Seun Kuti: Passionate For African Change
Seun Kuti is not just popular because of his father, the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti rather, he has created a niche for himself in the music world via his style of music, Afrobeat, and also the constant activism portrayed in his music.
It is a hot afternoon, the strange, yet appetising aroma of food muffled with cannabis welcomed us at the Afrika Shrine, the familiar sight of people hustling and beckoning on us to sit and eat. A few minutes later, he welcomes us with men, we later find out are a part of his crew. They lead the team through to a special historical past (the 80s) which would become the place for the interview.
As we climb the stairs to a rather hidden location, we are given a brief and rather intriguing exposure of the Kuti clan: pictures of the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, his father, some of his performances, Fela’s awards, his grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, generations of the Kuti adorn the walls of the stairs. Just as we settle, conversations about the happenings around the country, a bit of Africa, a bit of history, and a bit of What would Fela do (WWFD) if he were still alive, set the pace for our conversation.
Seun Kuti started singing at the age of 8 alongside his father, the great Fela Kuti, earning his source of income at that age as he got paid for opening the stage. 28 years later, he is not just singing, but has had several record deal(s), is a Grammys-nominated artiste and has led the Egypt ‘80 band for 22 years.
It is easy to conclude that he naturally towed the path of Fela as many would their father’s business. While he acknowledges that he was influenced by them, he insists that unlike was common in those days, his parents gave him the option to choose whatever profession he deemed fit.
“The conviction I have today are borne from the foundation of my home but it is not because of the foundation of my home. I came to the awakening and consciousness independent of my father’s influence”.
He would go on to admit that while growing up, he did not understand some of his father’s teachings. Fela Kuti was the Nigerian example of a contradiction of society, speaking against the ills of society which often saw him become public enemy number 1 of the military government.
He says that he did not adhere to his teachings because of peer pressure and because they were strange until he read a book, The Last Templer, when he was 24 that changed his outlook on life forever.
“Everybody’s awakening is an independent journey,”.
The Path Of Activism
After his self-discovery, he made a conscious decision to build on the principles which his father laid, all of which are encapsulated in his songs as messages.
This life action has not settled well with some in society as he claims that he is now faced with the problem of exclusion. He says, “the new way of oppressing people that speak the truth today is exclusion… My message contradicts the message of the elites…Even now, Fela is not played often in the media. If Fela was around now, it would be difficult for his music to rise like it did because there is so much distraction”.
“The oppressors always look to perfect oppression. They practice a system of exclusion. Back in the days, they used to be crude but they have realised that it only makes you popular. So they own everything and exclude you from it.”
“It is not enough to say you love Africa, you need to know about Africa.”
This view, he also holds towards xenophobia, a problem which he says is a case of hatred by Africans to Africans.
“If xenophobia is hatred of others, why is it only Africans being attacked when there are other continents present in South Africa?
“It is the same mindset in South Africa that makes us in Nigeria set a woman on fire, claim she is a witch and blame her for all the evils in the community. We set Nigerians on fire for N20, so why are we sitting on a high horse and acting like we have not seen a Nigerian being burnt? But when you see a governor, you hail him. So it is not xenophobia, it is because the elites in Africa have put hatred of each other in us, mainly, the poor among us.”
Carrying The Mantle
Long before the Fela’s band bore the name Egypt ‘80, a name it bears to this day, the band had undergone a metamorphosis of names. In 1979, Fela changed the name to the present band name, Egypt ‘80, a name which reflects the idea that Egyptian civilization, knowledge, philosophy, mathematics, and religious systems are African and must be claimed as such.
After the death of the great Fela, Seun Kuti became the head of Egypt ‘80, he was 14 years of age and the official CEO in 2008. Interestingly, some of the band members who had been jailed with Fela still form part of the group.
How Kuti has kept the band working despite the age difference is quite marvelling. He attributes the success of this relationship to respect.
“the most important thing in a relationship like ours is respect, I think we have mutual respect and that is what matters. I am not one that carries people along, I also do not believe in winning people over, I think those are oppressor’s characteristics, I go along with my people.”
Who The Shoe Fits
In the past few years, there has been a call by Africans to have someone with the same musical depth like Fela Kuti. As a result, many musicians have been placed in the same musical space like Fela. However, the question of who is worthy to wear the crown has arisen.
“I have heard so many people say they are the new Fela, however, when they have money, they spend it like our oppressors.
“Those people that call themselves that don’t really like Fela per se. They like the fact that he was famous and use him as an excuse to do some things. The proof lies in how you spend your life. Do you live your life as an elite? We make money and live with our oppressors and say we are Fela. Put your money where your mouth is.”
“Every action you act [take] is an illusion of action because you are acting in another person’s act. This is what I want to change.”
Also, there have been conversations around Afrobeat (pioneered by Fela) and Afrobeats (a term coined in the UK to describe the “anthesis of its prefixed forebear”; tilting towards the pop genre instead. In this regard, there are arguments on how Afrobeats is a more advanced genre than Afrobeat.
But Seun opines that questions on the relevance of the genres should not be a basis for arguments.
“How many times have you heard that there is a new Bob Marley in Jamaica? It is only in Nigeria that you hear things like this.
“Everything is IT at the same time, the fact that you think that Afrobeats is IT might not be the same to another. The sky is big enough for the birds to fly”
The Real Victory
In 2019, Seun Kuti was nominated for the World Best Music Album category but lost to the Soweto Gospel Choir (South Africa). From that time until now, his perspective on winning has changed. He no longer has his eyes on being a Grammy award winner but is focused on the messages he needs to pass across to awaken the people’s consciousness and fight their built-in oppressive trait.
“For me, being an Afrobeat musician means I’ve found a way to BE. It has given me a way to resist my oppression. I hope that my music is able to inspire people around the world and I think that is what Afrobeat is created for, as a way to express the real feelings of the oppressed.
“People think they are chasing money, no they are chasing a voice. The belief that the elites have imposed on people is that they are the example of humanity. So everybody wants money because they believe it can solve their problems but Afrobeat gives you that power, the opportunity to be heard.”
Get the latest news delivered straight to your inbox every day of the week. Stay informed with the Guardian’s leading coverage of Nigerian and world news, business, technology and sports.