To say Made Kuti felt a strong pull towards music would probably be a bit of an understatement. In his younger years, he would wake up on a Friday morning to prepare for school, and find his father, Femi Kuti, on stage at the New Afrika Shrine, late from the previous night’s show. He would still be performing with a vibrancy that suggested he could keep going for another six hours. Naturally, as a wide-eyed kid still observing and absorbing the things around him, Made’s fascination was piqued.
“There was this track my father used to play titled ‘Inside Religion’,” Made tells me of one of his earliest memories. “As a child, I was used to commercial music, and this track didn’t follow the conventional structure. It had this ending,” he says as he begins to mimic music fading out. “And it would pick up again, and as a child, I was always wondering why the song wasn’t ending. I know it might seem tiny, but it touched me so much that music could just play with your emotions and expectations, and affect your experience.” By watching live performances of Femi Kuti and his band, Positive Force, Made’s unique mode of encountering and being in conversation with music began, and the rest as they say, is history.
In his early teenage years, Made firmly decided that being a musician would be his life’s work, after constantly witnessing the frenzied effect his father had on the crowd at the Shrine, night after night when playing “Shotan”, especially the part of the song where he would yell “se wéré”, which translates into “go crazy”. It’s quite clear that Made’s primary source of inspiration is his father —during our conversation, he refers to him as his hero— but another obvious point, is that he’s from a lineage of revered musicians and social activists.
Made’s great-great-grandfather, Josiah Ransome-Kuti, was a clergyman and music composer, and he became the first Nigerian to release an album, recording a collection of Yoruba hymns back in the early 1900s. His great-grandfather, Israel Ransome-Kuti, was also a clergyman and the first president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, in addition to being a musician. His great-grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, was a suffragist and is highly regarded as one of the greatest women’s rights activists in the history of Nigeria. His grandfather, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, is undeniably the most famous in the Kuti lineage, a complex figure who created the influential Afrobeat genre and stood defiantly against corrupt, ruthless military regimes.
It’s a long line of history Made is evidently grateful for, but not too focused on to become jaded by it. Over the course of our chat on a Zoom call one Saturday afternoon, Made, who comes across as a deeply thoughtful person with a preference for sharing his insights, brings up his revered grandfather a sparse amount of times. It’s his father that serves as his main reference point. “I know Fela’s catalogue, but I know my dad’s even more,” he tells me. While he was in awe of his father’s musicianship as a child, it’s their deep father-son connection that informed his early formative days as a musician.
Similar to Femi Kuti, Made picked up the alto sax as his first major instrument, receiving beginner’s lessons and encouraging nudges from his father when he started writing his own first compositions, a far cry from the relationship between Fela and Femi—the former famously refused to teach his son how to play music. Under the tutelage of a great saxophonist, and already touring with Positive Force in his early teens, Made was on quite the enviable course, but it was his wide-eyed curiosity that broadened the possibilities of his artistry in his mind’s eye.
NATIVE: What drove you to pick up other musical instruments after you’d started with the sax?
Made: Everything just came from watching something else every night. Somewhere along the line, not too long after I picked up the sax, I watched somebody play the piano and I thought, ‘ah I like this and I want to play it’. Then the same thing happened with the bass guitar, I was in A-levels then and I just started learning the bass by myself. I thought the drums were mad, there was so much coordination and I wanted to figure it out.
Last October, Made shared his debut single, “Free Your Mind”, an official presentation of his credentials as a musician with a socially aware inclination. “Free your mind, free your mind/and set your soul free”, Made repeatedly chants on the song, offering a philosophical admonition over a musical composition that pulls Afrobeat into an experimental, vibrato bent. The single instantly teased the quirky possibilities Made could infuse into a genre as distinct and storied as Afrobeat, underlined by the fact that he played every instrument (15 of them!) on the song.
In the years since picking up the sax as his main instrument, Made has evolved into a budding musical savant, with the ability to play multiple instruments and write his own compositions. In addition to applying himself to several instruments from a fairly young age, he went on to study piano and classical composition at Trinity College of Music, London, the same institution Fela learnt at in the early ’60s.
NATIVE: How did your dad react when you told him you wanted to go off to Trinity College of Music?
Made: Trinity was actually my dad’s idea. I had told him I wanted to study music, and he suggested that I study at the same place Fela did.
NATIVE: Was the piano your first choice instrument when you got in?
When I left, I initially wanted to do classical piano but I wasn’t that great as a classical pianist, to be honest, it was until I started working a lot extra. The three years before I went to Trinity, I did A-Levels, I did one year at a music technology course, and I was also practicing the piano a lot. Because I wasn’t that versatile and I didn’t know all the eras of techniques, I decided that it would be more fulfilling to be able to write my own music and, more importantly, be able to apply my music in Afrobeat and to do something that was relative to what I was passionate about. So, when I got to Trinity, I told them that I wanted to do Afrobeat in a contemporary classical setting. The head of composition was a fan of Fela, and that’s how it all worked out.
