Duke Amayo… Afrobeat Lion Roars In Lagos
A warm smile swirls across his lips as he sits. “I’m ready now,” he announces. His eyes glared deeply into thin air, as if he was about to read from a teleprompter. It was nearly dark at this time, and Duke Amayo had spent the entire day working with his band.
The front man of the Grammy-nominated Afrobeat band, Antibalas, had just arrived Lagos, barely a week ago, to prepare for his road tour, which includes a special Felabration performance later tonight at the New Afrika Shrine, in Ikeja. After spending a significant portion of his life in Lagos, Amayo’s 2022 road tour marks a significant era in his career.
After 20 years as the Lead singer of the American band, Antibalas, Amayo is going solo with his new band dubbed, The Lion Awakes. The veteran composer and martial arts instructor is coursing new paths in his musical journey, after over 2000 stage performances and six full-length studio albums with Antibalas.
History will forever remain kind to Amayo, whose eccentricism and dramatic approach to music heightened the global popularity of Afrobeat, especially within the North American market where Antibalas was most active. His last project with Antibalas dubbed, Fu Chronicles, was the apogee of his effort to fuse Kung fu philosophies and energies with Afrobeat music.
The nostalgia within this rebirth is rife, as it kicks off back in Lagos, where he first found his love for the music and martial arts that have shaped his career.
In this Guardian Music special, the Duke of Afrobeat peels back layers of stories revolving his dramatic entry into music; his craze for synergising martial arts (kung fu) with Afrobeat; his new journey as a solo artiste; as well as his upcoming projects.
Welcome to Nigeria once again. How does it feel coming back to your roots and doing this at this particular stage of your career?
It feels right; it feels like the perfect time. Everything was leading towards this moment. Every purpose that I found to come to Nigeria has always been an opportunity that was set up by someone else. So, every time someone asks me to do something, and I know it would bring me to Lagos, I jump on it.
You know, I’m always trying to find a reason to come back. So, because of all of my little reasons to come back, I feel like there is an accumulation of that, which increases my desire to want to come back to do something here. Obviously, when my mum sent me to America to go to school, she was expecting me to come back and do something.
Something like what?
You know, to bring back whatever you went over there to succeed in doing. Except that what I went there to do was not what they wanted me to do. My mum didn’t know I was going there to do music, but the music thing came much later for me. It was again, an opportunity.
Every opportunity that has been granted me, I have expanded it to something tangible, something bigger than I expected. So, to answer your question more directly, it feels amazing to me. I feel like if my mum was alive today, I’m sure she could hear me, her spirit is all over, she’s always here with me, you know. She would finally say, “Yes, you did it. And you did it your way.”
So, it is also my way when I wanted to go to America, she didn’t let me go. I had to prove that I was ready to do that. From all the research that I did, I had to do research to find the appropriate college that fits me and I did it. My mum accepted my decision and she went along with it. So, yeah, this is a perfect time.
Did you intentionally plan your return around Felabration?
Well, that’s when it began. This would be my perhaps, fourth felabration; I’ve come by myself. Again, like I said, opportunities. I saw an opportunity like, ‘oh no, I could potentially be a guest at Felabration. So, ever since I’ve been coming to Nigeria, I’ve always tried to make it around Felaboration time.
The first one was during the Ebola outbreak. It was right around the time when no one wanted to travel to Nigeria; no one wanted to be here. So, somehow, for me, it was a perfect time to come, because I also wanted to add to the story back then- that hey, there are some of us that are not afraid to go back home because of Ebola.
When I came, I saw Riki Stein who was someone that I highly respected. He and I had little power, holding each other, thinking we can’t believe you’re here. We’re just trying to prove to the world that it’s okay to come to Naija during Ebola, especially when you are Felabrating.
Let’s go a bit back to you being in Antibalas. How did that journey start for you?
Well, I didn’t really want to be in a band, but I knew that I wanted to use music to augment whatever endeavor I was on at that time. At that time, I was mostly doing fashion. So, music was a big part of how I design. At least, when I design, I use music. You know, it was where I found my inspiration from, where I am able to relax and do my illustrations. So, from illustrations, I was able to get into fashion and that was my main expression at that time.
