NATIVE Exclusive: Duke Amayo Is Coming Home

"Dem no dey give us our dues, so therefore, we have to create that."

Home can mean many things. For Abraham “Duke” Amayo, who has travelled for decades and learnt the details of several art forms, Lagos is home. The ex-Antibalas co-founder and frontman made a return to the city this past October, partly to pay homage to his musical hero Fela Kuti during the heralded Felabration, and also to kickstart a solo career. With an inscription of “Black President,” the legendary artist’s raised fists are emblazoned boldly on Amayo’s black polo, right at the middle. 

“I’ve been coming back over the years, periodically,” he tells The NATIVE some moments into the conversation, although “without any real mission”. Amayo’s early impact in Lagos came when he brought a Green Team from New York, raising funds by winning a competition which saw them design a rainwater collection system at his mother’s house. That was part of his reconnection to roots, having left the city when he was seventeen. This year, being at the Felabration was particularly spiritual because Amayo had just exited Antibalas, the iconic Grammy Award-nominated band shortly after the death of Fela in 1997. 


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The band already existed some months before Amayo joined in early 1999, and afterwards, the process of coming together was very organic. “I feel like Fela’s music just rose and expanded,” says Amayo. The 2000’s saw the band explore the dense, incandescent sound of Afrobeat, releasing four albums in seven years.  Each album consistently propelled the band’s vision, incorporating their own designs to the ethos of Fela’s music. When their third album ‘Who Is This America?’ appeared in 2004, the music of Antibalas had taken compact form. Their several instruments, the messaging, and the tone of the messaging was beautifully allied, and Amayo stood as an exemplary figurehead of this synergy. Complementing his sonic contributions was his singing or, as described in a Pitchfork review, “compelling lyrical fomentations”. 

At the time, Antibalas shared members back and forth with The Dap-Kings, the Funk/Soul band who had created a timeless legacy alongside Sharon Jones. That musical alliance inspired Amayo, who founded the offshoot Fu-Arkist-Ra, a year after joining Antibalas. “I wanted to compose music that was very forward,” he says. “Music that brought together the ideology in kung fu and the sound of Afrobeat. That was where I was experimenting, I was trying different rhythms – it’s very subtle in terms of when someone says ‘hey, what’s the kung fu in this music?’ When you hear it, if you’re spiritual and have some sort of connection to the universe, you feel it”. 

Amayo nurtured this fusion over the years, and before 2020 had the intent to move on from Antibalas. The band was well into its third generation of musicians, and the Nigerian was among its longstanding purveyors. His vision was urgent—he needed to hear those movements of the ancient body come into life.  Within every step, chaotic or composed, life was unravelling and the grace of music mirrored the tussle of reality. During the pandemic Amayo welcomed a baby boy, he tells me with the widest grin, naming him Olokun, after the Yoruba goddess of the sea. “Naming him Olokun was part of my process of working my way back in a more deeply spiritual way. My daughter was also named after Oshun, because it is always my intention to pay homage to our culture”. 

His son’s birth preceded his visit to Edo State, where his mother is from, and where an old friend presides over a traditional healing house. Reconnecting with that spiritual source burnished his soul. ‘Fu Chronicles’ was created shortly after, born from Amayo’s established tradition of creating music inspired by Afro spirituals and kung fu philosophy. He was moving on and so was the perfect time to release that body of work. 

“They are all my compositions, my illustrations, concepts—that was kind of, like, goodbye and hello,” says Amayo. “It was goodbye to my crew at Antibalas and hello to my Naija folks. Just like a new journey, you know, I really want to dig into our culture. ‘Cos our culture is on a platform; everyone is listening to our culture, Afrobeats obviously is on the forefront. You know how the times are, all these things start, but can we sustain it? Part of my work is to make sure we can sustain our culture at a very high level”. 

As a boy, Amayo loved illustrating. He could draw life-like images and before ten was being commissioned to create portraits. This was in Ghana. His mother had moved him and his siblings there during the heat of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, and Amayo settled in a neighbourhood called Railway Quarters. Mandatory communal activities introduced him to drumming and fighting in the martial arts tradition, which made his years in the country very influential on his current explorations. 

The prodigious artist belonged to a large family in Surulere, Lagos. His father was the first postmaster in the country, and had eight wives to show for his prosperity. Amayo’s mother was the beloved one, and together they eloped to London where they bore him. At an early age Amayo knew the potential of community, forming a Jackson 5-esque band with his half siblings. “I was either five or six at that time. At that age, everybody was trying to be Michael Jackson — I was one of them,” he reveals. “I had already developed my dancing skills and, you know, Michael Jackson was mimicking James Brown”. 

