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‘The Validation I Seek Is From My Own People, Not Grammy’

Seun Kuti in performance with the Egypt 80 Band

If you ask any upcoming Nigeria musician what his/her biggest target is, you will likely hear something like, “I want to become the first Nigerian to win the Grammy.”

For sure, winning the Grammies has become a dream for most Nigerian artistes and their counterparts from across Afric. However, while achieving that feat still remains on the realm of dream, Seun Kuti, son of late Afrobeat music creator Fela, has worked hard enough to attract the attention of the global award organisers.

Earlier this year, Seun was nominated in the Best World Music Album category of the Grammy for his album Black Times. The keenly contested category also had albums such as Deran by Bombino, Fenfo by Fatoumata Diawara, Freedom by Soweto Gospel Choir and The Lost Songs Of World War II by Yiddish Glory.

But aside from his nomination, the talented musician, who currently plays with Fela’s Egypt 80 Band, was also on the bill of performers for this year’s show, which was indeed a great feat for Nigeria. Unfortunately, fans and lovers of Afrobeat, who waited to see Seun mount the big stage, were disappointed; it never happened. In fact, Seun eventually lost the award to South Africa’s Soweto Gospel Choir.

On his Instagram page, Seun wrote: “First and foremost I have to say I’m sorry to all the fans that tuned in to see us perform yesterday but didn’t.

“I had the weirdest ticket mix up in history meaning I missed my flight and the rehearsals and we couldn’t go on.”

And in a show of true sportsmanship, he added, “Big ups to Soweto Gospel Choir, a group that has also inspired me. @fatoumata_diawara__ for holding down our show without me. Our entire team, we must keep banging the door till they let us in.”

Ever since then, Guardian Music made efforts to secure an interview with Seun to discuss circumstances surrounding his Grammy miss. But as it turned out, the music stars had been on an international tour that saw the band perform at different locations in Europe and America.

Just recently, Seun and his band took a break from their tour and it was a great opportunity to eventually have firsthand information about what led to his inability to showcase at the Grammies.

“There was a miscommunication with my manager, the airline agent and myself; they put me on a wrong flight,” he noted. “What happened was that I actually picked up the visa for the band that Friday we were supposed to leave Lagos. The rehearsal for the performance was at 3pm in Los Angeles and we were supposed to arrive 1pm and then go straight to rehearsals,” he said.

Members of the Egypt 80 Band actually left Lagos on Emirates Airline, while Seun, who had gone to the embassy to pick up their passport, resolved to travel on Air France.

“I had been at the embassy, so, I hadn’t really packed my stuff. I wanted the band to go on the Emirates; they would get there 1pm. The Air France that left at 11pm also gets there at about 1pm. Unfortunately, they didn’t switch me to Air France, nobody took that memo into advisement; they just put me on the Emirates still. So, I went to the airport that night and there was no ticket for me; that was how the whole thing crashed,” he recalled.

Missing out on the Grammy was a sad experience for the musicians. But for lack of funds, Seun would have bought a fresh ticket just to keep a date with destiny.

“I felt really bad,” he lamented, adding, “I would have just bought another ticket, but I had spent so much money that week on our tickets, visa… I didn’t even have the money at the time. I felt really bad because for me, that was like history making time.”

On his decision to congratulate the Soweto Gospel Choir, he said, “I’m not a sore loser. Like I said before, the greatest award you can give yourself is that you know how good you are. I don’t want to go into wining or losing, it’s just the right thing to do. I don’t see it as competition; we just represented Africa greatly with our work and if they got the award, congratulations to them.”

The, he quickly added, “For me, it is what it is; it’s something that is not a one-off thing. It’s something that I earned; I didn’t lobby for it. They gave it to me because I deserved it. I don’t think any artiste in Nigeria has ever been given the opportunity to perform at the Grammies; it shows the level that I am,” he said.

In the music industry globally, the Grammy Awards remains the biggest and most glamorous platform, but for Seun, that’s not the validation he seeks.

“The validation I seek is the validation from my own people, not Grammy; that’s what is even still being held away from me. I mean, you can look at the entire award season in Nigeria last year, the entire African awards from AFRIMA to Headies… I didn’t get a single nomination in the over 600 categories. I’m still being excluded from my own people by the media and the institutions that they control. For me, that’s even more stressful than missing a show at the Grammy,” he said.

