The Time For Being Nice Is Over: Seun Kuti Interviewed
, April 22nd, 2014 03:58
Richie Troughton talks politics, legacy and Afrobeat to Seun Kuti, the man earning his reputation out of Fela's shadow, ahead of his Field Day set
When Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anukulapo-Kuti died in 1997, his son Seun, then 14, took on the brave task of carrying on his legacy by becoming frontman of his father's group Egypt 80 (formerly Africa 70). As a young boy Seun opened his father's shows with the group as his backing band and the older members' have shown faith in allowing the time for their young frontman to develop into the role. Following 2008 debut Many Things and the Brian Eno-produced From Africa With Fury: Rise (2011), Seun's third album with Egypt 80, A Long Way To The Beginning, builds on the importance of young people in Africa to stand up against controlling governments and multinational corporations.
Seun was brought up in the commune-like Kalakuta Republic, declared by Fela to be independent from the Nigerian government (the original compound was burned down in 1978, during Fela's long struggle against the authorities). Fela had begun putting together the pieces of his Afrobeat puzzle, combining elements of traditional Yoruba music, jazz, highlife, soul and funk, while studying music at Trinity College London, and as a teenager Seun, who like his father also plays alto saxophone, took time out from the group to study music at Liverpool. While having explored other styles of music it is with Afrobeat that Seun has found his natural calling, with a sharp political ethos shared with his father. When at home in Lagos, Seun regularly plays at The New Afrika Shrine, opened by his older brother Femi in 2000 in the style of Fela's own nightclub The Shrine, and the venue continues as the home of Afrobeat.
Seun Kuti + Egypt 80 were in London recently to play their new album in full to a packed crowd at Shoreditch's Village Underground. Band leader and keyboard player Lekan Animashaun, one of the group's original members, who started playing with Fela in 1965, playfully addressed the crowd that evening as, "Gentleman and ladies, that is gentlemen first, as where I come from the man is king." Seun was warmly welcomed onstage by Lekan as, "The youngest son of our hero… A man whose music is a tree of food… A tree of food for thought!"
Last year saw Fela's music made available to a new generation of listeners thanks to an extensive reissue campaign to mark what would have been his 75th birthday and at the London gig the group pay respect to the man by playing his track 'VIP (Vagabonds In Power)'. Its message is as relevant as ever, but does not overshadow any of their new material, as Seun and Egypt 80 deliver a life-affirming masterclass of Afrobeat music with a social conscience. Like the Fela track performed, the new album's lead track 'IMF (International Motherfucker)' is a simmering modern protest anthem. While maintaining a dedication to "serious underground dancing" at the heart of the ecstatic groove, Seun's lyrics carry a universal truth as he slams the banking elite and International Monetary Fund, "My people never see no dollar, My people never see no aid."
Alongside the huge sound of the 14-piece Afrobeat orchestra the album features guest spots from M-1 of Dead Prez and Blitz The Ambassador, who add raps to 'IMF' and 'African Smoke' respectively, providing a modern hip hop twist to the Afrobeat blueprint, and German-Nigerian singer Nneka appears on the soulful 'Black Woman'. Nneka also appeared on last year's Red Hot + Fela tribute album, that also included Fela Kuti's longtime drummer Tony Allen, Baloji, Kronos Quartet, tUnE-yArDs, ?uestlove, My Morning Jacket and members of TV On The Radio giving a contemporary makeover to some of Fela's best known tracks.
Like Fela's 'Yellow Fever', 'Black Woman' calls for female empowerment and a celebration of self, while railing against the practice of skin bleaching. It is a subject close to Seun's heart, having recently become a father with partner Yetunde Ademiluyi (who is also a singer and dancer in the group) and no doubt inspired by the vision of his grandmother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was a feminist activist in the anti-colonial movement (and the first Nigerian woman to drive a car) and she is name-checked in the song alongside Nina Simone and Angela Davis.