When James Brown visited Nigeria in 1970, Amayo snuck out of the house to the host stadium in Marina, Lagos. Trees clustered around a section of the stadium’s fence, and climbing one of them Amayo caught sight of The Godfather of Funk. “My whole mind was expanded,” he says with a sudden flush of enthusiasm. A revered football player, his uncle Anthony took him to the Afrikan Shrine where he saw Fela perform. Then he would entertain with his dancing skills, which accelerated his acceptance within the community. The Shrine was close to his mother’s house, and whenever he returned from boarding school holidays he’d branch into it, spending a few days before returning home. 

“I’ve always had this personality of going, moving on, ascending,” he tells me, working his hands to demonstrate movement. He attributes this to his practice of martial arts’ which continued when Amayo moved to the US as he became a senior master at the Jow Ga kung fu School. He makes a point about Yin and Yang, the purpose of equilibrium which flows through his work. “This is where me I dey draw my inspiration from and then I would layer in all these rhythms,” he affirms. “And when I think of rhythms, I’m thinking of Lagos, the breath of Lagos—that na Afrobeat, you know? If you can be an invisible presence and move through space. If you move through Lagos, all those rhythms of resistance; people are always resisting, connecting, breaking up, shouting, for me it creates a certain type of vibration”. 

Not many people are able to escape their true purpose in life. Amayo’s multi-hyphenate creativity kept shifting through forms—illustrating, designing, fashion—but music remained a constant feature of his lifestyle. Across three decades as part of Antibalas, he took those many components into their well-received projects and live performances, which Amayo always starts with a kung fu dance, echoing the spirit of the music that’s about to be played.

When the Recording Academy recognised ‘Fu Chronicles’ in its World Music Album (won by Burna Boy’s ‘Twice As Tall’), that was also part of something larger for Amayo. His wife,  a manifestation coach, was involved in the album’s creation and being on the esteemed platform was actually planned towards. Per musical vision, the farewell project was a connecting bridge to Amayo’s forthcoming music. “You will feel the journey of my compositions,” he says. Titled ‘The Lion Awakes,’ the debut solo project from Amayo is expected later this year. It is a trilogy, and continues his lifelong immersion into kung fu—this time though, the musical connection emerges through the Lion Dance, which is a customary event among followers of Chinese spirituality. 

Amayo’s project was accompanied with mythological world building, shifting the boundaries of its typical geography to include Nigeria. “The lion landed in Freedom Park,” he says, explaining the journey. “When he landed, he separated. His head was in Freedom Park and his body was at the Shrine. In my story, in terms of how I express the actual story, the Lion resides in heaven, was mischievous, and Jade Emperor who rules the heavens chopped his head off. Because the Lion is immortal but it can learn lessons. So, I placed that inside Africa. When he tossed it down to earth, where did he land? Right here in Africa. That’s where my story starts—as the Lion lands in Africa, he starts to get Africanised. He starts to learn about the beginning of things, and meets a Babalawo who teaches the Lion about African culture. So that’s where I’m building all my stories from musically. The music is telling it, I’m acting it out, the martial arts is happening in there, so eventually you see all that actualised as a theatrical movement”. 


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Amayo already has ideas written for the next two records, which is something he likes doing — linking a narrative chain around his projects. “I’m really open at this time,” he says about working with Nigerian musicians and producers. “I would like to represent most of my Nigerian musical connections”. Listeners of Antibalas know, however, that Amayo has always reflected those qualities. Often singing in Yoruba and Edo lingua, he brought the orisha world of Fela into their music. He joined the band to fulfil these spiritual functions, to infuse culture and language while his bandmates echoed the flamboyance of the legendary musician. 

“I intentionally became part of that because I didn’t want anyone to bastardise our culture,” says Amayo. “I don’t want anybody to put accent inside where accent no suppose to dey. That was important for me. So my role in the band was to authenticate. I was an authenticator, a catalyst, a person that pushed to go deeper into Fela’s language. In that sense, we influenced so many other bands, because of our mission, everyone was forced to go and listen to Fela. Our intention was to play it as best as Fela can play it”. 

These days, Amayo has his mind set on ownership. From working in the corporate world to leading an iconic band, he’s come a long way and knows the power of Black people resides in creating their own platforms and sustaining them. “I’m building a place in Atlanta that will bring all of this together,” he says, “where we can really present our culture at a very high level, so we have a place. Dem no dey give us our dues, so therefore, we have to create that. So na ownership level we wan’ enter now.”