While apologising to fans that waited all night to see Egypt 80 perform on the global stage, the singer and activist, however, gave knocks to the media for always portraying him in bad light.

“When I announced my nomination, it wasn’t celebrated; it wasn’t news. When I announced that I was performing, it wasn’t celebrated. The only thing that was celebrated was that I missed my show. Suddenly, that becomes trending news; everybody wants to talk about that. The Nigerian media is focused on painting me in a negative image. Even if it’s not negative, they try to spine them in a kind of negative manner.”

He continued: “I’ve played over 500 shows in my career, this is the first time I’m missing a show and it’s news and everybody is talking. I played Coachella (music and art festival in California) seven years ago, it’s not news; somebody is doing it now, it’s news. That’s just what Nigerian media wants to show about me; they want to portray me in negative light because they don’t want young people to be inspired by my mindset,” he noted.

According to Seun, once the Nigerian people understand his ideology and mindset and are able to tap into it and think like him, it will be difficult for the political elites to manipulate Nigerians.

“There’s a narrative that must prevail in every society. If you are lucky in your society that the elites (both the political and business elites) are patriotic, they spread the narrative of upliftment. But in Nigeria, both our political and business elites are unpatriotic; they don’t have love of country or love of the people in their hearts; they only have love of self. So, they spread the narrative of oppression and if you do not blend into this narrative, you are excluded.”

He continued: “This is not the 70s or 60s when this elites had to be brutal and put military dictatorship across Africa, no. Now, they can be subtle. Since they own all the institutions and control it with their wealth and influence, they don’t have to lock you up; all they do is to exclude you. As a journalist today, if you really begin to expose things in this country, they will not throw you in the jail anymore; they will just stop giving you access to the places you need to get your stories or grow in your career. So, everything you see on TV or read on newspapers continues to reinforce their narrative. But until we realise that the elites of this country are the enemies of the people and we treat them as such, we won’t go anywhere,” he said.

While accusing young people of being docile towards the oppression by political elites, Seun said, “When I talk to people, they say, ‘Oh, Seun, it’s too dangerous for us to be speaking up, we may lose out lives.’ I say to them, ‘you are not scared of losing your lives; this is not why you are not speaking up. You’ve been programmed to believe that the benefit of keeping quite is better than the benefit of speaking up, that’s all. If you tell me you are afraid of your life and that’s why you are not speaking up, then nobody will go out in Nigeria. There’s nothing more dangerous than Nigerian roads.

“Nigeria road is more dangerous than pan-Africanist struggle; Nigerian road is more dangerous than protest; it’s more dangerous than activism or speaking out. You can be driving, container will fall on your head; I don’t think container can fall on your head if you are doing your activism. You can be driving on Nigerian roads trailer will explode and kill you. A billionaire owns the trailer and the break is failing, it’s rolling back, crushing people to death. This is Nigerian road, but that has not stopped us from going out because the benefit of going out outweighs the benefit of staying at home. In our minds, we have to go out to eat and making money is more important than staying at home. So, don’t tell me you are afraid to die and that’s why you are not participating in a better future for your children and the country. It’s because you don’t believe that the benefit of going to participate in that change is better than the benefit of allowing the wrath to continue.”

To him, the recent trend that sees young Nigerians abandon their profession for jobs in service industry is a deliberate attempt by the ruling class to keep the youths under control.

“Even our health minister said that the person that makes his robe is a doctor. In a developing country where we need doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and other professionals, they are pushing young people into the service industry deliberately. You go to school and study medicine for nine years, you can’t eat; you have to abandon the degree and start sewing agbada. As soon as you take that decision, you are in the pocket of the rich; you can never stand against them.”

He continued: “Even if you decide to be a doctor, they have an avenue for you to leave the country immediately; brain drain! They tell you, ‘Go and work in Saudi Arabia, go and work here and there…’ There are more Nigerian doctors in the State of New York alone than the whole of Nigeria combined. Imagine how many Nigerian doctors that are in London alone. Here, there’s no healthcare; I read somewhere that there’s 117,000 to one physiotherapist in Nigeria. In some places, for medical doctor, it’s 10,000 to one and all the good doctors are out of the country, encouraged by the elites to go and seek economic progress outside. So, that’s the situation we live,” he frowned.