The Quietus meet up with Seun and Yetunde at their hotel room in Old Street on the afternoon of the gig, where they have just arrived from Paris with the group following a run of gigs in France. He is making arrangements to meet with a London-based Nigerian shoemaker friend prior to the gig and is topless, revealing the "Fela Lives" tattoo across his back.
Let's start with the new album, A Long Way To The Beginning. It's not quite the beginning for you as you have been playing with the group for so long, but it represents perhaps a consolidation of those ideas. Does it feel like you are picking up from what your father did?
Seun Kuti: The title of the album, A Long Way To The Beginning, it's a journey for me. It's not every time that the day starts as you begin your journey. The day is set out. You might find your real journey in a journey. So I believe this is what happened to me. I found my real calling while I was already in the thing. There was a reason I played Afrobeat as a kid. You have to realise I was eight when I started playing with the band. I would not say I was completely conscious or completely involved in the movement. I mean, I was a Christian until I was about 15! So, for me it's about the development and I believe this is a new beginning, not just for me as a musician, but for the band, in coming a long way, living through the stigma of not having Fela with us and people always saying the band will never make it because Fela was dead. And I believe that our first two albums, all it did was put us in a position to start all over again. The first two albums have given us a chance to be recognised as a musical force in our own right.
When you take someone as great as Fela out of the equation, it is a big gap, so without this huge factor and still to be able to rise through it I believe the band should be global. That's why I named the album A Long Way To The Beginning musically. On a wider level, I believe Afrobeat in itself is just about to begin. I believe the buzz around Afrobeat right now is louder than it has ever been. There's so many people involved in Afrobeat, not only Afrobeat bands, but, in terms of businessmen, actors, directors and people who just want to make the music grow. There are so many people passionate about the message. Because when Fela was alive, Afrobeat was probably an African message, but it is a global message today, with bands from all over the world playing and talking about things going on in their own individual countries, not just restricted to Africa. I am sure there are more Afrobeat bands in New York than in the whole of Africa.
What kind of role do you see for Afrobeat music today, in terms of its message?
SK: It's not only about just entertainment. I believe Afrobeat is also a statement. If you choose to be an Afrobeat musician, it is a statement on its own. People come to expect a certain level of consciousness from you. And I don't think it's too much for people to expect that. I believe it is the responsibility of artists to give this kind of social relevance to their art. And for one reason and one reason only: people love you when you play music. When you have the gift of music, people give you their hearts, they give you love. They talk about you when you are not there, argue about you with their friends because of you, have your poster in their room. They don't even know you! So, for me, to take that trust that they give you, through that love, you can control a certain level of their thoughts, of the way they socialise. When you sell it like, "I got this and you don't have it, ha ha ha!" I feel when music is like that it is just wrong.
With the musicians you are playing with at the moment, some of them go back to when your father first formed the group, and younger members are now involved as well, so where they have been used to playing this music for so long, how has your approach to song writing developed in creating the songs?
SK: Well, I think like anybody, being talented is only maybe 20%, of being a good musician or writing good songs. 80% is just pure work. And that is it. There is no formula. You get your sound. Everybody is as bad if you are a musician and have not been inspired. That is why you are a musician. You are working on the streets and from the word "Boom!" you get a sound in your head, a riff in your head, you know, something comes and this is a heavy sound. Maybe it's a bass line and you are just like, "Yes! This is music. This is a big sound." Now, taking that sound and making it into music is a complicated experience. So just practice, I believe. For me, I practice and allow my music to always represent me and come from within me. When I am writing I try as much as possible not to listen to too many other songs. I try and leave music free when I am writing, so I can be sure everything I am doing is coming from completely within me. Because it is easy when you are writing to become lazy, I start to steal people's sounds. Not overtly, you know, covertly! Stick one here, stick one there, you know? It is kind of easy to fall into that. But for me, I believe it is really important to let your music come from within and put in the work.
I get my sound, I work on it at home, write the lyrics or the music and then take it to the band, we rehearse it together and… voila!
Have they had to adapt to the ideas you have?