I had a storefront. At first, it was named after my last name, because as a designer, you know, you want to put your stamp on your work. So, it was named Amayo Designs. And then, over a course of about five years, because of all my fashion shows, and the PR work that I was doing in the neighborhood to promote, all my fashion shows were every three months. So, I would do a party along with the fashion show and sell some of my outfits. That fashion show slowly brought me into renaming the space to becoming Afros Part.
Afros Part is where I first saw Fela Kuti. So, when this group of guys whom I had first connected with, we had already connected, I knew they were doing music so I was trying to recruit students to be my Kung Fu students, we saw a win-win for each other. I’m looking for members to be my students at my Kung Fu school; they were looking for someone to authenticate the band they were creating. The band just started then, it was called Kung Fu To’a Antibalas. It’s a Spanish word for a group of guys who are against bullets- anti-bullets. So that was the name of the band.
When I joined at that time, it was like barter; take my Kung Fu, and I would be a part of your band. While I was in that band, I was kind of like being an authenticator, learning how these guys were composing; I already had music in me obviously. I grew up in the neighborhood, in the shrine; I was already a Shrine boy and just the fact that there were some groups of guys trying to do Afrobeat; they had my ear already.
So, I was already interested in what’s going on, and when the opportunity came to be a part of the crew, I found the reason to help. A reason to be a part of it, a reason to help maximize my students and also help my income, because I needed to make money- pay for my store, pay for my clothing. So, there was obviously a little plus, you know.
I became part of the band and being part of the band also required me to do a little bit more, which I was very reluctant to do, because I knew I didn’t really want to be in a band. I saw the direction the band was going and was like, if I really wanted to be in a band, I would do my band this way. Then within that one year that I was kind of processing the idea of joining the band, I started my own project called Fu-Arkist-Ra.
Fu-Arkist-Ra was based on what I was doing. I was, you know, playing Afrobeat with these guys and I was teaching Kung Fu. So, where Kung Fu meets Afrobeat is where Fu-Arkist-Ra found its voice. So, with Fu-Arkist-Ra, I was able to compose without interruption.
I was free to compose. I had no restriction with music and I didn’t have any music theory restrictions even though I naturally had music theory. Music theory for me was understanding melodies and being able to expand that melody and add things to it. I already had a way of composing, because I was already a painter. I paint, I draw and I already know how to compose, like a design on a page. So if I’ve got paper, I can compose shapes on that; that’s how I saw music. That’s how I started composing like a picture or a shape of something.
The group of those things that I’m visualizing is related to my movements, because I’m teaching Kung Fu. So, it was like my Kung Fu and the years in it, all for me were starting to create a palette for composition. I started composing, you know, I was free to try new things. And I was intentionally trying not to sound like Fela. I felt like I was already doing Fela’s stuff in Antibalas. You know, I had the space to really understand why Fela does what he does in any music, in any of his compositions. I did a lot of deep meditation research, listening, playing, learning how to play the piano, while I was writing songs. So it was a very organic process.
I wasn’t a trained pianist, but I was a trained percussionist; I was trained in Ghana. So, it is very easy for me to build shapes and groups of melodies and rhythms in a very logical way, because it’s all by logic. How you put things together, does it in the beginning, the middle and the end- the intro and conclusion. So, I already had that shape and all I did was put rhythm into it, put melody into it.
My compositions, when you listen to them, if you are a composer, you would understand something happening there. You would like my flow, because all composers that I’ve ever played with love my stuff. They are always people that are authentic in what I was doing. So, I was authentic in how I want to write in Afrobeat; I was getting my authentication on my compositions. My compositions were feeling more fresh and original, because every time I’m playing them, I already had my intention; I don’t want to sound like Fela.
If I found anything that looks like Fela a little bit in my music, I would change it even if it were the sound. You know, I had that obsession trying not to do that. It helped me develop my own language of composition, which I believe a lot of musicians try to attain. I would say what most people try to find when they study music is to find their voice.
We all have different voices and tones in which we interpret a language; your accent is your tone. So, each of us got our own, but you try to find your own that is original, that when they hear it they know it’s you. In music, it’s what I try to find. If I play a melody or a rhythm, I want you to know that it’s me, not any other person. So, that is the thing that I was able to discover of myself; how to be authentic and original.
You mentioned that you had an interest in painting, fashion and music. What exactly did you go to study in the US?
Yeah, I went to Art school; I went to Howard University as an artist. In fact, before I even went to Howard, I was in Ghana.
