In Conversation with Ade Bantu
Adegoke Odukoya, better known as Adé Bantu was born in London to Nigerian and German parents. He is a musician, producer, activist, actor, judge on the MTN Project Fame West Africa (a music TV reality show) and co-founder of Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly concert series started in 2013 to celebrate live music across different genres and generations. He also founded the Afro-German musical collective and NGO, Brothers Keepers, which he set up in 2000, after a wave of racist motivated violent attacks on foreigners that climaxed in the killing of Alberto Adriano. Adé Bantu is also the co-founder and Creative Director of BornTroWay, a community arts project targeted at disadvantaged youths in major African cities. The project was launched in Ajegunle, Lagos in 2011.
Ade Bantu appeared in Harry Belafonte’s documentary film Sing Your Song (2012). He has worked with several other artists within and outside Nigeria like UB40, German reggae singer Gentleman, Positive Black Soul and Pee Froiss from Senegal, Ebenezer Obey, Jimi Solanke, Patrice, Nneka, Tony Allen, Orlando Julius, Seun Kuti, Sound Sultan and the late legendary Fatai Rolling Dollar.
He is the front man of the 13-piece band BANTU, an acronym for Brotherhood Alliance Navigating Towards Unity, which he established with his brother, Abiodun. Their 1999 debut album Fufu was highly successful in Nigeria, earning them two radio hit singles Nzogbu and Fire Inna Dancehall. At the 2005 Kora Awards (the Pan-African equivalent of the Grammys), they won the Best Group West Africa and Best Group Africa awards for their album, which featured Nigerian fuji singer Adewale Ayuba. It is an eclectic mix of fuji, hip-hop, dancehall, Afrofunk and Afro-beat. BANTU’s music and live performances are an eclectic fusion of the rich cultural heritage of the Yorubas and the hybrid sounds of urban Africa and it’s Diaspora, their ‘Afropean’ origin reflected in the lyrics. Social consciousness and the daily personal and political struggles of the disenfranchised constitute an essential element of their message and music through which they mobilize, motivate and inspire.
The band has toured Nigeria, Sweden, England, Germany, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Holland, Tanzania, Denmark and France and is presently working on a 5th studio album.
Below is the first part of an extensive interview with Bimpe Adebambo.
Can you tell us who Adegoke Odukoya is and how your multicultural experiences have come to play in your music and other aspects of the arts you are involved in?
Adegoke Odukoya is just a regular guy. I am Nigerian-German; my father is Nigerian and my mother is German. I am a nomad, an apprentice of life going about soaking in all the information I can get. I was brought up to be grounded but not to take myself too seriously. I am very inquisitive, very open to life and just go about trying to be the best version of who I aspire to be. I grew up and schooled in Nigeria, then furthered my education in Germany. Growing up in a household where Europe and Africa were constantly renegotiating their relationship, I was made to understand the best of both worlds coming together. I think that has informed my arts; I am basically this kid in a candy store trying to take the best bits of every culture and fuse them into one to ensure that the dialogue my parents initiated between both continents is embarked upon as truthfully as I can.
Your younger brother also sings. Is your family musical and is it an inherited trait or did you study music professionally or just eased into it; if not, what did you study and how has it helped your music career?
Yes my younger brother, Abiodun is also an incredibly talented singer and I am a big fan of his. Does music run in the family? I reckon so. My paternal grandfather, Oba James Johnson Odukoya, Olugboyega II of Owu-Ijebu, was very musical and a big fan and lover of the talking drum. He had designated drummers who attended to his musical needs. On mother’s side, there are a couple of composers. One of them, my maternal great granduncle Friedrick Stark, was a composer, conductor, pianist and music arranger. He migrated to the United States and made many original sound tracks and music scores, and arrangements for some Walt Disney productions like Fantasia, Pinocchio and Grand Canyon; so yes, there is music in my family. My parents had a vast and very eclectic music collection; music was always part of our lives. None of us, that is, my siblings and I, had any formal music training, because we grew up under the free education scheme in Nigeria and music was not a priority then. I guess the government could not afford musical instruments and employ music teachers. My music training is mostly self-taught, through the years of working with many bands and musicians. My journey started with hip-hop and now I am at a stage where I record, compose and perform with a 13-piece live band.
