Talks with Seun Kuti

Originally published on Drumtide Magazine July 30th, 2011. 

The first time I saw Seun Kuti play was a couple of years ago at Central Park’s Summerstage. Prior to that
day, I knew very little of the young man many would call a replica of Fela Anikulapo Kuti. 

Fela is the legendary Afrobeat pioneer and Human Rights Activist who spent most of his life criticizing the corrupt Nigerian governments of his day and the multinational companies who supported them. In 1997, after a career spanning three decades, Fela passed away. The mainstream media says due to complications from HIV. Others insist it was from exhaustion due to the numerous beatings and harassment he suffered from the military. Either way, no one can deny his music and life influenced a generation, inspiring us to live, love, dance and fight for freedom.

So when Fela died, there was a vacuum. In a sense, that vacuum was filled by the success of the Broadway play based on the musician’s life titled, Fela! However, many still secretly longed for a taste of Fela in human form. So it was no surprise that when Seun burst into the scene with dance moves, lyrics, and a personality that reminded people of his father, he was quickly embraced. 

As for me, I must confess I was skeptical. I wondered about Seun’s ability to play music and to play it well; of his ability to prove himself musically.  He already had an older brother, Femi Kuti, who was internationally recognized for his own special blend of Afrobeat. But was the world ready for another Afrobeat playing Kuti?

Well, on that sultry summer day in 2008, my doubts quickly dissolved the moment I experienced Seun live for as soon as Seun pranced on stage, the audience went into a frenzy and would remain that way for the remainder of the show. The performance was electrifying. He was talented, there was no doubt, and could command a stage. And though, he had a lot of Fela in his dance moves and mannerisms and conversational style in between songs, he was definitely his own man with a brash sound and a youthful urban persona. By the end of the concert, I knew I had to interview Seun Kuti when next I got the chance.

So when I learned he was going to be playing at New York City’s S.O.B’s in July of this year, I reached out. Over the phone, I discovered him to be outspoken, bubbly, funny and quite acute and wise beyond his years. His new album is titled From Africa with Fury. According to Seun, the title is reminiscent of the 007 flick, From Russia With Love, being a James Bond fan, as many Nigerians and Africans are (James Bond is one of the biggest film exports to Africa). Besides the 007 connection however, he said Africans had a lot to be furious about due to the economic difficulties plaguing the continent. With this album, you hear the rage in his voice especially in songs like Run, Run, Run, a song that speaks on accountability with regards to the multinational corporations and governments in their unscrupulous dealings in Africa.

When asked whether he ever gets harassed by the Nigerian government, he replies, “We are supposed to be in a democracy, why should we be getting harassed, now?” The way he says it, makes me laugh because I also understand that democracy in Africa is an illusion at best. But then he points out that during the release of his new album, some government people had come to Kalakuta to look for him and had instead got a hold of his stepmother. He is laughing when he mentions this and quickly brushes the entire episode aside as nothing consequential. 

The Nigeria of today is indeed quite different from the Nigeria of his father’s time, however, that being said, Seun doesn’t fail to mention that musicians like him are limited economically by the government because of their stance and lyrics. And even with the election of Goodluck Jonathan who some Nigerians consider a breath of fresh air because of what many believe to be a free and fair election which put him in office, Seun asserts that there is still no difference between the current administration and the previous ones, that the economic conditions are still the same and therefore nothing has changed.

When asked about what advice he has for talented people who wish to use their talents to make a difference, he goes straight to music, mentioning that in the 60’s and 70’s, music was more inspiring. But that now Governments and big corporations had taken over the music industry and were now using artists as “vendors for their wears.” He adds that as an artist one has to decide to either be famous or be conscious and goes on to state that in Africa there is a huge responsibility to be conscious because of the conditions of the continent. “Music for us is about survival.”

Seun Kuti autographs my copy of his album

The next day, I attend the concert at S.O.B's. It is crowded. As usual, the band wows the audience. It is the same band, Egypt 80, that played with his father, a band that Seun proudly inherited soon after his father’s passing. Later, I meet Seun backstage where I get my CD autographed and take a couple of photos. Backstage, I get a stronger sense of his personality. He is playful and jovial and just plain happy, and a big part of me wishes him well, because I am sure as many feel, it is well deserved. After all, he is a young man, only 28 years old, living this whirlwind lifestyle as a musician, and carrying such a big torch leftover from his father and his legacy.  I observe as people seek his attention, asking him to pose with them for pictures, wishing to hug him or just talk to him and be in his presence, and this will go on for quite a while. Even in the midst of the mayhem, he is very aware of his surroundings, is generous, is grinning from ear to ear, is pleasant and does his best to please everyone. As I exit the building, I can’t help but wish him the greatest success, pleased to know that this is the real deal, not a replica of an icon. 

By Ebele Chizea. 

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