Interview: Seun Kuti


Seun (pronounced Shay-oon, an abbreviation of Oluseun) Anikulapo-Kuti is the youngest son of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Fela Kuti pioneered the genre of Afrobeat throughout the 70s and 80s from his Lagos home and studio, the Kalakuta Republic.

At age 14, after the death of his father in 1997, Seun Kuti took over the leadership of Fela’s legendary band – Egypt 80. Now at age 29, Seun’s latest release From Africa with Fury: Rise features that same band with a new vision for Africa. We spoke with Seun by phone as his tour bus moved through a barren stretch of Utah.

The youngest son of legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti continues the legacy of his father with a new message for a united Africa.

KGNU: Do you have memories of the first time you were a musical guest onstage with your father at the Apollo in Harlem? You were 8 years old.

Seun: No, no, no. The first time I was on stage was at The Shrine in Lagos. The first time I decided to start singing was after watching my Father in the Apollo in Harlem.

My first show, I remember it quite well, because all through we’d been doing rehearsals and during the rehearsals I’d look at the band and I’d do the songs with them. So during the show I did exactly the same thing. I was looking at the band throughout and my Dad came to me after the show and he said, “Seun, you gotta face the crowd man! You can’t face the band, you gotta face the crowd!” (laughs) So, I remember because of that.

KGNU: Is it true that you began playing your instrument as a result of sneaking into your Father’s room as a child to play with his saxophones?

Seun: Yeah, yeah, I always play with his horns that he had in the house. So this is why he told me, “You know what? I’m going to buy you your own saxophone.” (laughs) I was a kid then, I was about 6. I was really young, this was way before I started singing. So he bought me my first sax. After that time, I played the piano for a long time until I was a teenager – about 14. That was when I picked up the sax again.

KGNU: Are those the only two instruments you really focus on now?

Seun: Yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t say I focus on the piano too much. I like to compose on the piano for the chords more than anything. But, the instrument that I really continuously focus on is my sax, a lot, you know? But, I do enjoy playing the piano. Those are my two instruments.

KGNU: You still perform regularly at The Shrine in Lagos. What’s different about playing there now as opposed to when you were a kid?

Seun: For me, now it’s more music and music business. I still have the same passion I had as a kid except that now I’m a professional. I think that’s what’s different.

KGNU: We were astonished to read that From Africa with Fury: Rise was recorded in just three days on a limited budget, and that it had to be grafted on the end of a festival appearance in Rio to happen at all. It’s mind-boggling that the pulse of Afrobeat today had to be, essentially, an import record into Lagos.

Seun: Well, that had a reason because… in Nigeria we don’t have enough people invested in the music business to record a world class album – you need a world class studio, with world class equipment. And, we don’t have that in Nigeria at the moment for big band music like my band, you know? So, I needed a place where the band could record properly.

So, I was lucky enough to have a festival to play in Brazil, and with their history of big band music it was easier to find a really good studio with a really good engineer and – boom – we started to work. You know? But it helps when you are already playing the songs live because then playing it live we’re coming into the studio like a live session or a live gig. You know what I mean?

KGNU: Yeah, you’re coming in with the songs already dialed in. But still, you recorded the whole album in only three days?

Seun: Actually, fifty hours.

KGNU: Can you talk about the intensity of those recording sessions? I mean, this is a heavy record!

Seun: You know I wouldn’t talk about intensity because, really, during the recording of this album – my first album was intense, there was a lot of intensity in that recording – but this second time there was some kind of… I don’t know, it was almost a… cosmic calm in the studio, and everybody was just flowing. Everything moved so smoothly.

That’s why I was able to work so quickly. I was amazed as well! Everyone did a great job and Godwin Logie was in the studio with us. Everything was amazing.

Then I took it off to London and mixed it there with John Reynolds, Tim Oliver, and Brian Eno!

KGNU: Brian Eno, a seemingly unlikely producer to have working on your record.

Seun: Contrary to that, Brian had been a huge supporter of my music for about three years before we did the recording. He has been a lover of Afrobeat for about 30 years!

KGNU: You are just shy of your 30th birthday and some members of your band, Egypt 80, who also played with your father, are in their 60s and 70s. In terms of the intensity of the recording process and your touring schedule, has it been difficult on members of the band to sustain the pace you are setting?

Seun: Well, not that I know of, you know. Some of these veterans in the band, they’ve got more energy than us sometimes. I think their good. My drummer is over 70 as well, but he still kicks ass on the drums, so what can you say? You know? You can’t beat that! Music gives a special kind of life force to people that practice it from their hearts.

KGNU: The latest album is packed with politics and addresses many issues facing Africa and Nigeria today as well as multinationals such as Monsanto and Halliburton. On that subject, what is it about Afrobeat that makes it such a uniquely appropriate vehicle for political commentary and as a weapon of social change?

Seun: I don’t think that Afrobeat is the only thing, I think all art forms are appropriate vehicles to pass messages and inspire people positively. It’s just that Afrobeat has a rich history and is from a continent where it is more needed than anywhere else for art to represent it’s people. So I don’t think it’s the duty of Afrobeat music alone, in line of what you’re saying, I think all art right now in the world should represent the majority of the people who have no voice. Because about only 4 or 5% of the world controls what every other person does, thinks, hears, so… only art has that alternate means to beat their power and money, to educate people in the correct way. I feel we, as people blessed by these talents by nature should admit that we have a duty to the people to represent them with our art and stand for them and inspire them positively – not to continue promoting selfish gain.

KGNU: To that point, in Nigeria – because we know how the distribution of music works here in the US and the UK – in Nigeria, how are people hearing the music?