You work across different genres of music, from Afro-beat to fuji. Why is this and do you gravitate towards a particular one?
I work across genres because I am a big fan of music. I do not succumb to the idea of ‘pigeon holing’ yourself and dedicating your craft to one particular style. I started with hip-hop but I always made sure that I represented who I am. For example, if you grow up in an environment where classical music is played next to Victor Olaiya with Public Enemy coming out of the boom boxes and then Earth, Wind and Fire is on your playlist, it is evident that you’ll gravitate towards what you feel a connection to. I have been an explorer and adventurer so though I may not have grown up with fuji music, once I felt a connection, I wanted to explore. Here, I engage artists whose work I like and appreciate, then bring them on board. That’s why you’ll see us work with a UB40, an Ebenezer Obey, Nneka or Gentleman, who is a German reggae artist.
You are an activist and are also involved in a lot of community work. What inspires you and how did it all start?
My community work is about me giving back. I feel highly privileged to have gone from grass to grace, having been stripped of my privileges as a middle class kid when I lost my dad. I had to start from scratch and this has made me appreciate life more; I can connect to people who are going through difficult times in their lives. Music has saved me and helped to keep me sane, and so with projects like BornTroWay, I just want to inspire kids to be great and discover their hidden potential. I also want to give voice to those discarded by society; I want them to show their greatness to their community, themselves and families. Through that whole process, I hope to raise their self-esteem, which will help in whatever they do. It doesn’t necessarily translate to becoming artists, as that is not the reason for BornTroWay. We do it to let people know they are unique and special and that we take them seriously.
Can you tell us more about the BornTroWay project?
BornTroWay Creative Arts Project is a creative arts training initiative with the objective to promote individual self-expression, artistic skills, teamwork and integration through the arts, among youths living in marginalized areas. It’s about exchange, encounter, communication, orientation and the creation of cultural contributions. The project was born of inspiration by Music Matters and the BANTU collective from their joint belief that art aggregates, repositions and expands the innate and sometimes hidden talent of our youth in Nigeria, who are selected through a public audition.
BornTroWay (born throw away) is the theme chosen for the creative workshop. It is a metaphor for the way we ordinarily look with prejudice at our society, our people, lives and our surroundings. The project aims to inspire a re-think of the public attitude towards the less privileged. It invites people to; re-experience everyday life with an open mind; be better inclined to connect with what happens around us; and be less indifferent, and in so doing learn something new. BornTroWay is a reminder that we all without exceptions, can make our contribution to things being seen differently, as well as help each other and make positive change happen. The inaugural edition held in Ajegunle in May 2011.
You are known as a stickler for live performances. What gave rise to Afropolitan Vibes and why did you choose Freedom Park on Lagos Island?