SK: They are professional musicians. There is no point writing great songs if the band can't play! I believe Egypt 80 have always been a great band, playing under Fela for so long. Nobody entered the band just by walking in to the band. Every band member comes in and then you are understudying someone who we have with us for probably two years before you are given the chance to play live. The band itself, I believe, is professional enough to be able to bring my own vision to the fore.
I've been enjoying the lead track on the new album, 'IMF'. The title and the message of injustice and corruption are perhaps in the style your father may have used, but updated to current problems.
SK: Well, for me, there is no time for niceness in Africa anymore. The time for niceties are done. Young black people back in Africa have to understand we are being mortgaged unfairly. We are being mortgaged to lands unknown, and to people unknown. The outright exploitation of young people in Africa in the workforce is so bad.
In my country for example, 50 years of independence and we cannot even run the damn country. We need what they call "expats". You don't have them here, I'll tell you what an expat is. An expat is a foreigner from a so-called developed country, sometimes not even a developed country, just a country with a better education than Nigeria, to do the same job as Nigerians and earn five times the pay. And this is simply because the government have not been able to train young Nigerians in 50 years to be able to run the country. If Nigeria chases out all its expats today, Nigeria will collapse. And what kind of country cannot be run by its own citizens? And this goes for every African country.
We need to grasp our own future. And the people that are making these decisions, they are not even in their 40s, or if they are planning to leave and see what the outcome is going to be, they are all surely gonna die soon, so they are just trying to stash enough money away for their families. It's really ridiculous for me hearing about. Now I believe young people in Africa need to organise, become more calculating and see the big picture. Nobody can help us except ourselves. "Africa Rising" and all that bullshit, it's only supporting capitalism. Africa is rising for capitalists. We want Africa to rise for the common man. The adverts on BBC and CNN about the so-called growing business atmosphere in Africa is not getting to the common African man, it is not benefitting us, it is benefitting maybe two or three per cent of the population. The rest of us, all we see is the corruption of our society and mass pollution of our environment. And now the Chinese, they even pollute their own environment, so just think what they do to us? They don't care!
On 'IMF' the African issues spread to a more global message.
SK: I don't think 'IMF' is an African issue. International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, they are no longer African issues. They are global issues. The first person that wrote us a letter, a fan note after 'IMF' was released, was Portugese.
Africa could suffer some austerity and nobody care. But no, no, there is austerity everywhere. And in my country there is no longer a military regime. The president is stealing, the entire house of reps is stealing, the entire senate is stealing, all of the ministers are stealing, all of the governors are stealing and the house of assemblies are stealing, so the cake is really small now. So austerity in Africa is something that we've grown used to. The violence in Africa is something that we still haven't gotten used to, and all over the world.
'African Smoke' is basically about violence and standing up to violence as a unit, as a unified population, to say, "Okay, fine, you have been oppressing us with violence, now we are not happy with violence anymore." If the winds of change are going to blow the smoke your way, we are going to stand up to you. I think this is a global theme as well. Look at Ukraine just a few weeks ago and things that happened there. We need to stand up to tyranny. That's just the only way.
You explore a similar theme in 'Higher Consciousness'. We think we are progressing, but at the same time…?
SK: You know, I don't think we have really progressed. During my father's time you have to realise that the propaganda machine against him was strong, and the suffering in my country was as well. People say Fela saw the future and he is a soothsayer, in Africa they like to always add supernatural things to natural, but the man was just very focussed and could understand events. But Nigerians always like to attack the supernatural, "Oh, Fela was a prophet! God gave him the vision of what was going to happen!" I think the only reason you all didn't understand him then was that you all had jobs, so it was easier for you to buy the government propaganda and say, "Yeah! Fela was crazy, he smoked too much weed and he's talking crap." And you all bought that propaganda because you all had jobs and you didn't want to think about your brothers and sisters that did not have jobs.
But my dad saw that these circumstances that caused those people to not have jobs were very perverse circumstances that without check, without it stopping right now, was going to spread to a higher percentage of everybody. Which it did. So now we mythicise the prophet and everybody wants to listen to what he had to say. But for me, I feel Africans now understand what they never before. It's only this generation.
