Sunday, May 22, 2011

Yeni Kuti on Her Life As Fela's Eldest Daughter

Yeni Kuti… It's spring yet for the lady of dance

Sunday, 22 May 2011 00:00

Life Magazine - Spotlight
Reprinted From the Nigerian Guardian

THIS afternoon, the New African Shrine was bubbling with activities. Some young boys and girls stood at different corners having swell time. While some savoured beats from the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music playing, others watched the movie showing on screen.

I had scheduled an interview with Yeni Kuti, who will be marking her 50th birthday on Tuesday; so, I was at the shrine to keep a date with her.

This is my second time of having a one on one chat with Yeni, Fela’s eldest daughter. The scenario seems the same; the birthday lady was busy taking record of activities at the Shrine.

The only difference is that, unlike the first visit where she was in a company of a man, this time around, she was in company of her little dog. The same one she brought to the Freedom Park, Lagos, during the grand finale of the just concluded Lagos Heritage Festival.

“Hi, you are welcome,” she says, as she removes her eyeglasses. “I hope we can do the interview while I’m working,” she quizzes.

Since all I needed was Yeni’s voice, who cares what she was doing with her hands as far as she attends to my questions.

How does it feel attaining the age of 50?

“Right now, it's really exciting, because I've already got a present; my management just gave me that freezer behind you,” she giggles. “So, I'm really excited. At 50, you now feel, ok, you are now officially old; there's no omoge and all that. I remember in those days when people say they are 50, you look at them as if they are 100 years. But now, look at me; I'm 50,” she says, laughing.

Any changes?

“Well, those days, I could eat anything and still remain thin; these days, I can't eat just anything and remain thin; I have to watch what I eat. I think this is one thing I don't like because I really love food. So, having to stop my favourite food like pounded yam is like killing me.”

Have you not been eating pounded yam?

“I haven't eaten pounded yam for about six months now,” she says, taking notes.

How did you manage to come to that?

“Okay, let me confess; I ate pounded yam maybe a month ago,” she reveals. “In those days, I used to eat it everyday. Now, it’s no longer something I can do everyday, anymore.”

So, you were able to control yourself?

“It's vanity; I will call it vanity because I don't want to get really huge. Already, I know I'm over weight, but with a bit of discipline, I was able to reduce some of the weights. In the last one month, I've not been disciplined, but during the Fela! on Broadway, I was eating all those mede mede,” she says, excitedly. “So, the good weights I had lost are back again.”


“Well, not as much as it was before, but not as little as I would have loved it to be. So, it's difficult. About a month ago, I was on a strict diet of just okro made with pepper and fish, no palm oil. I would drink that as my breakfast. In the afternoons, I ate amala. If I'm really, really hungry, I eat beans. But it's not easy at all.”

AT 50, Yeni still looks very fit. In fact, with her agility, it’s obvious the renowned dancer can still hold her grounds on the big stage. What’s the secret?

“I think dancers and performers, because they've trained themselves to go through that vigorous activities all their lives, tend to be fit. Also, because you are a dancer and you are so slim, when you start putting on weight, people easily notice it. When people who haven't seen me for about five years now see me, they will be like 'ah, you are fat now.' So, I feel really bad. I think for dancers, it's the activities that we've done for so long that keeps us toned. No matter the amount of weight I put on, my body is still toned; I don't have flab because of all the activities we've done all the years. It's not a scientific analogy, but it's what I believe,” she says.

How do you feel now having danced for about 20 years and people are beginning to embrace dance?

“I wished that when we started dancing that it was embraced like it is today. But I don't really want to live on regrets because we were people who started it all; we are the pioneers that made dance accepted today. In those days, it wasn't accepted. I remember those days when I was married to my ex-husband; people would go and tell him, 'ah, you are allowing her to dance!' To me, I've been dancing even before I married him, so, he himself saw it that way, but his peers would always talk to him about that. I'm happy that dance is accepted in our society today and we made it that way.”

IT is on record that Yeni played a vital role in what is known today as live band dance, which she initiated in her brother’s band, The Positive Force. And according to the dancer, the move was deliberate.

“I didn't just happen; we set out to do it. When I was much younger, I learnt how to dance Afrobeat. When I was 18, I used to watch my father rehearse with his band; so, I wanted to choreograph his dances. But when I mentioned it to one of his wives, she was very negative about it, so, I didn't go ahead with it. But when my brother, Femi, mentioned that he was setting up his band, I saw it as an opportunity to choreograph; my sister and I took up the challenge. We had several rehearsals with some of our friends we co-opted into the group. We were four and we all had different styles of outfits and we wanted to ensure that our dance routines come out well. December 13, 1986, that was our first performance; that first show, we were nervous and excited.”

Unfortunately today, a lot of the young people are not keen on rehearsals and professionalism?

“I think there are a few, who are still doing long rehearsals; when you see some of them perform during Felabration, you would know that they did their home work. For me, putting up a good show is everything intact. When I go to see a show, I look at everything; the music, the instruments, the dance…everything. So, for me, I will advice them to work on their performance because that's what everybody wants to see; personally, I don't want to see people on stage jumping up and down.”

