Rebel with a cause

Rebel with a cause
  • PublishedSeptember 18, 2013

Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (pictured) is acknowledged as a titan of African music. Few people knew him better than his friend and business manager Rikki Stein, who still looks after the affairs of the musician and his family. He spoke to Stephen Williams about the life and times, as well as the legacy, of the King of Afrobeat.

Rikki Stein recalls his first encounter with Fela Kuti in the late 1970s with a laugh. Stein, who has had a long career managing musicians and dance troupes on tours around the world, was in the back of a Mercedes van with an African dance group called Ekome, “lying in a pile of bodies going home from a show.” During the journey, somebody put a cassette in the van’s player – it was Fela’s 1977 album, Sorrow, Tears and Blood.

Like many people who first hear Fela, Stein was immediately bowled over by what he heard. “Sometimes you just hear something, right?” he explains. “‘What the hell was that?’ I remember asking. That music just registered with me and after that I did some research and got entranced with this guy called Fela.”

But it would be a year or so later that he would actually get to meet the man. Stein was involved in putting on a festival of Rain Forest music. The idea was to invite musicians from all the world’s rainforest countries to come to the UK to perform. He’d got the site for the festival and was working with a foundation called Earth Life that had established a huge conservation area in Cameroon of thousands of square miles of forest. Guinness (the brewers) were going to sponsor the event.

Then, Stein heard that Fela was in London. Using a network of friends to find out where he was staying, and putting the Rain Forest Festival’s proposal together, he went to see if Fela would agree to join the board of advisors and also take part as a performer.

Stein tells the story this way: “It was a bitterly cold winter’s day in London. I went and visited his hotel and knocked on the door. I was wrapped up in a heavy coat, sweater, scarf and hat. When the door opened, the room was so hot I almost fainted. You know, Fela used to travel with electric heaters to supplement hotel heating! And there he was sitting in his Speedos!

“Anyway, I had put the presentation together in a Morocco leather folder and sat next to him while he looked through it. I don’t remember what I said but I said something. He just turned around and looked at me and we both started to laugh, and I can’t explain it but we just became friends in that instant, and then he called me ‘Nature boy’ ”.

“I remember, I said to him, ‘I have got to go now’, and he walked me to the lift in his five-star hotel. There was a couple standing by the lift, obviously going out to a reception or something, wearing ball gowns and tuxedos. You can imagine their reaction on seeing Fela wandering up the corridor barefoot and dressed only in his Speedo swim-shorts.”

Fela was about to do the last date of his tour in London, and he invited Stein to come along. After that, Fela stayed a few more days in London and Stein got a telephone call every day, inviting him to the hotel. They would have dinner together and chat. “Around two o’clock I’d say, ‘OK, Fela, I’m off now’. Fela would reply ‘Now Rikki, listen – there’s this thing I wanted to tell you’, and he would start telling me some story. I would stagger out of there at five o’clock in the morning, go home, shower, change my clothes and go back to work again and this went on for days on end.

“You can imagine, I was working morning, noon and night on the Rain Forest Festival, and spending the rest of my nights with Fela. No sleep!

“So that was the beginning of my relationship. Then unfortunately, at the last minute, Guinness pulled out and the festival didn’t happen. Anyway, I had also met Fela’s manager, Francis Kertekian, and you know when somebody like me turns up when you are on the road, for a manager this is a danger signal! At first he was alarmed and concerned about how quickly Fela and I had become firm friends. But, anyway, cutting a long story short, Francis and I also became good friends and we are still friends today. He started asking me to do some things and then the next thing that happened was that Fela asked me if I would like to co-manage and things just developed from there.”

Stein has a treasure trove of anecdotes about the years he spent with Fela, including his first taste of the madness on his first visit to Lagos. “I arrived at Fela’s house, and fell into conversation with another guest, a promoter, who wanted to put on Fela at the national stadium. When he put the proposition to Fela, Fela just said, ‘Oh, Rikki! You know about these things, you will do it’.

“But this guy was a complete lunatic. He had bought a PA system in New York that he was flying in, and he was building his own lighting rig. Problem was, he didn’t know what he was doing and when we went to see how they were getting along we found he had had it made it out of steel, can you imagine, steel! It took 30-plus people to pick it up. Anyway, the show happened.

“Next thing was the African-American sound engineers turned up with the PA and a lot of attitude. We put all this together. Then, at one point, somebody ran out and said, ‘Rikki, come! Come quickly’. There were these area boys [street gang boys] who had been sitting on the stadium roof and urinating on the police below. Then these area boys came down and began running around. There was an incredible ballet that took place, with all the area boys taunting the police and running around the stadium. It felt like a riot. But, despite everything, we had a great show at the stadium.”

Stein continued to help manage Fela’s interests right up to the musician’s death in 1979 and has done so ever since. During the 1990s he and Kertekian started the process of collating and re-mastering Fela’s catalogue, reconstituting the original sleeves, having the lyrics translated, and fighting-off the pirates.

