything I’ve been, and everything that has been before me and knowing that I want what I do to influence and have a positive impact on my community, I can’t do that outside of Lagos. I can’t sing about Lagos problems in the comfort of West Kensington. I can’t be the voice of an artiste without experiencing what I’m singing about, so coming back was never really a choice, I knew I was going to do it.
Also choosing to play instrumental music was a difficult choice because there isn’t much of the market for it in Lagos but I know what I’m doing, I like what I’m doing and I’ll fight for it. Everyday I make choices that feel like a sacrifice. Everyday is like that.
“Hymn” on the album is relatable to the times we living in right now. What’s your perception about Nigeria?
Nigeria is decaying and has been decaying for many years, the reference that my dad often uses is ‘there’s a time it was $2 to N1, now it is N580 to $1, if you reference that, I think the problem has gotten 580 times worse’.
Honestly there’s no single sector in Nigeria that works, education is failing, infrastructure is failing, employment-job opportunities don’t exist, water, light, housing, basic amenities, roads, nothing works, and because nothing works, the human condition is to adapt to your society. So no matter where you place human beings they have to find a means of survival, and a country where everything is failing and the only way to succeed is to be a part of that failing method, the character and Nigerian character develops in that way, Nigerians have developed a very country character to the kind of people that we are, now we are skeptical, we lie a lot, we’re dishonest, we’re late, we just don’t represent ourselves in the way that I know that we are. You sit down to have a conversation with the average Nigerian you find that he’s a bowl of intellect and intelligence, but the moment you put him into society, you find that he’s fraudulent, corrupt, taking bribes, honestly we’ve developed characters to fit Nigeria and the consequence of that is Nigerian character as well as the country is now heading downslope that it’s hard to see hope. I find hope in future generations, in the hope that the young Nigerian, that is passionate about how existence is just by having honest questions like ‘why is Nigeria the way it is’, ‘what did we used to be before we became like this’, having questions of the colonial era, the pre-colonial era, just basic inquisitive children that is what I think is the hope of the country. Because as far as I’m concerned we are misguided, and because we are misguided there’s no real avenue to be successful honestly in Nigeria.
“To be an honest, rich successful Nigerian is nearly impossible.” Half our graduates don’t have jobs, how many of us studied and put in practice what we graduated with? And that’s just sad.
You made a collaboration project with your Dad on “Legacy +.” How do you describe the energy when recording with him and why was it important to make the project?
It was the third time I was in the studio recording with my Dad. Legacy+ is two albums; it has my Dad’s side and my side.
“Stop the Hate” is my Dad’s side of the album and “For(e)ward” is my side of the album. I played sax and bass in my dad’s side and I played everything myself on my side of the album.
Been in the studio with someone experienced, that was his 10th or 11th studio album, that has nearly probably over a hundred songs to his name and catalogue, who recorded with Fela himself on several records, played live with him, toured with him. The experience of that individual in the studio, there’s no word to describe it. It is an absolute source of information, source of support and knowledge; he’s everything I needed to make that album work.
Who is Made Kuti without music?
Made Kuti does not exist today without music. I cannot be without music. For me to be without music, I’ll have to change my entire persona, and that’s not possible.
You were recently selected as a Voting member to join the Recording Academy Class of 2021. How important is it for you?
It’s very important to me because my Dad has been nominated 4 times and I’ve always been interested in the process of the voting stages of the Grammys and to be able to be a part of it, and to be able to be Nigerian and add that level of diversity to the voting stages, I feel like I’m doing something that is very relevant, not just for myself but also for people that hear music the way we do as well.
Spirituality or Religion, where is Made Kuti in this equation?
Honestly, logic. I put logic before anything else. I also understand that logic itself cannot define everything and that’s where I stand.
What would you want your legacy to be?
Whatever it is, what is important is that it should have a positive impact on the people that come after me. For the young musician that sees Made’s career, whatever I do, I want it to be something that inspires them to know that what they are doing is something that they can do with love and they can do as a life choice.
I want to create an avenue that young musicians can enter and be happy. As long as I know that my impact is positive to younger generation, then I’m happy.
You can also watch full interview on Youtube:
Words: Collins Dada
Interview: Moses Adeyemo
Photography: Bolurin Onafeso
Videographer: Ebiniyi Fisayo
Assit: Adebayo Adetola and Anuoluwapo Dada
Creative Director: Rayo Kasali
Executive Producer: Edun Adedamola