Seun Kuti – cover story

Alarm Magazine #33, September 2008

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“Right now,” says Seun Kuti, “music is the only fuel that is backing the movement.”

Adamant and engaged, the stance fairly sums up the disposition of the 25-year-old Nigerian singer and bandleader. Kuti brims with the urgency of mission, and now, on the heels of a major international tour behind a highly lauded debut album, “Seun Kuti & Egypt 80,” he’s got himself a platform to match the scale of his searing social critique and righteous indignation.

And – of course – of his lineage. For Seun is the son, and arguably the designated heir, of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the towering master of Afrobeat whose legacy well overflows the boundaries of music and art to take on the aspect of prophecy; an icon of social empowerment and personal liberation who lived his values, often at great risk, in defiance of a parade of military dictators and corrupt civilian rulers, while rendering them in a perfected transatlantic synthesis of funk, jazz, and West African groove.

It’s a heavy mantle to carry, and Seun is not the first of the Kuti children – a numerous brood, as Fela famously lived with 29 wives – to find himself thus laden. After Fela died, in 1997 from the effects of AIDS, it was Seun’s much older half-brother Femi who first hit the world-music circuit, with the 2000 album “Shoki Shoki,” and who still today runs a Lagos club, the New Shrine, in the spirit of Fela’s original Shrine, and apt name for a venue that represents Afrobeat’s holiest of holy sites.

But when Fela died, it was Seun, though only 14 at the time, who had already been performing with his father for six years; and it is Seun who has since led Egypt 80, Fela’s working band, which today still includes many musicians who were at Fela’s side in the master’s heyday, back in the Seventies and early Eighties.

“I’ve been playing with them since I was eight, and touring with them since I was born,” Seun says. “They are like brothers, fathers and uncles to me.” They include music director Lekan Animashaun, known as Baba Ani, who is nearly three times Seun’s age. Considering the punctilious emphasis African tradition places on respect for elders, leave aside the sheer artistic experience of these men, Seun knows he is in a peculiar position as leader of the group.

“It’s mutual respect,” he says. “Leadership doesn’t become you, you become it. You slowly get to that position, so that even when you make a mistake, they know that an honest mistake was made.”

The nature of leadership is a concern that comes up time and again in the course of an hour-long phone conversation with Seun. Like Fela, he devotes a preponderance of his lyrics to the critique of the Nigerian government and political elite: its venality, its misplaced priorities, its articulation into a skewed and oppressive international order.

History has supplied no shortage of ironic material. In 1979, when soldiers stormed Fela’s Lagos compound, known as Kalakuta Republic, and threw his mother out a window to her death, Nigeria’s military leader was General Olusegun Obasanjo. The same Obasanjo who, reinvented as a civilian leader, served as Nigeria’s “democratic” president from 1999 until replaced by a hand-picked successor last year, in elections generally considered to have been designed to produce the proper outcome. A snippet of Obasanjo’s recorded voice, along with that of his vice-president, appears at the start of “Many Things,” the opening track on Seun’s album and a vintage denunciation of the wholesale corruption of the political class.

“They are no longer directly in power but they are still running things,” Seun says. “They are examples of everything that is wrong with Nigeria. They are hypocrites, black men in the face, but white men in the arse. They are there for their own personal benefits, with the support of the West.”
“These are not leaders, just rulers,” he says flatly. “Rulers is what they are.” And mere rulership is not acceptable; not when elections are manipulated, not when whole generations are pushed by unemployment into hustles and criminality, not when the purported benefits of early 21st-century globalization, in Seun’s view, accrue only to a tiny minority, thereby serving to entrench, not transform, the system.

“I don’t see technology as helping the common man,” he says. “You have to be educated to an extent before anyone can use technology. What is the point of technology when you are not giving people the base to use it?”

“If you come back to Nigeria after, say, five years, you won’t believe where you are,” he says, acknowledging the fast spread of new construction, shopping malls and the like that is taking place in numerous developing countries. “But stop looking at just the big cities. This is a façade. Go to the villages, go to the ghettos of those cities. You’ll see that the people live like animals.”

But the spirit of Afrobeat eschews cynicism. As much as Seun’s songs shine a harsh light on a litany of ills – arbitrary and venal rule, the corrupting dependence on the oil industry, the unaddressed depredations of malaria – they never turn the corner into fatalism. Like his father, he’s a satirist of the old school, fighting the power by means of the unrelenting exposure of its absurdity.

And he’s hopeful, deploying a scientific metaphor to describe the hunger for change that he feels amid his generation, and amid Nigerians he encounters back home and overseas. “It’s like kinetic energy and potential energy,” he says. “The potential is there. It’s time to get leaders who will help turn it to positive, kinetic energy.”

These days, Seun – for all his firebrand criticism of the West and its complicity in the ills of the developing world – finds himself looking toward the United States for that kind of leadership, in the person of a certain presidential candidate.

“Barack Obama,” he interjects firmly even before hearing the end of a question about who, if anyone, inspires trust today. “I don’t agree with all his views, but I see his vision. And he’s African, so there’s a lot of hope in there.”

In Obama – whose election he regards as a certainty – Seun sees the best chance for guiding a wholesale change in Western attitudes toward Africa and the developing world, toward ending interference and encouraging the self-reliance of communities. “I can’t change the Western mentality,” Seun says. “That’s Barack’s job!”

A tall order, perhaps, but Seun has confidence. “He’s got eight years,” he proclaims. “That’s a long time for a brother.”

That jaunty, even mischievous optimism, laced with a race pride that is unabashed but never feels toxic, is again a trait that situates Seun Kuti at the heart of the Afrobeat tradition, and marks him as his father’s son. It fits with the music: with the joyousness of the horn licks, the relentlessness of the beat, the passages of outright carnality; with the unstated, because self-evident, premise that dancing is crucial to rebellion.

Out of Fela’s immense catalog of extraordinary songs, there is one in particular that Seun identifies as his all-time favorite, and it’s a revealing choice. It isn’t “Zombie” or “Shakara” or “Lady” or even “Beasts of No Nation,” or any of the other classics that generations of conscious listeners worldwide have come to love and DJs from many genres have woven into their mixes to delight on the dancefloor.

Instead, it’s “Look and Laugh” – a relatively obscure track from 1983, over half an hour long, governed by a groove to end all grooves: liquid, unhurried, and total. “It’s just the perfect track,” Seun says. “The groove and the horns are perfect. That song is
crazy, I’m telling you.”

It’s also a detailed dissection of Nigerian society, a mini-seminar in political economy that fluidly connects the micro and the macro. A whole segment details the workings of corruption and waste whereby a road, promised by a politician, is never built, and the money for construction goes to line people’s pockets instead.

The groove serves the message, the message serves the groove. Seun grasps that this symbiosis is the essence of Afrobeat. It’s what keeps the music endlessly fresh, a remarkably stable compound no matter how complex and volatile its components. And though he himself is as old as that song – born in the same year it was made – he knows the problems it presents are as urgent as ever.

“I’m ashamed to be from a continent where we beg for everything,” he says. “We want food, we beg. We want water, we beg. We want health care, we beg the WHO. But we’re the richest continent. The money is somewhere. What’s up with that?”