When Africa got its independence in the '60s, probably only 200 Africans were graduates, not probably - officially, factually. There were only 200 graduates, throughout the whole continent. And out of the 200, around 180 were from Nigeria and Ghana. So it was not the right time. Definitely not the right time. It was called 'independence', that was some kind of whitewash name, to make it seem like something was happening and colonialism was ending. No, it was just a transfer of costs. It was not independence. The crown was tired of paying the bills of administrators in Africa and decided to put some African puppets in charge of their business interests in Africa and call it independence.
The people were never really given the tools to achieve self-realisation, because to develop any system, or change any system, or work with any system, or fight against that system, you have to understand the system. So how can you leave a system that people did not understand, to govern them and say that you have given them something to help them. And they were easily manipulated. People could not understand, because they were not educated enough to understand. But in Africa today, only maybe 30% of us have up to high school education, but that is enough. It is better than 200 graduates!
Going back to your first getting into music, but also growing up in the Kalakuta Republic, what was that like? You sing about it on the new album on 'Kalakuta Boy' as learning from "the great man" and the way of life you were experiencing.
SK: Kalakuta was like the university of life growing up there. It was unconventional and growing up only with people that are family and loved you and had vested interests in your way of being. I was a completely protected child. My father was more nature than nurture, but he was there for us all the time, don't get me wrong. He was a hands-on dad when he had to be. He was always there, very responsible, but he also wanted us to discover the world ourselves, he wanted us to make our own mistakes from as young as five, six, seven, the earlier the better. That was his own motto!
So, living with all these people at the same time, that were strangers from all over the world, just living in this house, you kind of learned a lot about anthropology!
And people like Paul McCartney visited?
SK: I wasn't born then, but I went to LIPA (Liverpool Institute for Perfoming Arts), so I got my Paul McCartney dose.
Do you still play at The Shrine?
SK: Yeah, I still play at my brother's Shrine, I play once a month because I am lazy. I play once a month because I tour so much and when I am home I want to rest and I don't want to start playing two shows a week. For me life is weird. I am on the road seven to eight months a year, touring, touring, touring, touring. So when I travel I am working, when I am home, I'm on holiday!
Those experiences at Kalakuta, have they influenced how you live your life in Lagos?
SK: Yes, and not only how I live my life, but also how I relate with people, my politics, my understanding. Because I see a lot of people for what they really are. I know people just respond to incentives behind everything. It's really hard to find selfless people, and even with that selflessness, the incentive is still that people admire you for being selfless. So you really need to understand inequality. That is one of the lessons instilled in me that can never leave me. The fact that everybody has to be treated equal. That is the only way humanity can move forward. The same laws affect all of us. Poor people cannot earn $40,000, $30,000, or in the case of my country, $4,000 a year. You tax them 40% and the rich man is paying probably the same amount as the poor man in tax, because he's hiding his money everywhere. You know what I mean? Footballers in the UK get probably 2% of their wages taxed, it's ridiculous. Poor people don't even have access to it, that really need the money, they are being robbed by government.
You spoke about how music like yours in Nigeria wouldn't necessarily get the audience at government sponsored events, as they are not going to support this kind of music, and your dad came under a lot of pressures… Do you experience any of that kind of thing?
SK: Of course, I am persona non grata at any government event. Definitely.
You have been playing with the group since you first came onstage at the age of eight. Can you describe how you came to join the group onstage and then how you have developed the role of frontman when you were 14, still young?
SK: Well, I was stupid. Stupidity made me start this, I have to confess, childish naivity. Because watching my dad all the time just made me feel music was such an easy thing. Knowing what I know today maybe I might actually have played football, and then after football, I'll start this music thing. (laughs)
But when I think about it, my dad used to really enjoy taking us on the road with him. That was one of the things that really started the whole music career for me. I wanted to be onstage. I was watching my dad, he's onstage, after the show, everybody loves him, money everywhere, women everywhere… "What da fuck!? This is the easiest job. I just woke, I go onstage, I sing, I dance, I get money, I get… Come on! Fela! I just want to sing!" (laughs) So [he said], "Do you sing a song?" I sang a song. He said, "Fine, fine, start rehearsing with the band." And the rest is history.
