At 52, Yeni Kuti, daughter and first child of the late Afro beat musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti is full of life. She still loves to dance and can wriggle her waist like she used to do at 27 when she started dancing professionally with the band. The mother of one, whose marriage crashed some years ago was at home in her New African Shrine office.
At 52, you still look strong and dashing, what is the secret?
I think the first secret behind my looks is to be happy. Try your best to smile or even laugh no matter what you are confronted with. That is what I do. I try as much as possible to laugh a lot. Then apart from laughing, I try to watch what I eat because even if I start laughing from now till eternity without a good diet, I may not get a good result. But I must be honest with you, some months back, I wasn’t eating healthy. I was eating everything I see. But now, I have reduced that. I don’t eat much of junk these days but if I’m very hungry and junk food is what I see, I eat but I don’t eat much of that. Another thing that helps me to keep fit is that I love to dance. Oh yes, I still dance a lot. While doing my dance class I burn excess fat in the process. I dance three times in a week – twice with the band and once for my dance class where I teach people how to dance Afro beat. Finally, I don’t take my dinner anything beyond 7 p.m.
Besides these, do you still drink and smoke?
I don’t drink beer or brandy but I can take alcoholic wine, especially Champaign. I drank a lot last night at the party of my good friend who clocked 50. I take soft drinks once in a while unlike before when I used to have it with every meal. I do a TV show every Thursday so I have to wake up at 4.30 a.m. on Thursdays to go for it because it is a life show. For that, I have curbed my alcohol intake a lot. I may take it once or twice in a week. As for smoking, I don’t smoke anymore. I must tell you it was very difficult to stop. I tried for several years to quit but all to no avail. I wouldn’t smoke for, like two or three weeks, and then I would start all over again. Smoking, honestly, is a very difficult habit to stop. What really gingered me to stop was when my daughter was entering university and I thought it over and said to myself, if I continue this my smoking habit and I die in the process before she graduates, how would she graduate? Who would pay her fees? It is only me she has. That was enough inspiration for me not to smoke because I wanted to be alive to see my daughter graduate.
How about your daughter, has she ever smoked?
No, she doesn’t smoke. She has never smoked before and I thank God for that. One thing about me when I was smoking was that I tried not to smoke in front of my daughter. She knew I smoked but I never lit a stick before her. I tried to keep that life away from her. That wasn’t a role model she would have followed because she wasn’t seeing me smoke. I don’t agree with one smoking in a room where there are kids or children.
When you clocked 50 two years ago, did you nurse the fear that you were getting old?
Of course, every woman nurses such fears. I felt that way. When I was much younger, I used to see anybody who clocked 50 as an ancient person. Funny enough, our kids too see us as such. My daughter, my nephews would say right in my face that I’m old but I would hush them. You need to see how I shout at them to shut up! One thing about hitting 50 is that you suddenly realise that you have spent more years on this planet Earth than you have left to live. When you hit 50, you begin to look at your achievements. 50 is a reality check, which is what made me happy that I have a good business. I may not be rich like that but at least I can eat and pay salaries. I’m happy for who I am. I have not realised all my dreams but at least I’m a happy person.
How was growing up?
While growing up, I had friends in school. A lot of parents did not like their children mixing up with us because we were Fela’s children. But then, such reactions were mixed because there were also parents who liked us and some that didn’t like us because of who we were. I don’t dwell on that anymore because that is past and it is gone. Maybe they thought that being Fela’s children we would be lighting up and smoking one big ‘Igbo’ (hemp). But honestly, that wasn’t the case with us then. They were very negative-minded. I felt bad about that. I don’t think you should judge a person without giving them the chance to know who she or he is; you just judge by maybe what the parent is doing or was doing. I think that is wrong. If someone’s father is an armed robber, would you say his son or daughter is an armed robber too. My father was a musician and when you look at some of the richest, young people today, they are musicians. Now, a lot of parents want their children to start singing hip-hop and make money for them.
How about guys then, were they relating with you? Did some of them woo you?
Guys didn’t have negative impression of me. The toasters were game. It is only their parents that didn’t just like me. They didn’t want their sons to go out or date Fela’s child. There were times they walked me away when I came visiting. There was a particular woman who seriously warned me never to come to her house to visit her son who was my boyfriend then. She was actually very nasty about my coming to see her son, I mean very nasty, she didn’t hide it at all. Her son was nice to me and was my boyfriend but his mother didn’t like me one but because of my father. In fact, she came one day and descended on me when I visited. It was a very ugly scene. I really don’t want to remember it although the whole thing is still fresh in my memory. The whole scenario that happened is still etched in my memory.
She walked you out of her son’s residence, did you cry later?