Regarding the ongoing debate around ‘Abrobeat’ and ‘Abrobeats’, which is being pushed by the western media, Seun noted, “I said I will stop answering this question because ‘Afrobeats’ is none of my business; I don’t play it. For me, it really doesn’t make any sense making this argument of ‘Afrobeat’ and ‘Afrobeats.’ Especially, we as Nigerians making this argument, we are strengthening the narrative; we are giving something that shouldn’t be alive life.”

Notwithstanding, Seun feels the debate a deliberate move by the west to undermined Afrobeat, which Fela created.

“Now, everybody wants to talk about it because they want to give it life. Let me put it this way, we have music in Africa that is trying to be European, trying to be American; that’s okay because we’ve sold the American dream in Africa. So, there’s an African sound that artistically represent this mindset; it’s pop music, it’s African pop-music. I don’t have anything against it; I just think they are just finding their voice. You remember when dancehall came out? It used to be ragga music. Today, it’s dancehall today because they’ve found their voice. With time, when these young African artistes find their own voice, they will have their own name. So, I try as much as possible to not fall into the discussion anymore. I play Afrobeat music, I don’t play ‘Afrobeats’ and if you want to know about Afrobeat, ask me; I will tell you.”

Meanwhile, Seun Kuti’s Black Times album is a sort of reawakening for the black race across the globe. The album, which is his fourth body of works, debuted at number eight on the Billboard World Music Charts, which tabulate the relative weekly popularity of singles or albums across the world published in the Billboard magazine. With this, Seun has surpassed his father’s record, the Afrobeat legend whose album Live in Detroit was number nine on the same chart in 1986.

On the inspiration behind his Black Times, Seun explained, “You know, between 2015 and 2017, there was so much happening in black societies globally. From ‘Black Live Matters’ in America to us removing the first incumbent president in Nigeria in 2015, generally, there was a certain kind of awareness that was brewing in black communities all over the world; that was what inspired me. That spirit that is trying to wake us all up right now, though the message is being distorted and the direction is being misdirected by the powers that be, I believe that there’s a certain force existing now; the consciousness is there. Majority of us that are black know that something must give; we know something is not right. We want to see something better for our people and ourselves; that’s the feeling in our heart that they are trying to coopt.”

To the multi-instrumentalist, there’s need for institutions of influence in Nigeria, including the media, schools and religious institutions, to have a rethink about the future of Africa.

“They have to really look into their hearts and see what they are representing and think about how history will judge them in this period of our time. Not just in Africa, but how history will judge them from the view of the world when the world looks at what has happened in this part of the world. Many people think it’s not important how history sees us, but it’s very important. We just have to know what we are doing and now what we are trying to give to our people. And if I have to pay the price of exclusion for trying to articulate black consciousness, so be it.”

While urging young Africans never to allow the efforts of our heroes past to be in vain, Seun observed that, “Duty and purpose is something that has been removed from our mindset. This is because we are not taught that we are children of sacrifice as African people. That everything we’ve been able to achieve as black people is as a result of massive sacrifice by our ancestors. I’m not talking about spiritual sacrifices; I’m talking about physical bloodshed given for you to be able to aspire to achieve anything. In this system of global white domination and capitalism that we operate in the world today, African people, we are the only motherland people that had to struggle and fight and die for every step that we’ve taken; we were never been invited to the table for anything.

“For you to go to school, somebody died and paid the price. For you to even enter a taxi, for you to sit on a bus, for black people to be able to sit in our own country in Africa instead of being in the boy’s quarters, somebody paid the price. Many people don’t know why we had boy’s quarters in our homes in Nigeria; it’s because black people were not allowed in the main house in our own country; nobody reminds us of that amount of oppression. That we cannot walk on the same street with the white people, if a white man is coming on the road, you get off as a black man. This is where the system put us and our ancestors fought for us to be able to use a bank; for you go to school; for you to be a doctor; for you to be a lawyer… every step we took in this system was paid for with massive bloodshed. And we go around today saying we are self-made because we are too ignorant to understand what we are and to pay forward for the next generation. So, somebody has to counter that narrative, that injurious and disruptive narrative that is being implanted in the mind of all the black people all over the world.”

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