Sunday, June 22, 2008

A conversation with Seun Kuti, son of Fela

Posted By on Sun, Jun 22, 2008 at 3:46 PM

His father, the late great Fela Anikulapo Kuti, was the godfather of the politically sharp, seriously funky music genre known as Afrobeat. Seun Anikulapo Kuti is carrying the torch forward, blowing sax and singing as leader of Fela's old band Egypt 80. An album titled simply Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 is set for release June 24. Seun was on the European leg of a world tour getting ready for a show in Paris when I caught up with him via cell phone on Tuesday to talk about his dad, the power of music, and Barack Obama .

The Egypt 80 tour hits North America this week for a series of shows in June and July starting in Los Angeles and working up the coast to Humboldt County where they play Monday, June 23, at the Mateel Community Center. (All concert dates are listed below.)

So you're in Paris with Egypt 80?

Yes. That's my band.

As I understand it, you were a member of Egypt 80 when you were a boy.

Yes, since I was eight. I used to open the shows for my dad. I used to sing every Friday night at the Shrine.

What do you remember about your dad?

There are so many memories. You know I was 14 when he died. I saw him every day. He was a very integral part of my life, so I don't know. He was not the kind of dad who was like a dad, he was more like a friend, you know.

Was he also your musical teacher?

Well, in practical terms yes. He gave me the opportunity to get on stage. But he was not like a music teacher; he didn't have time to be teaching me physically. He helped me with my musical ambitions anyway I wanted. He sent me to the best schools. When I wanted to start singing it was my decision. He told me that and supported my decision. That was the best lesson he could give me at such a young age.

And I assume he was a role model.

That definitely goes without saying.

When he died, did his band, Egypt 80 continue on immediately?

Yes, although it was not my plan to lead the band. I wasn't thinking it was going to be me who would keep the band going. It was something all of us had in common, that we wanted to keep going. It was not easy. Nobody was supporting the band. At that moment I made up my mind and stood up to say I want to keep playing. When we continued it was tough, when we took someone like Fela out of the equation. It was a very hard thing.

I've been listening to this new album that's about to come out in the U.S. It seems like you have brought the Afrobeat movement into the 21st century.

I don't think so. Afrobeat has always been in the 21st century. Afrobeat was about to go global in a big way when Fela died. He was about to do a world tour that would have brought the music worldwide, but he died. We went on without him, but it's a misconception when they say Afrobeat sounds like old music, that it needs to be changed, to be fused with new music. They said we had to add some funk and some soul to make it new. I don't believe that. Afrobeat is evergreen, the albums are classics. One of the rules of Afrobeat is that every song has to have an everlasting meaning to it. I believe Afrobeat has always been in the future. The world is just now catching up to it.

Is it still the music you hear on the street in Nigeria?

Of course, it is the music of the masses too for all times. It does not always get the support given to the bubblegum music that we have everywhere now.

Like your father you are speaking out against the corrupt leadership of tour country. That's what got your father in trouble with the government. Have you faced the same kind of resistance from the authorities?

Of course, of course. It goes without saying in Africa. It's been the same for years. I understood from a young age that Afrobeat was more than just a genre, it was a movement, you know. So I decided to leave behind my education in Liverpool to join the movement, and that's what I did. Now I fight with the movement. And I know the consequences.

You've said there's a change: instead of get up and fight, the people must get up and think . What do you mean by that?

We are not lacking for fighting in Africa. There are wars everywhere at the moment. What we are lacking in Africa is the right ideology. The mentality behind this fighting, the revolutionaries want a bloody fight. What I want is to correct injustice. We have to fight with our minds.

We don't here much in America about what's really going on in Africa. What we know about Nigeria is that it's a source for oil and there are disputes around oil over there. Is that what you are talking about in your song "Na Oil"? Is that about oil?

Not only. It's a parable really, about the importance of human life. In my language is says, "Na oyeli ide carry," which means, it's oil that I'm carrying on my head. It's red oil, palm oil. It's also what we call crude oil, but [traditionally] it is palm oil. It's an old traditional saying. It's about our rulers who only wan to get rich. I call them rulers, not leaders, because they do not lead us, they rule us. There's a big difference. For them their Swiss bank account is more important than our lives. So we speak to them in the song sarcastically, asking hem to respect our lives in Africa.

So as the price of oil goes higher and higher, it's only the rulers who proper.

It's always been that way in Nigeria. Ninety percent of the resources are owned by one percent of the population. Those who own the resources have actually stolen them from the people. The world ignores that fact and continues to do business with them.

You say you came back to Egypt 80 to rejoin the Afrobeat movement. Do you think a musical movement can change things like the oil problem?

Music is a very powerful weapon. It has the power to do incredible things. So yes, of course. One thing I learned from my father is that music does not stay in one place. It goes all around the world, but you have to dedicate your whole life to that. But music gives you back in turn, it gives you long life, it gives you grace. Music has the power to change people's minds, to change the course of mankind.

It can get people to get up and think, as you say.

Yes, of course. Because people listen to music all the time. That's why I don't think it's a coincidence that only bubblegum music is what is hyped everywhere in the world.

Because the rulers don't want people thinking...

Exactly. Of course there are a lot of conscious bands out there and many musicians who are activists. In the '60s and '70s you had Jimi Hendrix and many others. People were listening to people like Malcolm X and they were listening to intelligent music. And you know intelligent music actually makes people intelligent. The rulers couldn't handle that.

So instead they gave us bubblegum so we'd stop thinking for ourselves.

Exactly. Trust me, I don't mean to insult any artists. I listen to nice music myself. But you must remember, music has power.

I have one more question for you. I heard that you had trouble with your visas and immigration on a previous trip to America, and a Senator from Illinois helped you out. Senator Obama...

He's not Senator Obama, he's President-to-be Obama, future President of the United States.

What does that mean from the point of view of someone who lives in Africa?

You know, this is the first real hope for Africa, the first in a long time, in terms of political leadership. We'll have to judge history by what he does. He owes the black race and I'm sure he understands that because he's an intelligent guy. He owes Africa, and a lot is expected. Being an African, he knows that Africa needs to be free. He knows what needs to be done. He knows the influences that need to be curbed. We hope for the best.

Same over here. I don't want to keep you much longer, but I have to tell you, your music is great and I think what you are doing is very important.

Thank you. And we will see you soon.

Seun Kuti & Fela's Egypt 80 on tour:

6/20/2008 Los Angeles, CA - Grand Performances
6/21/2008 Los Angeles, CA - El Rey Theatre
6/22/2008 San Francisco, CA - Stern Grove
6/23/2009 Redway, CA - Mateel Community Center
6/25/2008 Vancouver, BC (?) - International Jazz Festival
6/27/2008 Victoria, BC - Jazz Festival
6/28/2008 Seattle, WA - The Moore
6/30/2008 Chicago, IL - House of Blues
7/2/2008 Toronto, ON - Harbourfront
7/3/2008 London, ON - Sunfest
7/4/2008 Detroit, MI - Comercia Festival
7/5/2008 Philadelphia, PA - World Café
7/6/2008 New York, NY - Central Park Summer Stage
7/7/2008 Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
7/8/2008 Boston, MA - Paradise Rock Club
7/10/2008 Ottawa Bluest Fest - Ottawa, ON
7/11/2008 Quebec D'ete - Quebec QC
7/12/2008 Winnipeg, Folk Festival - Winnipeg MB
7/13/2008 Nuits D'Afrique - Quebec City, QC

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

Freelance photographer and writer, Arts and Entertainment editor from 1997 to 2013.

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