Seun Anikulapo Kuti, youngest son and musical heir to the late great King of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, is on a roll. Hilary Clarke went to meet him.
The 30-year-old Nigerian musician, Seun Kuti, has a new single out this month and a new album, his fourth, to follow next spring. Somewhere in between he will become a father for the first time.
The mother is Yetunde Ademiluyi, a singer and dancer with Egypt 80, the veteran band Seun inherited following his father’s death 16 years ago.
Seun has taken up his father’s baton in other ways too, as a new vocal and youthful thorn in the side of the Nigerian establishment, which still contains many of his father’s arch foes.
Interviewed at his London hotel the morning after a raucous performance at London’s Olympic Park, even before a first cup of coffee, he was spouting candid opinions on everything from religion to African debt and cultural colonialism.
“Sorry for the mess,” he called from the bedroom next door as we waited for him to get dressed. I had seen a lot worse; just a couple of empty food plates on the table, a bottle of Ghanaian liqueur that was hardly touched, and a handwritten note from someone telling him he had “passed out” with fatigue.
It was his third gig in a row, and if Seun’s performance at the others had been as energetic as the Olympic Park event, you can forgive him for being tired.
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80’s lead vocalist and saxophone player, first performed with Fela at the legendary Shrine nightclub on Friday nights, at the age of eight. He studied music in England. “Fela said ‘to be a musician you have to be classically trained up to grade five!’” Seun explained.
Faithful to the Afrobeat genre, his live act contains many of his father’s old hits. But Seun has plenty of his own new material as well, and music’s huge global talents want to work with him.
English rock legend Brian Eno produced his last album, From Africa with Fury, Rise, and the new album is being co-produced by the Grammy award-winning US jazz pianist Robert Glasper and will feature other well-known artists from the African diaspora (Glasper and M1, half of the rap duo Ded Prez, both put in a performance at the Olympic concert)
This coming together of different genres of black music is, Seun believes, crucial to the African Renaissance. “I don’t want them to soulise Afrobeat or funkify Afrobeat, I want them to come together and put a bit of funk on Afrobeat, I want to mix the style,” he says.
“Black music can come together easily because it all comes from the same place. It is just like the continent, full of the same people, who have developed different beliefs over time and separated into countries. Black music is the continent and genres are the countries and they can easily be one again.”
The problem today, Seun believes, is that, with the advent of electronic media, many young Africans, deprived of their own cultural identity, which starts with the school curriculum, are being pushed towards mainstream Western music.
“In the sixties and seventies all Afro-American artists would come to Africa to steal music and beg to work with Nigerian artists – now the opposite is the case, we go to the US to steal music and beg to work with US artists.”
“I believe we pull Africa back when we grovel for music. It can’t be like they are doing us a plain favour, a thing we are paying for like ‘we are putting you on, you are going to be famous.'”
So does he think that the success of American and American-styled African hip-hop artists is a new cultural imperialism?
“Everybody copies success and these are the people in Africa that are called successful, the more western you are in Africa the more successful you appear.”
Seun, of course, grew up with fame, at Fela’s legendary Lagos counter-culture compound, The Republic of Kalakuta, but a very different kind of fame from the glitzy billionaire lifestyles of modern musical celebrities.
“Kalakuta was wild, it wasn’t a normal place to grow up. I knew everything before I was 10 years old. You had 500 people living in the house, you had everybody, the good, the bad, the conniving, the tricky; Kalakuta was a university of life.”
Still, he says he had “a real splendid childhood. The decision to go into music was all mine. I was never under any pressure.”
That happy childhood came to an abrupt end, when his father, who had survived imprisonment, beatings and constant harassment at the hands of the Nigerian military government, died of HIV/Aids complications.
“It was the happiest and then the saddest day of my 14th year,’” Seun recollects. “I had ordered a Playstation 1, it had just come out in Nigeria. It arrived on the 2nd of August 1997, the day my Dad died. I went to pick it up at my friend’s house and on my way back I saw a group of people gathered outside and I thought what are these people doing here?
“People were crying, but a week before there had been another rumour, so I went to check it out and found it was true.”
In an indication of how deep the mistrust still is, Seun believes that the military injected Fela with the disease, although his father’s polygamous lifestyle was infamous.
Beaten, arrested and imprisoned many times on trumped up charges or for minor offences, Fela had been detained on charges of marijuana possession a few months before his death.
“He was locked in a room with an air conditioner, and anyone who knew Fela knew he didn’t do air conditioners, no matter how hot it was.” Seun explains.
“He called a guard to put off the AC. In the two minutes it took the guard to walk to the door he had passed out and fallen asleep on the table with his head on the table. I knew my Dad; if he was tired he would sleep on the floor, even in the house he would lay on the bare ground, that is his style.
“As soon as he came out he started getting sick. Fela became ill in April and died in August. It was the military government – a lot of people were getting killed, moved out the way, at the time.”
Today, there are new weapons available to voice controversial social and political dissent. Shortly after the interview Seun was trending on Twitter after posting on his Facebook page that “I am happy I am an Atheist” even though he had said so many times before, including on stage the night before.
“If you can point to one positive thing religion has brought to Africa, I will convert to that particular religion immediately. “ said Seun. “You are taught in African religious institutions the reason you are poor is not because the politicians are stealing all your money, it is because God is not happy with you, it is because you are a sinner.
South African Archbishop Tutu’s recent comments that if God was a homophobe he would rather go to hell were, Seun says, “quite progressive”, pointing out that a gay couple had once helped Nelson Mandela in the period he went into hiding. He has also added his voice to moves to make child marriage legal in the north, legal in the whole of Nigeria.
“The UK put a £3,000 ($4,500) fee on a visa for Nigerians and everyone is going crazy. This is the kind of rhetoric politicians like; “we have broken the yoke of colonialism and don’t want it back, homosexuality it is not in our culture bla, bla, bla,” says Seun.
The new album also promises to offer more “Kuti” style food for thought. One track, entitled “African Airways” deals with the problem of African indebtedness.
“The flight is AA IOU – that is what Africa is about today, even economies that we were ahead of in the eighties and nineties have come to surpass us and we go back calling to these economies now to borrow.
“When you say it is wrong for Africa to borrow they say you are ill informed and that every economy needs to borrow. Yes, but other countries borrow to build, borrow to create, to manufacture in Africa we borrow to consume. We borrow money and pay it
back to Western and Chinese corporations; very little money stays in Africa and develops the common African man,” he says.
Another of Seun’s songs, Black Woman, sings the praises of strong female African personalities; top of the list his grandmother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a prominent civil rights campaigner, who died before he was born from injuries sustained after the Nigerian military threw her out of a window during a raid.
A committed pan-Africanist, Seun criticises post-colonial leaders for failing to address “the ocean of mistakes” such as the false national boundaries imposed during the colonial period. The solution, he believes, lies with the youth.
“We need a movement of young people right across Africa where we understand we are all different but we come together for a singular cause to allow us to achieve our individual, regional dreams.”
“Young people today are the most educated than they have ever been in Africa. You have to break through the media blockade and the stigma and find an avenue to reach them.” Art, he believes is the best way to do this.
Seun is no revolutionary though. “There is no perfect system – socialism doesn’t work in this extremity – capitalism doesn’t work in its extremity – greed is a part of humanity, but if you give the greedy the chance to take more without checks and balances they will, that is the flaw of capitalism.
“The system in UK is really a good balance for me between capitalism and socialism – education, health, housing, these are things are not covered in Africa. “
So is he a social democrat? He stops and pauses. “I think I am Green Party,” he says.