The last album, From Africa With Fury: Rise, was produced by Brian Eno, how did you get involved with him and what did you learn from him?
SK: Oh! Well, I met Brian and he actually invited us to and event in Sydney. I never met him, I never knew Brian was such an Afrobeat connoisseur. But he was curating an art event in Sydney, invited us and so I took the opportunity to meet him because of it. Why did he invite me here? I wouldn't expect it. [And he said] "Ok, I bought my first Afrobeat album in 1973." (laughs) And from that first moment we hit it off. We spoke and I told him that I would really like him to work on my next record and he said, "Okay, if the time comes, let me know." I mean, that is what everybody says, but Brian is not everybody. He doesn't talk a lot, but when he speaks I think he keeps his word. And voila! We hit him up and got it going. And even my record company could not believe it. Like, "Wow! How did you do that?" I just asked the guy. So…
And you did the new album with Robert Glasper, who also plays keys on a lot of the tracks, what did he bring to the songwriting process?
SK: Well, for me, Brian already taught me so much working in the studio with him. It was the first time I worked with a producer outside of my own organisation when I worked with Brian. My first album, Many Things (2008), was produced by my manager then, renowned producer, Martin Meissonier. And so on my next record I worked with Brian, and Brian was like, "Fine Seun, your music is great, but if you want a second ear and you want someone to work with you on your music, you need to give the person something to work with in terms of creating space in the music for the person to be able to express themselves." So that was in my mind when I was writing this new album, when working with someone there has to be room for them to do something. That's how I went into the studio with the songs ready, we didn't know for ambiance, so Robert could be himself while working on the record with me as my co-producer.
Another song from the new album is 'Black Woman' - you would hope that the issues you sing about on the song about pride and equality were no longer a problem.
SK: Yeah, but you know, the truth about it is that this is not even an African issue. This is a capitalist issue. As I say, no system is perfect. Socialism is what it is and capitalism is what it is. Any perfect society has to be a combination of both. In the way we live our lives and survive and grow to be social, in terms of transportation, healthcare, security, shelter, food. I personally believe those are the five major things people need to survive. It has to be social. It has to be something we provide for ourselves, provide for everybody together in one pot. The other things that don't concern our lives can be capital. Cars? If you wanna drive your fancy car, fine. You wanna wear some fine clothes? Fine. Businesses, the banks, all them motherfucking things? Yeah, fine. But capitalism wants to control the survival of humanity, and this way is wrong.
This way I believe capitalism has become perverse, in the way they steal people's homes, they steal people's healthcare, they steal people's transportation. This is where capitalism is perverse and is just allowed to run wild, because everybody in government is a capitalist. Protecting corporations, with our votes. [laughs]
'Black Woman' was a song I wrote because I saw the impact of capitalism in the life of black women living in Africa, bleaching their skin, because the only thing beautiful on TV is white, spending so much money on artificial things that could be used for more positive things. There is a $9bn weave industry, and a $3bn lightening industry, spent by Africans on superficial nonsense every year. So this is $12bn that could be used to empower women in a positive way. And the majority that spend this money, they could actually empower themselves, but they are taught on TV that to be like that is to be free, that is what feminist power is all about. Capitalism has used propaganda to sell them that the feminist movement of the '50s and '60s was about sexual equality. That is propaganda. That is why all these feminist artists have to be naked, to show that they are independent, but it was never about sexual equality. That is propaganda. The feminist movement was about intellectual equality. This is something that is deeper, that if people understand, if women understand, capitalists cannot make so much money from them. [laughs] So, they hide that to one side and tell them, "Oh, you have to be sexually equal to the man."
There was something around online recently with "fans" upset about the naming of your daughter ('Ifafunmike' which translates as "A child gotten from a deity").
SK: They were not my fans.
Well, I got that impression, do you have a response to that?
SK: You have to understand that there are so many ignorant people in Africa, but this is a benign ignorance. They do not know. I tell people that Africans will accept the higher truth all the time.
