Duke Amayo served as the frontman of the group formed in New York in the late 90s and through his unique blend of martial art and music, he was able to take the band’s music to a global audience.
Amayo’s last act as a member of Antibalas was to craft the hugely successful grammy-nominated 2020 album ‘Fu Chronicles’.
After 23 years of leading the ascension of Antibalas and recording 9 full-length albums and performing at over 2000 shows across 5 continents between 1998 – 2022 including an impressive 4 times at Carnegie Hall, Amayo made the move to launch a solo career that brought together all the vital aspects of his life and artistic evolution – martial art (Kung Fu), music, and fashion.
In this ClassiQ interview, Duke Amayo tells me about his journey into music, his artistic evolution, being a student of ‘Felalogy’, leading the Antibalas to global fame, and the decision to venture out on his own, as well as his upcoming album ‘The Lion Awakes’.
Amayo joined me on a zoom call few hours before getting into full preparation for his performance at Felabration 2022. It was the last day of the annual Fela festival that attracts artists, creatives, and fans from across the world, and Amayo is one of the artists performing at the grand finale.
From my screen, I could see Fela’s mural boldly drawn on his T-Shirt. His long dreads were packed away in a scarf with an African print. He had a vibrant smile with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Do I use portrait or landscape?” he asked me as he set his phone on the table in front of him.
“You know, I’m not used to this new iPhone,” he chuckles.
We settled for portrait mode which allowed me to see get a full view of Amayo’s dreads and his T-shirt.
Amayo’s journey into music is a lifelong one that dates back to when he was a young boy growing up in Lagos. He was born into a large family of music lovers and as the last sibling with a smooth young face and a tender voice, Amayo was naturally the Michael Jackson of his family’s Jackson 5.
“I was born into a large family. My mother was the last wife and I was her only child. So, my siblings and I imitated the Jackson 5 who were making waves at the time and since I was the youngest, I had the nicest voice, and I also danced, I was the Michael Jackson of the family.”
Amayo tells me Music came to him naturally and it was a gate pass into the exclusive social events that happened in Lagos before the civil war.
“I remember following my Dad and uncles to events and at the gate, they will ask me to dance. Whenever I dance like James Brown or Michael Jackson, we were always allowed into the events so I was able to watch several big artists perform during those days.”
Amayo’s life like that of millions of other Nigerians will be affected by the Nigerian civil war that raged for 30 months between 1967 – 1970. While the civil war raged on, Amayo and his family relocated to Ghana and that was where he picked up another artistic element that will come to shape his art and music. Amayo recalls how he got drawn to martial art while in Ghana where at weekends, the estate he lived hosted sparring matches for the kids.
“When my family moved to Ghana during the Civil war, the estate we lived then used to have these weekend fights where kids are trained in Kung Fu and martial art. There was no fighting on the streets and whatever disagreement you have, you wait till the weekend and settle it in the arena. That was how I got interested in Kung Fu and it continued after we returned to Lagos.”
After the Civil war ended, Amayo’s family returned to Nigeria and during that time, he was able to watch the great American musician James Brown perform live and that was a turning point for him. Seeing tens of thousands of people packed in the stadium to see James Brown and as a young boy, he had to climb a tree to behold James Brown in all his greatness, and that sight awoke something in Amayo.
“I was able to see many big artists perform. I very much remember Stevie Wonder and James Brown. For James Brown, I was still a small boy and my parents didn’t want me to join the crowd in the stadium but I snuck out and climbed a tree to watch him. I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to see the artist I was imitating everyday perform live.”
Amayo’s love for Kung Fu and music continued after he left Nigeria as a teenager for Howard University. He tells me that his journey to become part of Antibalas group started in New York City in the ;ate 90s where he had a fashion outlet that fuses Africanism with Kung Fu for what he describes as Afro-futurism. The uniqueness of his art was what attracted the first members of the Antibalas band to him and it was what ushered his entrance into the band.
“When I was in New York, two white guys showed up one day and they loved some of the prints. You know, I was selling Kung Fu attires but with a touch of African prints. It was unique and different. It was through this that they told me about their music and their plans to start a band.”
Amayo tells me that he knew that without a black man, it will be difficult for the group to make Fela’s Afrobeat. He believes there’s a spirit behind Fela’s Afrobeat and for the group to make such music, it needed the identity only a black man who can tap into that spirit can provide.
