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Nigerian Culture on the International Stage

Interview of Seun Kuti

Seun Kuti and Egypt 80
Seun Kuti and Egypt 80.

Banning Eyre: Seun [SHAY-oon]. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?

S.K: Yes, you are. At least good enough for a white guy.

B.E: Tell us your personal story. How you became a musician, and how you inherited your father's band.

S.K: Well, obviously, the best things are not planned. It was not really my dream per se to lead the Egypt 80 band. I always knew I wanted to be a musician. I was not thinking of my father's death, and I was not thinking, even after his death, I would be in charge of Egypt 80. You know, I started with the band when I was eight, always opening the gigs for my dad. To me, it was just fun on Friday nights. When I just started, it was just fun, very much. But then, sometimes it got to be a pain in the ass. Because sometimes, I'm just so tired from school. I want to sleep till Saturday, but it's just impossible, because you have to do the Friday night gig. But I also used to see it as a way to stay up late. Because all my friends at school used to go to bed at six or 7 p.m., but I got to stay up all night in The Shrine.

B.E: And what did you sing?

S.K: I used to sing Fela’s tracks. I started singing "Sorrow, Tears, and Blood.” That was the track I auditioned with. Anyway, let me give you the story of my audition. While in America on tour in 1991, I went to my dad, and I said… Because I went with him to the Apollo theater. I can never forget that gig. It was such an amazing gig, and I said to myself, "When I grow up, this is exactly what I want to do." So I went to him and I said, "Fela, I want to start singing." You know, and he looks at me. "You? What you want sing?" Because he was speaking pidgin. "Can you sing?" "Ah, what you mean, can I sing? Of course I can sing." "Okay. Sing for me. Let me hear."

That's how our dialogues were. Because my dad didn't believe in being like a father to his kids. We called him by his first name. He wanted to be our peer. Because he said it's easier to influence your children when you are like their age than when you are an authority. They just do it behind your back. So anyway, back to the gist.

He says, "Okay, sing the song." So I sang "Sorrow, Tears, and Blood." Well, he corrected some few words. That was all. Not key, not notes, just words. So he said, "Ah, okay you can sing." When we get to Lagos we started rehearsing with the band. Boom. That was my audition, right there in the back of the bus. I got the job to open the gigs now. So I started doing that now. You know, every Friday, it was fun. Go to Shrine, do the gig, make extra money, at eight. I was like king among my peers, you know. Feeling like, you know, when I grow up I'm going to be a musician, or else playing for Arsenal. One of the two.

B.E: What year was this?

S.K: This was still like when I was 10. I started supporting Arsenal from the age of like six, when I knew what football was.

B.E: When were you born?

S.K: 1983. Now, we're talking like 91, 92, 93. 93 I was 10. After that, I kept performing, all the tours.

Marko Werman: What was it about that Apollo show that was so amazing?

S.K: I don't know. I can't really remember, but I remember that that's the night I was inspired. Because I had seen my dad perform hundreds of times, because I used to go to all the gigs. So we kept doing what we were doing. Fela stopped touring and recording in 1992. He said he didn't feel like touring. There was this rumor all over the world that he changed his mind, you know, about the deal. He never changed his mind. He didn't want to do it, and he didn't do it. So you know, I kept doing the shows. I didn't try to improve myself as an artist or be a professional. Then, I was just like, “Let me now throw out for my early teens…”

My father died in my second year of my teenage years, when I was 14. So when I was like 10, 11, 12, 13, I was performing with him all the time, but I wasn't improving. I wasn't doing it to be a star. I was doing it because I had to open the show for my dad. It was fun. You know. After high school, after college, I started thinking of what to do, and suddenly my dad died. I won't say suddenly. He was ill for a long time. From like April, he was ill till he died in August.

But you know, most people don't know my dad. Nobody thought that man could die. [LAUGHS] You know, so even when he was extremely ill, everybody just kept doing everything the way it was, because everyone was expecting him to get better and come back. And you know, when things are not done right, he's going to kick our ass. So everybody kept on doing what they were doing, so we lost my dad. We lost Fela. In August. A great shock. Turmoil everywhere.