AS the first daughter of Fela, it was natural for Yeni to play in the art sector, but she insists her father’s music wasn’t really the attraction.

“It wasn’t really my father because he was a musician not a dancer; it was in my blood. People, who knew us in those days, they used to see my sister and I get into the stage with my father’s dancers. Though I never danced with my father’s band, we used to join them during rehearsals.”

Unlike her siblings, Femi and Seun, who toed their father’s part, Yeni, the eldest daughter of the late music legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, gained her popularity in dance, which she started at a very tender age. She even had her parents support.

“My mother was always very supportive and my brother Femi was about starting his band then. So, my sister and I told him, ‘we are going to do choreography for you, in fact, we are going to dance.’ And my mother, she’s used to supporting her children in anything that we were doing. And my father will not say, ‘don’t dance; shebi my father was a musician. So, there was no dissenting voice really,” she says. “I’ve always loved dancing; I started dancing at a very tender age; about three years old. When I was in secondary school, I joined all the cultural dance groups in my school. Before then, when my father was practicing with his dancer, Dele, I always join her; she used to teach me how to dance Afrobeat.”

Though many see dance as a hobby, for Yeni, all she wanted in life was to be a professional dancer. “When I left secondary school, instead of going to journalism school, I wanted to go to a dancing school abroad, but my father couldn’t afford it. That was why I could not attend a dancing school,” Yeni retorts.

The many discouraging comments from her peers, most of who were dreaming of becoming lawyers and doctors, did not change anything.

“I didn’t hear them; they must have been talking to themselves, not me. I mean, you get the odd ones saying, ‘ah, Yeni, don’t dance oh!’ In secondary school, most of my friends knew that I loved dance and they always tried to discourage me. I remember when we were going to write our Ordinary Level examination –– I was the only student still dancing –– all the other once had given up; they were just reading their books. So, I used to hear my friends say, ‘oh, don’t dance, face your books’ and I will say to them, ‘all right, I’m coming, I’ coming’.”

As a student, combining academics and dance was a difficult task for Yeni, but like she puts it, “I did the preferred; dance.”

Having excelled in her chosen field, topmost in Yeni’s agenda is to set up her own dance troupe and touring around the world.

“I will love to have a dance troupe, but right now, work doesn’t permit me to do that. But for sure, I will definitely have a dance troupe. It has not been easy running the Shrine but it’s enjoyable; it’s actually a par of our dream of maintaining Fela’s legacy. He was such a great man and I’m very proud that we are in the position to maintain his legacy and even do our best to carry it to greater heights,” she quips.

DESPITE the success story of FELA! In Lagos show, many still have issues with the production, especially with the absence of a Nigerian cast, but Yeni thinks otherwise.

“Honestly, when they brought the contract paper for us to sign, I didn't really take it serious; we've signed a lot of papers like that, so, I didn't take it serious. Then I started hearing from people that Fela was going on Broadway. Some would come to me and say 'I saw one play of Fela! on Broadway, did you people know about it?' And I began to wonder, is that not the same contract we signed the other time? At a point we started hearing that Jay Z and Beyonce went to see the show, with other big stars. In fact, we started reading it on international journals, so, that was when we started taking it serious.”

As against rumours from different quarters, The Anikulapo Kuti’s were actually invited specially to see the production in New York, as a mark of respect. “They invited us to see the show and booked our hotels, but Femi did not come to see it; he said if they wanted him to see the show, they should bring it to Nigeria. Seun was on tour, so, he couldn't make it. I was there with my daughter; she was seven years when my father died. I was down that day, so, I was sleeping during the performance and my daughter would tap me and say 'mummy, mummy, see…' From a bit that I saw, I was impressed.”

Another invitation was later extended to Yeni to see the show for the second time; that was when the production got the Tony Award.

“This time, I watched it all through; I didn't sleep,” she said bursting into laughter. “At the end of the show, I started crying. Even when they called me on stage, I was still crying.”

Why were you crying?

“I was watching how they interpreted the story of my father. I was an adult when they burnt down my father's house; so, it was very emotional for me. Later, the producers got in touch with Femi to see the show; he promised Femi that the show would come to Nigeria and Femi was there. At the end, he ended up crying as well; we cried but nobody noticed us, but Femi's own was in the papers; New York Times published it,” she says jokingly.

For those, who still have issues with the production, Yeni, the first daughter of the late Afrobeat legend, sees the show as the highest honour to her late father.

“How do you tell when somebody is great?
First, when people emulate the person. Secondly, when people want to tell the person's story. Fourteen years after, people still want to tell Fela’s story. Look, people have forgotten that Fela was a pan-Africanist; he never said he was a Nigerian. Most of the cast are Africans, so, I think it's a sort of paying homage to Fela. It’s a thing of honour that all those people came together for the sake of Fela and we feel honoured.”

She continued: “In Nigeria, corporate organization don’t even want to associate with Fela; they said he smoked igbo. Every year, we struggle to fund Felabration because of lack of sponsors; people like MTN have labeled Fela brand a no go area; they don’t want to associate with him. But here is a group from the United States putting millions to showcase the life of Fela. I was once walking on the Broadway street and I saw Fela’s name on a big poster and I was like, ‘I wish Fela was alive to see this.”

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