I have told this story a million times but I’ll tell it again. I started Afropolitan Vibes after returning to Nigeria and noticing that the live music scene was virtually dead. There were a lot of cover bands performing at weddings and church events but few were performing original material. We had very few spots we could go to enjoy live music and I felt that with this hype around music from Nigeria, especially popular music, we needed to create a platform for alternative music. That’s how the journey of Afropolitan Vibes began. I wanted to avoid boredom, meaning I didn’t want it to be just a BANTU affair/experience. I wanted to incorporate performances from friends and like-minded individuals who I felt a connection with. I wanted them to come on to this platform and express themselves. We started by eating humble pie with about a hundred people but now we have grown to four thousand; so it’s been one hell of a journey. Ultimately, the whole idea of Afropolitan Vibes is to re-ignite the fire of live music. My band and I, the 13-piece BANTU collective, rehearse with our guest artists. We usually have three guest performers every month. We invite an old school artiste and make sure we always have a female performer, as well as a current artiste and/or an underground act who has something special to offer. We put them all together in a seamless three-hour performance, as it’s not a jam session but well rehearsed because we ensure we know what we are doing. When one is performing live, you let the spirit lead you but you have to stay focused. Afropolitan Vibes is the only show that starts dead on time—eight to eleven; we have been doing this for over three years and have quite a dedicated following— many mothers and fathers of this “little baby”. Freedom Park on Lagos Island represents what being Afropolitan is all about. It’s about globalization, the urban African experience, differing cultural influences converging, as well about reclaiming space. Lagos Island is a place where some of the returnees, the ex-slaves came to settle. It’s also where Europe and Africa began to negotiate their relationship through colonialism and slavery, all the way to independence and beyond. Freedom Park was once a place of suffering— a former colonial prison that is being transformed into a space of happiness; it means a lot to us. The stage we perform on was once the gallows where people were hung. So we are very conscious of that energy and thus use music to create another narrative while engaging the word “Afropolitan” because it’s now become a hip, sophisticated catch-phrase. You hear a lot of folks in the diaspora say things like we are Afropolitans; we can travel to Miami, Berlin or Stockholom because we are cool like that! We are highly educated and so on. We need to remind them that Lagosians are also Afropolitans; we are the true global citizens and as I said earlier, we have been negotiating with Europe for over two to three hundred years, and so are conscious of the fact that we are special. I think this reflects in everything seen in the city— in the music tastes, fashion and arts. We want to remind people of that, however we also don’t want to put the word on an ivory tower, we want to include everyone. This is so important and dear to me.
Your audience at this event is quite broad from top executives to expatriates to ‘area’ boys, with the artistes performing free and no ticket fees until recently. How sustainable is it?
The variety of music and quality of the performances have led to us having quite an eclectic collection of people who come to watch the show. Expatriates, ‘area’ boys, returnees, top executives, and regular nine to fivers, all come to the Afropolitan Vibes because of its unique atmosphere where they can let loose. There is nothing like a VIP section; we are not class conscious. This is something that I have a major problem with in Nigeria. At Afropolitan Vibes, the class divide is broken, you can even come on stage and dance if you feel the spirit taking over you; it’s a beautiful thing. We didn’t charge a fee because we wanted to be as all-inclusive as possible. We wanted to create a movement and hoped that over time, we would get sponsors to cover our costs. However, this has not happened although we have proven our selves. The German president came to visit us; we have had reviews on CNN, BBC, New York Times, Lufthansa inflight magazine and the local media. As sponsorship has not been forthcoming, we decided to do our own crowd funding. We go to people who love Afropolitan Vibes, and ask them to pay a gate fee of N1,500— N1,000 for covering some of our own costs including rehearsals, sound and other logistics and N500 for the Freedom Park to maintain the park. We had to protect our “baby” otherwise; we would have had to stop. That’s why recently; we started charging a gate fee. People have been supportive and N1,500 once a month is not a big deal; one can save up for that. We hope to keep growing.
Recently, you were featured in a two-part series on CNN’s Africa Voices. How important is this programme to changing negative perceptions about Africa?
CNN’s Africa Voices is very important in changing people’s perception about Africa because it’s about us telling our stories. It’s as simple as that. It was great working with the team; they were very professional. The programme has quite an interesting effect on the responses I have been receiving from many people. They felt they got to know me better as it showed the different facets of who I am, where I grew up, what I do with Afropolitan Vibes, with BANTU and all kinds of other projects. It was a great platform and opportunity that I am grateful for. The fact that they did a two-part series instead of their usual one is a testament to us doing the right thing with Afropolitan Vibes. I feel highly honoured to be part of that journey and experience.
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