Seun: Well, people come to Shrine. They buy the records. The radio doesn’t play our music much, I don’t know why… well, I know why, you know, definitely because all media in Africa is controlled by the government or some politician or by some control, so nobody wants to lose business to the government because in Africa, government is the biggest business, you know? So people don’t want to talk, you know, or be associated with anti-establishment – with people like me in my country, because then they lose their government business. (laughs)

But that being said, you can not hide the truth. People always find the truth, and Afrobeat has been able to inspire Nigeria like that for about 40 years.

KGNU: So, walking around Lagos, would you be hearing Afrobeat records playing out of shops or restaurants? Or is their more of a concern about that?

Seun: No, it depends on where you go, you know? Yeah, definitely everywhere plays Afrobeat music – in the clubs, in the shops… things like that. But, it depends on where you go. You know what I’m saying?

KGNU: You’ve mentioned that the only way to unite Africa is to erase the current borders and allow for a government based on tribal lines, giving everyone a voice and then uniting in social and economic ways like the European Union. Do you still hold this view as a possibility for a united Africa?

Seun: Yes, of course, because I don’t believe that Africans deserve, in Africa, to be called a minority in any borders, in any country. For example, in my country, a lot of people are called minorities because they’re not from the three major ethnic groups. You know, I don’t believe Africans should be regarded in such ways.

And, by the way, our borderlines are not something that was dreamt up by Africans who understood the people. It was something carved up in Europe in 1881 to benefit European economic ambitions in Africa. So this was not an African thing, it was not pro-Africa.

So, why should we continue, in this day and age, to live along these borderlines by force? Why should we continue the white man’s experiment by force? It’s obviously not working. No country in Africa has peace. Because in every African country people feel neglected. So there’s always one part of the country that is in a no good area because there is war, there is this going on there… you know? We don’t need this in Africa. We need people everywhere in Africa to be represented accordingly.

True Federal system should run in Africa. If we’re going to continue to live along these borderlines then we have to enforce truth. Without true federality you cannot accomplish anything in Africa with these borderlines. And true federality is something that’s very difficult to achieve in Africa because of the corruption.

So, why not let everybody control their own destiny, according to his own land and tribe and culture and historical values?

KGNU: So would that be a re-drawing of borders in your mind? Or everyone exists based on who they are independently?

Seun: Yeah, but there’s no way to do that without redrawing of the lines. Because countries will break up and definitely, those lands will have to be shown on the map.

KGNU: I guess on that point, then you’re uniting based on people, based on social and economic plans like the European Union. But we continue to see turmoil with countries within the EU, and turmoil with the EU debt crisis… seemingly every day.

Do you have an altered view, having seen the EU model work, or not work as the case may be? Is there a different plan in your mind as to how that would actually function in Africa?

Seun: Well, you know, the truth is… you have to dream. And to be able to achieve the dream is to be able to… to make the dream work is where the effort lies. Whatever is going on in the EU today, believe me, I still think Africa, in a way, can be united along economic lines without such need for turmoil, because we’ve already gone through the debt issue. You know, Africa is in debt right now. The austerity issues in Africa, we’ve been living through them for about twenty years now. Serious austerity. What am I saying, twenty years?!? Almost about thirty years now we’ve been living in austerity. So, it’s new in Europe – we’ve been living through it! You know, we’ve understood these hardships of economy, economic sabotage, and backstabbing.

So the people of Africa, I believe, should be able to, you know? I want to see in a model like the EU – still gonna be an African thing. The people of Africa will have to do our own, in the African style.

It does not have to be like the EU’s model. Because, you know, after all has been said and done the economies of European powers, even like France and Italy, would not be what it is today without the Euro. The Euro gives them more strength. Imagine if Italy still had Lira, what the Lira would be like today? You know, with all the issues they have with the financial crisis in Italy, imagine how bad the Lira would be today without European Union backing.

So, this is how we have to understand that the world, in a way – we have to all live for one another. We cannot live for ourselves, we can not say, oh, only us wants to thrive and survive. We have to try and live for one another, you understand?

In Africa we have a huge advantage, which will run out soon if we do not take advantage of it, and that is our natural resources. The fact that Africa doesn’t really have to outsource anything if we’re going to develop – once we decide to take our own future in our own hands – Africa can develop from within. I think this is a serious advantage that we have over economies in Europe.

KGNU: Right, with the wealth of resources, if Africa could establish an infrastructure for manufacturing.

Seun: Yes, of course, in my country we don’t have the capability of manufacturing anything of quality. Everything in my country, all of the good things have to be imported, and that has to change. That’s how it is all over Africa, not just in my country.

KGNU: If people were paying more attention to Africa, or as much as we’d like for them to, it might…

Seun: (cutting in) No, no. Trust me! Everyone is paying attention, at least economically, to Africa. Because, everyone is making money off Africans. Africa is the easiest place to go and these corporations can have things their own way and not have to give people their due because they bribe the hands of the politicians.

KGNU: So for fans of your music, or people in the U.S. in general who aren’t necessarily dialed in to that reality. Is there one thing you would want people to understand about Africa today?

Seun: Well, the truth about Africa is that Africa does not represent Africans at the moment. But now, there’s a huge awakening in the consciousness of the youth of Africa. Because, I think we are the most educated generation ever. Since we were given our so-called independence, we have started to be civilized in Western ways, this generation is the most educated in Western ways. And we are going to be able to understand the system. So, there’s a huge awakening of our consciousness right now to retake our continent so it can begin to benefit Africans.

KGNU: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, and safe journeys there in the tour bus.

Seun: Ok, it’s all good!

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