The African can no longer tolerate an African naming his child traditionally. It shows you the intolerance of Christianity and why you are lucky in Europe to be free from Christianity… Very lucky! [laughs]… VERY lucky!
You have also recently spoken out in support of the gay community following the introduction of harsh anti-gay laws in Nigeria in your open letter. I can understand why people would fear coming out if they could face being targeted.
SK: It's difficult to come out, but they have to, that is the only way. I don't think the government can prosecute ten million gay people. If they come out they still don't have the resources to prosecute them. Christians in Africa are ashamed to be themselves; they are ashamed to be gay. They do not understand why they are gay. They are not taught. Even the president of Nigeria does not know what means. I mean, it isn't a choice, you know? People just don't know, and life is too hard in Africa, you cannot read, you can't study. The standard of education that they give you is all you get. You can't go home to elevate your mind.
Someone like me, I can read maybe 20 books a year. But that is because I have the time. Most people in Africa, if they are not hustling to eat, they die. There's no social benefit. So you have to be on your job, you have to be on something. It is the propaganda they are pushing that they allow us to education that's taught to most people's brains. There's no time to elevate or change it. Most people are no longer able to break through to be enlightened, to come to the world to see how life is in a different society, or to be able to see the world through books, through educational programmes and stuff like that. Most people just do not have the time, because they have to survive.
I know you have mentioned it in the past; do you still have an interest on getting into politics yourself?
SK: I'm always involved. Right now at the moment we are organising a protest for the 1st of May. It is going to be called Stolen Dreams. We have actually gained a lot of support, which I didn't believe. This is what we are working on with my movement called Change Movement Nigeria.
What is your role within the group?
SK: Well, I don't have a role, per se. I am a member. We don't have a leader. We are all leaders of the group, because we believe it is a new system for African emancipation and enlightenment. We do not ask for foreign donations, we do not want anybody to donate us anything financially. Probably if we just need books we can go to libraries, and we can donate clothes.
The only way Africans can come together and achieve things without having to cry to the West, like beggars, like our rulers do, we want to show that an organisation can be run by Africans, with African ideology and it will work. We are fed up basically. We cannot keep talking, let's start doing stuff. So that is what this movement is about. A group of young Africans who are tired of talking and want to do stuff, no violence, you know?
Briefly back to the music and ideas on the song form, Afrobeat is known for long songs, and I've heard about Fela being told, "We can get this on the radio if we did a three minute edit, or…" and he was like "No way!"
SK: Of course.
And your songs are long as well.
SK: Ah yes, but not as long. Fela's singing was classical African song. He had to make it that way because he was trying to establish something, and there was no point compromising when you are trying to establish something, people have to understand it. I feel that is what Fela did and that is why people understand Afrobeat today, because Fela did not compromise, people saw the art for the way it was and defended it. With that foundation being set, he has given younger artists, like me and my brother, all the bands, Antibalas, Tony Allen, anybody, the right to express ourselves off that foundation.
Fela refused to tap into the commercial aspect of the music, leaving it for the future generations. He was happy to be the foundation that the house would be built on. He never tried to tap into his commercial viability.
And we approached it earlier, but if the anti-authority message makes it hard to break through, do you see that as a real challenge, if people want to hear it, but they can't?
SK: Exactly, especially in my country, where it is really perverse. In my country the politicians own the whole media. Every newspaper, every TV, every radio is owned by the politicians. Just imagine how hard it is, maybe I get played once every year. Fela gets no airplay, Femi gets no airplay, but you do what you do for posterity, and as I said, I believe that's what music should be about. I believe people love you, and the only way you can love them back is the truth. Using your art you have to fight for them, the way they fight for you. Using your art to think about the way you write your music, the way they think about you when they are doing their work.
I think it is just what it is. And the rewards might not be financial, but I have a daughter now who loves me already.
Seun Kuti + Egypt 80 play at Field Day Festival, London on June 7 (information here) and Glastonbury Festival. A Long Way To The Beginning is out now