You left Nigeria for Ghana?
Yes. During the civil war, we used to live in Surulere. I lived with my dad; my dad had many wives, but my mum was the only one that lived with him, because he was his special Iyawo, you know. He fell in love with her, they eloped and they had me in London and came back. So, we were living together in Surulere with all my other half brothers and half sisters and cousins.
We always had about, at least fifteen at the time, sometimes from ten to fifteen in the house. I was my mum’s only child, so she always tells me, ‘I don’t want you to ever feel alone, that’s why I always bring more people around.’ And I was always like whatever. I didn’t really go along, but you know, as a child, I accepted what my parents said. Anyway, I grew up with her in that house.
During the civil war, we were uprooted; a lot of us had to move back to the village. Some moved to their natural parents and then my mum took myself and three of my other cousins and shipped us off to Ghana to live with her parents. So, Ghana was where, at least for me, out of all my cousins, because it was me and my cousins living with my grandparents and everyone for themselves- it was one of those situations.
When I reached Ghana, the neighborhood we lived in was called Railway Quarters; it was a very forward and advanced community. That’s what I call it. You know, Ghana was the future of Africa. In our neighborhood, they had organised drums, like drumming and organised fights. Organised fights were once a month, while organised drumming happened every weekend. So, that’s where I got my drumming skills and my fighting skills.
The fighting there, that one I learned it to my own Kung Fu lifestyle and it was also just to avoid bullying. You know, when you live in a house full of ten people, you’ve got to be strong. So, Kung Fu was my saving grace. Going to Ghana was important at that time for us during the civil war. When we came back was when I started getting some Afrobeats.
I was able to go to the shrine. My uncle’s name is Anthony Amayo. In Nigeria, he was famous for being a go-getter. He is a sack up player and an attacker. He was known for his heading, good head on. So, he was very famous, and he was not all about Lagos. Anytime he goes out, he takes me along, and when he brings me along, he makes me dance, because I could do James Brown’s moves. So, I was his entertainment; I was what he used to negotiate with his friends and I was also happy to oblige, because I had an opportunity to go everywhere. So, I got my experience at the shrine, growing up with him. He took me to the first shrine at Yaba.
When you went to the US, what did you intend to study first?
I was going to go to art school, because I was already a good illustrator. My parents knew I drew very well; I registered to go to art school. I majored in design- graphic design and minor in medical illustration, because I knew it was a special tough field. So, I was planning ahead. I wanted to make sure that when I leave school, I am able to be a specialist where I will be sought after. That was almost the case obviously, but other things came along. I was ready for the next thing.
As an artist, illustrator a painter, a designer, I always had this mindset that design knows no boundaries; you could design anything. The professors that I had then in school back then at Howard were really forward thinkers. My design professor encouraged me to get a job in design; outside of school, I got graded on the works I was doing. I was working at an engineering company doing graphics and flow charts all by hand, before computers.
Back in the days, you had to be able to draw straight lines with a pen. So, I had those skills. I was working as a mapmaker, doing hairbrush illustrations of design that when you drew maps, it made the map look beautiful. I had all these kinds of jobs, like that was what I was doing. But I didn’t see it as just art or for the sake of art; I saw it as a mode of expression. You know, like this is just one way of expressing. You can express ideas in different ways.
Among all of these, when did you decide to stick with music?
The music part did not happen until much later. After I had dibbed and dabbed in the illustrator world, I worked as a cover designer for magazines. The last gig I did was, an architect hired me, this German guy who is interested in Jab actually. The German guy was very racist. He told me, ‘I don’t like Black people, but you’re very special.’ It was kind of annoying when he said that, but I was just about making the money. The guy was paying well and he wanted me to do a hundred illustrations of homes. He designed all his California style homes. So, I did all those illustrations and it took about six months.
The guy kept me busy for six months. I didn’t even have time to think that I don’t have jobs or that I’m struggling. I was just busy. So, that whole architectural area of work that I was doing, I was listening to music a lot. You know, I got this project, I can’t even go out and I have to finish this thing within three months and I also had my sound track.
What particularly were you listening to?