No, I didn’t cry! Did I cry that I wasn’t proud of my father or what? Or that I was ashamed of my father or what? They are the ones with a problem and not me. But that kind of thing would annoy me. They never made me cry or shed tears.
How was the relationship with your boyfriend, his mother having walked you out?
The relationship didn’t continue. We broke up. It didn’t just last. I knew that at times many parents didn’t want their sons dating me. That was why I wasn’t keen to meet people’s parents. I was very nervous about meeting people’s parents.
You were once married, what led to the breakup?
Yes, I was once married when I was in my 20s. My marriage then was fine but honestly I would not want to talk about my marriage. You can ask me about other things but not my marriage because I believe it is too personal to talk about. My ex-husband and I are still very friendly. We have a daughter between us. Please let’s leave it at that.
Have you ever felt like remarrying?
There was never a time I was in desperate need of another marriage. But I’m in a very happy relationship and I really don’t think I need to be married to be happy. Our relationship has been going on for a few years. I’m not a marriage kind of person. I have experienced it before and I don’t need to experience it again to know that I’m a human being or to know I’m a fulfilled woman. I’m quite okay with myself. I’m not missing marriage at all and as I said, I’m in a good relationship. I don’t need to get married to know that I’m happy.
What are some of your regrets in life?
I don’t like to dwell on regrets. There are things you would have done that you wished you didn’t do. I don’t dwell on them. I don’t relive them because there is nothing I can do about the situation. Once it has happened, there is nothing I can do to change it. So, I don’t dwell on it. I just move forward with my life. Regret is a negative feeling that will take you back, and I wouldn’t want anything that would take me back.
When you started dancing, how did it feel like, didn’t it affect your education? And what did you study?
It was fun. I loved to dance. I was doing a normal nine to five job but when my brother had his band, I left my job and joined him. There was not much money in it then but I didn’t regret it for one second. And each time I was on stage dancing, I was very happy. I was doing what I believe I was born to do. If you had seen me in those days; I was always smiling on stage. It pains me that I’m now getting old, but I still dance. I can still wriggle my waist the way I used to. It is just that I don’t do it on stage anymore because for me, if I do it, a lot of people who watch the dance are people I can give birth to. I would feel a bit funny dancing for them. That is like dancing for children. I still wish I could dance and go on tour but I have grown to another level.
I wasn’t dancing until after my education. I started dancing at 27. It is true I danced while I was still going to school but it didn’t affect my education.
I first studied Journalism but I didn’t do my finals and that was at the Nigerian Institute of Journalism when it was on the Lagos Island. After that, I did a secretarial course at Speed Writing School. I worked for four years before I started dancing.
What level are you now?
I’m at the level of teaching others how to dance. I also manage or run the shrine which, of course, is like a full-time job.
What does it take to run the Shrine?
You would have to ‘shine’ your eyes else they would cheat you. It is very difficult to trust anybody because there were some boys I trusted and they really did me bad. I don’t trust easily and I’m always here at the Shrine almost every day; unless I’m out of town. I try to make sure I’m here every day. Running the Shrine takes a lot out of you. But I don’t mind that, after all it is my business. I enjoy it.
For your staff, what do you do when they misbehave?
I don’t sack. I give them chance to either change or improve. I’m a bit soft. I don’t sack unless I find out that you are cheating me. If not, I like to give people chance to change. My brother even complains about this. He said I don’t know how to sack. That is why at times they use that as an avenue to misbehave. But what I do is to fine them. My staff enjoy working for me. I don’t carry any matrimonial problem to the work place, which is common among women because there is no marriage in the first place. I don’t think I’m a wicked boss.
What do you remember most about your late father?
I miss so many things about him – his talks, chats and music. I loved listening to him and his live shows. I missed watching him every week unless I wasn’t in town. I never missed his shows. There are some things that would happen and I say to myself, I wished Fela was here, he would have loved to hear this. But he has gone a while, so you have to move on unless you want to move into the ground. This reminds me of the time he was being lowered into his grave how one of his wives was crying and trying to enter into his grave. I told them to leave her let’s see whether she would enter and when she was left, she didn’t enter and I told them that all that was just a show. I don’t believe in that kind of show.
You used to call him Fela, which wasn’t African?
Well you have to tell him that. He is the one that wanted it. We never called him dad right from childhood. We wanted to but he didn’t want that. But calling him by his name didn’t stop us from relating well with him as our father.
What about your mother?
She never came to watch Fela’s live shows but she loved him until she died. I guess there were some certain things she couldn’t get along with him on. I think it was mostly his spiritual beliefs. She didn’t believe in them.
What is your life’s philosophy?
This is a hard one. I think mine is happiness and honesty. To be alive alone is a thing of joy.