On February 5th, Made released his debut album, ‘For(e)ward’, the second side of the compilation project, ‘Legacy +’, released in tandem with his father’s eleventh LP, ‘Stop the Hate’. Where his father’s opening side trades in familiar tenets—fiery and plain socio-political commentary, brassy horn themes, and propulsive rhythms—Made’s half thrives on a knack for unpredictability, relying on eclectic musicianship and an experimental verve to keep listeners constantly intrigued for its 40-minute duration. In the same manner as his debut single, Made played every single musical note on his debut album, making for a body of work that leans into his pure intuition as a musician. “When people enter my sound universe, I want them to know that it’s so personal, everything they’re hearing is me,” Made tells me of the decision to record the album solo.
With its double-meaning title, ‘For(e)ward’ indicates Made’s official entrance as a solo, headline artist and, perhaps more importantly, points at the direction in which he looks to drive Afrobeat. As a full-length introduction, the LP is superb; within the context of Afrobeat’s history, it is uniquely stunning. In its eight comprising songs, Made blows up the varying components that make-up the sonic framework, piecing them back together in ways that are riveting. With this investigative approach, whether it’s amplifying the folksy side of the genre on “Hymn” or passing the rhythmic components through a psychedelic filter on “Higher You’ll Find”, the result is an album that stands as a singular entry within the pantheon of Afrobeat.
“These particular songs, every single one of them was an experiment, musically and logically,” Made tells me of the process for ‘For(e)ward’. Although he started writing for the album around 2018, the album was primarily recorded in Paris, France in December 2019. One of the reasons why it’s important to note the timing of recording is “Your Enemy”, the second single and track off the album, which addresses police brutality from a bird’s eye view. On the song, Made looks beyond casual abuse of power the Nigerian police metes out to civilians on a daily basis, pointing at the dysfunctional government system in place that continues to exacerbate the problem.
Released over a month after the End SARS protests, “Your Enemy” digs into a familiar societal ill with renewed weariness and a fresh level of insight. Considering that it was recorded over ten months before the protests, the song speaks to the fact that none of Nigeria’s social problems are new. On ‘For(e)ward’, Made does the important job of reflecting how far back Nigeria has been bedevilled by the same issues, gesturing towards the immediate Afrobeat lineage he hails from.
On “Different Streets”, where he decries the deep economic class divide corruption has fostered, Made references Fela’s slow-boiling classic, “Confusion Break Bones (C.B.B)”, while shrugging off the idea that his grandfather was a prophet since he only sang of the ills of his time, which we’re unfortunately still dealing with today. The frenzied third track, “Blood”, features outtakes from two impassioned speeches by his father, one at a concert in Paris and the other from a protest in Lagos, a few years back.
NATIVE: How did you come up with “Blood”, and how did your dad fit in there?
Made: I wanted to sing about something that related the euphoria of independence to the current Nigerian experience. The lore is that when we were about to gain independence in 1960, we were all happy, but how did we get here now? Are we not equal to countries with better economies? So the line, “eye for an eye”, is mainly questioning if things have to turn violent for change to happen. Does there have to be another civil rights movement?
So what struck me is, my dad went to Paris for a gig and he told the audience, “I know you are happy I’m in Paris, but respect what I’m doing in Paris.” There’s a video of the speech on YouTube, and he’s talking to the crowd of corrupt politicians sending their children to better-developed countries while looting their home country, and he’s not hiding while talking or doing it for an interview. He’s on stage in Paris, speaking to Frenchmen. I wanted to use that recording as related to what the problem is: bad Leadership. Also, there was this protest in Ojota and my dad went on stage, but they didn’t tell him it was an APC protest. So he goes on there and he sings “Wey Our Money”, and he sings, “if you see Tinubu o, wey our money”, then they took the mic from him. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that part but the speech was so important I had to put it in there.
As agitated as Made gets on ‘For(e)ward’, the album largely revolves around the idea that instant and lasting change starts from our individual minds. “There has to be something in us that wants to do good, in the same way, that there’s something in us that tempts us to do bad,” Made tells me while breaking down the message on “Higher You’ll Find”. “It’s that balance of understanding, because in very crucial times, we have to make the higher choice for us to create a saner society, away from all this nonsense in Lagos and Nigeria.” On the surface, it’s a rather placid proposition but, on an album brimming with thought-provoking missives, Made’s solution feels like a potent life hack listeners can apply in their daily lives.
Even with the famed family lineage, Made is not oblivious of the task he faces to get Nigerians invested in his music. “The market at home is always slower to adjust to political music than commercial music,” he tells me shortly after we discuss its positive critical reception from international publications. However, he’s betting on his artistic integrity, hoping that every pair of Nigerian ear that listens to ‘For(e)ward’ will be dazzled by the musical output, and greatly impacted the commentary he’s left on there. Although he’s still standing on the shoulders of his predecessors, prominence-wise, Made’s instantly great debut positions him as an emerging, conscious voice primed to grow louder in the near future.
[Featured Image shot by Mobola Odukoya]
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE. Let me know your favourite the Cavemen songs @dennisadepeter