I’m Fela all the time. So, when I broke out of Fela, I was listening to Seal. I would go to some hip-hop. Also, Micheal Franks, a Barcelona singer; I was heavily into Micheal Franks and there was a DJ, a friend of ours, his name is Jerome Sydenham- Ibadan Records. Jerome used to do all of our mixes for a group of Nigerian friends of mine. We all lived in DC. We had a click- Suraj number 1, Suraj number 2 and I was number 3. So, it was three of us and a few other Nigerian friends of ours. The party scene was still in graphics. I was part of the club scene, because I was studying Martial Arts. And when you study martial arts, you tend to have dancers around a lot.
I was in this party clique and Jerome was our guide, supplying, listening to music; we were listening to house music. Then from that, listening to house music became a thing for us and I threw parties every weekend, because I was a very social guy; I had my friends come around.
In Virginia, I was throwing parties all the time. I throw parties and once in a while, I’ll do my arts- I was working as an advertising agency, doing my arts. So, I was working in my field, and I had my degree in that field, but I was already pushing out, like moving to another discipline. For me, it always feels like five years for one discipline and I get the itch. It’s like I want to push what I’m doing; I want to stretch it. Like I need to get something more original or move into.
So, my appetite to try something new was kind of itching me. So, this one guy came in and asked me, ‘oh, I love your artwork, can you do some graphics for my jeans?’ So, I made a mascot. A mascot is a symbol for sports for different universities. The schools I went to, masca was the bull. So, I did a caricature of a bull. I painted it on his jeans and he said, ‘can you do another one?’ I painted two, and he sold them. He said, ‘can you do four and was like why don’t we print it?’ So, we did four pairs of jeans.
The guy is a male stripper, so he had a gig at a gentlemen’s club where a lot of women go, like married women who leave work and go to this club, because of the male dancers. And this guy is my friend, he’s a male dancer, but he retired from male dancing, as he wants to sell shirts. He called me and was like, ‘lets make some T-shirts.’ I’ve made jeans already, so he called me, let’s make some shirts and add it to the jeans.
I made about two dozens T-shirts with that mascot. We printed it in someone’s house who had a printer; I never had a printer. That was exciting. For the first time, I printed on a printing machine. In my head now, I was like how can I get a printing machine? So, I was already scheming.
I was coming from a corporate world, because I was working as a graphic designer. Now, I’m working on the streets, getting real cash in my hands; it was a different feeling. So, it made me feel like I want to make money for myself. The T-shirt thing inspired me and my team.
Then, I moved to New York. I got this job to go do a Fela musical in London. I said ‘No, I don’t want to play Fela, I’m not Fela.’ I don’t want to cut my dreadlocks. I didn’t know it was going to be very successful; if I knew, I would have cut my hair and become Fela for them. But it was not in the cart for me, because I had a mission.
That Fela music was not attractive enough for me. I feel like I have already done my part; I have played with this band, I’ve travelled everywhere. We’ve gone all over the place. I’ve dug into Fela’s music and I felt like I’ve paid some homage and I have influenced bands that are forming now, because they see this guy, and all these White guys.
Like when you see other White guys playing the music, it’s okay. I can do it too. If you can do it, I can do it. So, all those types of thought processes, if you don’t go, you never know.
My last name Amayo is if you don’t go, you never know. So, in my own head, I already know that I want to do something with Amayo, my last name. I was doing the clothing; it had my last name. You know, I did that, I opened a shop doing T-shirts then I said I got to do fashion shows with my T-shirts.
So, I need music for my fashion show. I’ve got some drummers. One of Sunny Ade’s sons, a percussionist friend, I called him, and told him, ‘Kunle, bring your boys now for my fashion show.’ So, I had all the percussion, eleven of them in the fashion show; that started my signature. My clothing line, which is designed like martial art clothing, is designed for leisure. So, Leisure Wear was the name I coined for my collection.
I was starting to get into collections; I did some fashion shows. I had a big exposure in New York, big exposure in London. It was good. I felt okay, maybe clothing is going to be my thing, you know. Moving to the next phase, I had the music to go with it; I think the music was not original enough. This is my brain, you know. I want original music, so I started slowly creating patterns and recording them.
From there, I started creating my own style of recording for orchestra form, and that’s how I joined Antibalas. So, I pushed and squeezed the martial art style, the rhythm, because I teach Chinese Lion dance, which is the egungun of Kung Fu. So, that became one thing I specialised in. When you study Kung Fu, you have to study that.