“It was a huge job,” Stein says. “I mean, the catalogue was so disparate. It was just scattered across so many different labels. Fela always had a fractious relationship with labels. But what we did was create a coherent body of work, but it took us 10 years to do it.”

Just after Fela’s passing, on behalf of the family, Stein and Kertekian signed a $1m deal with Universal. The executors of his estate, which were his children, invested their money wisely, and built from the ground up the new African Shrine, not far from the club with the same name that Fela had created as his base in Lagos. And Stein played a key role in the huge success that the ‘Fela!’ musical generated on both sides of the Atlantic. How the musical came about is a story worth telling in itself. It all began when a commodity broker in the US, Stephen Hendel, was surfing the web and for some reason or another (he is still not quite sure just why) he bought a Fela record from Amazon.

“He just became fascinated,” Stein explains. “He listened to it all the time in his car. First of all, the music grabbed him and then he [Hendel] started listening to what Fela was talking about. He is a man who has a very keen sense of social justice. Perhaps I am speculating, but he did not necessarily get to practice in his life what he had a very deep feeling for.”

Stein gets all sorts of madcap proposals put to him regarding Fela, and at first, when Hendel approached him with the musical idea, Stein readily admits that he just dismissed the concept as another crazy idea. “I was a self-appointed guardian of Fela’s legacy because I loved him dearly and wanted to ensure that his legacy was respected,” is the way Stein explains his initial reluctance.

However, Hendel was not to be dissuaded. “I want to do something, I want to make a musical,” Hendel told his lawyer over lunch one day. The lawyer said he had another client that Hendel should meet. It was Bill T Jones, the famed African-American choreographer.

On a trip to New York, Stein met with Hendel. Hendel told Stein flat out that he considered Fela and the Russian composer Shostakovich to be the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

Stein finally agreed to do some initial workshops. “We started exploring casting options and developing a story-line,” he says. “My role was really just to be there, and to make sure that whatever was being done was faithful to Fela’s memory. I didn’t have too much to do. I had to bump heads a bit with Mr Jones over some issues that needed to be clarified. I think those were all resolved when I asked him, ‘What about the underground spiritual game?’

“He looked at me and said ‘what?’ I said, ‘sit down’, and explained that whenever Fela was playing he called it the ‘underground spiritual game’, which involved everybody present in whatever capacity. For example, when Fela played at his club, The Shrine, nobody clapped. The audience and the musicians were all one and the same.”

The preliminary production work went well, so the decision was made to go into a small off-Broadway theatre, a 500-seat capacity venue. The show opened and it was immediately appreciated. Within days celebrities were coming to see it, stars like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and others. A year later the show was to open on Broadway.

“Shortly before we went to Broadway,” Stein recalls, “Jay-Z came on board as a producer, and he was to bring in Will Smith and his wife, so we were able to say, ‘Jay-Z, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have joined ‘Fela!’ as Producers’. That lent the show real credibility, and the show played for 15 months to half a million people.

“Since then we have toured in Europe and America several times and we are now looking at taking it to Africa. So we are looking at maybe creating an African cast. We are also looking at creating a Brazilian cast to tour Brazil.”

The extraordinary thing is that Fela’s legacy, through this musical, is virtually guaranteed, and Stein insists that his lyrics still have as much relevance today as they did when they were written. “You know,” he explained, “at his funeral in Lagos, when literally millions came out to pay their respects, they were shouting ‘Fela will live forever’.

“And remember last year when the Nigerian government removed the oil subsidy? [Many protestors were quoting Fela.] It doubled the price of petrol – this in a country that has the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, and yet they still have to import petrol.

“That import is subsidised by the government. For the first time, the entire population was outraged, and they were shouting all over the whole country. It’s not for nothing that Fela spoke truth to power all his life, and that he became known as a rebel. Listen to what Fela was saying 30 years ago and it’s still true today. His words have relevance still, not just in Nigeria, but everywhere in the world. He is talking about human rights.

“Fela was a radical guy and put his balls on the line on a daily basis and paid a very steep price for it, with scars all over his body. But it never stopped this guy from coming forward.”

And, it is quite clear that Stein is determined to ensure that Fela’s legacy lives on. This year he has re-packaged and re-released Fela’s entire 46-album back catalogue across Europe. The final tranche goes out on 15 October, Fela’s birthday which, were he still with us, would have been his 75th. Also released on that day is ‘Red Hot + Fela’, an album of Fela songs interpreted by a raft of top drawer artists. All profits from this album go to combating AIDS.

Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentary maker, is finishing what will be the definitive film regarding Fela’s life. There is also a biopic with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role being made by Focus Features. Those mourners in Lagos, at Fela’s funeral more than three decades ago, were right. Fela lives on!

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