While several Nigerian artists of different generation are fascinated by Fela, Amayo seems to have a dedication and understand that extends beyond artistic admiration.
“I’m a student of ‘Felalogy’, “ he said excitedly before proceeding to tell me about how Fela’s Afrobeat was driven by a different spirit and he didn’t think it was right to simply replicate it thousands of miles away in a clime where the socio-cultural realities were different.
“When they told me to join the band, it was I and my friend. My friend find it strange that some white guys wanted to make Afrobeat and he wasn’t interested. I find the idea to be interesting as I already had plans to make music so I decided that if I was coming on board I will be bringing my special touch rather than just trying to replicate what Fela did.”
Amayo tells me how he brought the spirit of Kung Fu and blended Afrobeat and other sounds. It was with this special sound that Antibalas was able to take their Afrobeat sound to listeners across America and beyond.
Making Afrobeat in a soundscape where such sound is entirely foreign to the primary consumers required imposing creativity to make the music appealing. I asked Amayo how Antibalas were able to pull this off and he tells me it was about crafting a sound that speaks to the soul of the listeners.
“Music needs to speak to your soul and sometimes, it can be just the percussions or the strings that connect with your spirit. So we took all these different instruments from Africa, Latin America, and beyond and put it together in a way that different parts speak to the soul of listeners.”
After 23 years of leading the ascension of Antibalas and recording 9 full-length albums and performing at over 2000 shows across 5 continents between 1998 – 2022 including an impressive 4 times at Carnegie Hall, Amayo made the move to launch a solo career that brought together all the vital aspects of his life and artistic evolution – martial art (Kung Fu), music, and fashion. I asked him what motivated this decision and he tells me he took the decision long ago but finally decided after putting out the Grammy-nominated ‘Fu Chronicles’.
“Since around 2010, I had been planning on having my band and creating my kind of music. You see ‘Fu Chronicles’ was birthed by my desire to merge Kung Fu and music. After the album, I decided it was time to finally start my band.”
Amayo’s band is simply called ‘AMAYO’ which means – if you don’t go, you will never know. He has managed to join forces with old friends some of whom he played with as part of Antibalas. His band features shekere, guitar, bass, flute, violin, drums, percussion, and horns. Amayo’s songs guide people through Kung Fu movements and stories of the Nigerian Edo & Ife Kingdoms.
He tells me that his band is coming together and they are not primarily concerned with coming up with a special tag as they are driven by the same artistic spirit.
“The band is coming together. You know, they are some of the guys I met from the band so we are not bothered about coming up with a name. They are cool with being described as Amayo since it captures the spirit of the music.”
As an anointed Orisha “Awo” Amayo sings traditional Nigerian spirituals and stories that have been passed down in a sacred lineage. Amayo has been a senior master (Sifu) of the Jow Ga Kung Fu School of martial arts since 1982 and performs the traditional Chinese Lion Dance as a salutation ritual to begin his stage performances to bring good fortune to the audience.
Amayo is set to release a new album he calls ‘The Lion Awakes’. About the new album, he tells me it’s a special music which he gave listeners a glimpse of with ‘Fu Chronicles’. The album will be released with his new band and he will be showcasing different elements of his artistry including infusing some feminism in his music which is not limited to the themes and backup dancers. His fashion is inspired by his mother whose attires he repurposed into his stage wear.
“I write songs about social justice, gender equality, and other such conscious topics but I do it with my unique style. Some of the clothes I wear on stage are my late mom’s attire which I just repurposed so I believe her spirit is always with me.”
During the interview which had lasted nearly 40 minutes, Amayo’s phone rang on three occasions, and each occasion was a reminder that he had a performance to prepare for.
Before ending the interview, we discussed the strides Afrobeats is making globally and I asked Amayo how he thinks the Nigerian music industry should ensure that the story of the rise of Afrobeats is a truly Nigerian one.
He tells me it’s all about first understanding that African elements make up the sound then we can always know that come what may, the sound can never be stolen as the African element can never be perfectly recreated.
“The younger generation needs to understand the African sound that make Afrobeats what it’s. The West can say it’s influenced by Hip Hop and Pop but without that African sound, there can be no Afrobeats. Once you understand the African sound, nobody can take the sound away.”
His response philosophical just as he had done for most of the interview. A student of ‘Felalogy’. That explains everything.