After I studied Kung Fu, I moved on to the lion dance, learned the music. Then the drumming of the lion dance sounded, it wasn’t like Afrobeats at all in my own ear. You know, because I’m thinking about blending sounding like that would be the perfect Afrobeat spice. So, I started creating my own style of music, which at that time, I was calling it Fu Afrobeats.
Eventually, I had about three albums worth of music that I already composed while in Antibalas. They were all playing it, because my music was sounding fresh and I knew it was sounding better, because I was told by a lot of people, including Michael Veal who wrote the book called Fela, The Life and Time of a Musical Icon.
I’m like a sponge of everything. I didn’t discover Kung Fu anywhere; I discovered Kung Fu right here in Lagos and when I found it, no one could stop me anymore. My mum tried everything to stop me, but you know, that’s where I am today; where Kung Fu meets Afrobeats.
You are quite the eccentric artist.
Yeah. I feel like I’m not there yet, I want to do that one. I wanted to do… not all obviously; it was like this guy called Sun Ra. He is like my spec, probably one of my highest musical gurus. He studied all forms of music. So, because of his ideology of the way he explained it, I wanted to go into all forms of Afrobeat, because I know, when Fela already said in one of his interviews, he doesn’t call his music Afrobeat anymore; he calls it Classical African Music. So, I was listening to Classical African Music. As of now, I can dip and dive into any type of music. It does not matter; it’s just rhythms, melodies and you have a choice.
So why did you leave Antibalas?
Antibalas was a twenty-three year old journey and it was time, you know. Even before the twenty-three years came, I was already trying to figure out how to make it easy and nice, with no issues. You know, I was waiting for the right time, but there’s never the right time.
The right time is always that moment that you do it. So, I spoke to my wife for a long time, because my wife was part of my decisions. All those things happening and the right time just happened to be right when the pandemic hit, because we had already started a tour for the Fu Chronicles. We just started touring. Although I was already tired, more like I didn’t have inspiration. Inspiration was not coming from that area anymore. It’s like you have exhausted everything.
So Fu Chronicles was like a goodbye album?
So, how did you feel when you got the Grammy nomination?
The nomination was intended because my wife teaches manifestation; she is a manifestation coach. So, I have watched her coached all these people. When we had our daughter, it was a ten-year process of that journey of raising our daughter. So, while we had her, my wife said I’m starting this business.
She’s always been that lady that has always had this thing. If you ask her, she would be like ‘yes.’ She’s like Iyalaje. You know, Acela’s Iyalaje. She was my Iyalaje. She could predict things. So, all her clients now, everyone was just making millions.
So, I would say, ‘how about me now? It’s time for us.’ She was like, ‘how do you want to exit with the band?’ So, we started the whole process and at the same time, we wanted to build everything up, not just me sitting. Let’s build this up; let’s build that brand up too. We started the whole campaign to build the brand up while I go for the Grammy. There’s a way to do a Grammy.
We discovered a way through her connections, phone calls, and emails. You find some of your right teams, you start emailing them, you send them stuff; they listen to it. It’s the same process as the presidential campaign, and we went through it full time.
Antibalas, that tone, that school is not the school that cares about what happens with the Grammy and all that stuff- it’s all about the art, being real and being true to the art. And I understand that you can be true to the art; you also be true to the business. I’ve reached a point where I needed to get more heavily into the business part, because I feel like the music now, I have a handle on what I want to do with music.
I’m not trying to do music like, ‘hey I want to go and have a hit song, I want to go and tour the world.’ That’s not why I do music. I do music as a healing tool and because I teach martial arts, martial art is like healing. So, music just makes it solid. Healing Arts- Martial Arts wraps around it. You have a solid fortress of humanity.
What’s next for you with your new band?
This journey is launching this next group of songs- my solo career obviously, but it is also launching my business. All my business connections will be launched at the same time. The way that I work, people that I work with, my brand of music, this next album that we’re working on now is a trilogy called the Lion Awakes, meaning the world is awake. We are all waking up. Africans are waking up. Everybody is awake. So, that song is more like a theme song for an awakening world. You know, coming to realize the power that each of us possess.
Now, it’s going to become international. So, what I’m trying to do is to rock it through. We are going to rock it and open the venue in Atlanta. We are working on expanding that venue and making it a part of the venue here and other parts of the world. So, there is a plan, which I would be able to share as time goes on.