Then the family has a meeting, my uncle, my elder brothers and sisters. My aunts. We've had other meetings about the family. I mean, basically at that time life to me was just upside down. Every day was a blow. I was even talking about this period when my dad was ill. There was a little three-week period when he finally agreed to let us taken to the hospital. Because he didn't believe in Western medicine. He believed in self-healing. In the beginning, he didn't believe in Western medicine, so he took only African medicine. Then, he got to a stage where he believed in self-healing. He stopped taking any form of medication, for years, and years, and years. Anytime he was ill, he lay down on the bed until he got better. So finally, Fela agreed to let us taken to the hospital, there was this three-week period. And I was discussing with my friends yesterday. That three-week period seemed like 10 years. We had little discussion yesterday, my friends and I, and I was amazed. "It was only three weeks. Damn. Looked like three years."

But anyway, after his death now, things were like... We just lost Fela. Big hole. Big void. Catastrophe. Chaos. Everybody trying to do what they can. Anyway, they had this meeting, and basically, the family was saying, "To hell with the Egypt 80 band. We cannot keep funding the band. Fela is no longer alive. Who's going to listen to the band?" You know, for me, I was thinking, because although I was performing with the band, I was actually thinking of members of the band like Lekan Animashaun, Banbani Oshogboyi. You know, now that Fela is dead, these guys are going to become huge stars. You know, like all these legends that die, their bands still play, and make a lot of money, doing all these festivals, and doing more albums even after the head of the band is dead. 

But here I am, sitting in the living room with the family of my dad, and they are basically telling the greatest band in Africa, “You are no more important. Just go away.” And it just hit me. Because growing up, my dad used to always say, "Before even all of you, my band is the most important thing in this world to me." I remember one time there was this little squabble between one his girlfriends and someone in the band, and he made this statement. Even when I had some problems with the band, even as a kid, he made that statement. He let me understand I am a member of the band, a part of the band. And the band is the most important thing, even before the family, even before himself. The band comes first.

So I'm surprised that this family, his family, everybody is basically trying to throw away this incredible group of people. Some of them have worked with my dad for 30 years. 20 years. You can’t just tell these people to go to hell. You're not giving them any money. Nothing. But basically, it wasn't their welfare that may me really decide at that moment. Because it was a spur of the moment thing. It was the fact that it ran through my head that: "My band is the most important thing in my life." So I said, "Can I say something?"

They're like, "What?"

And you know, in Africa, it's not the same as the way you Europeans treat your children. You say, "Junior." "Yes, Dad." "Come here." "No, Dad. I feel like going out with my friends." It doesn't happen that way in Africa. You don't talk back to elders. So it took a lot of summoning up of courage for me to say, "What if I keep playing with the band, and we keep what we make?" Exactly what I said. They said, "Well, you can keep what you make with the band, but don't expect any businesses from us because, you know, da da da da da da….” So, here I am, 10 years after. In fact, some people even gave me a timeframe. "You have five years, and this band is going to collapse." It's the 10th year!

M.W.: So, if the axiom in Africa is that young people don't speak up, then why you, the youngest in the family, and not Femi to take over the band?

S.K: Well, I guess probably because he had his own thing going. He had Positive Force already, and he didn't want to stop all that. But to me, and it didn't stop anybody from saying, "We will support this band." We had absolutely no support. Trust me. Everything I've achieved with this band, I have achieved it with the help of the band alone, and myself. The only people I owe anything to is my late mom, and my late uncle, Beko. Because he was in prison when Fela died. For his political, human rights activism under Abacha. He was in prison. And he was the closest to my dad. So he was not part of that decision.  

But when Beko came out of prison, he gave me 120% of his support. That was like 18 months after my father's death. He helped me out a lot. God bless his soul, anywhere he is right now. Probably I would have stopped if it wasn't for that guy, you know. Because I had a lot of flak. I was surprised. People were actually being mean to me for keeping the band going. What? This is opposite. People should be part of what I'm doing. I got all this negative press, sponsored by some people, just to keep me down, and the band. I was wondering why they were trying to erase this band.

M.W.: What were their criticisms?

S.K: I don't know what it was. They were just chatting a lot of rubbish, as the British would say. Saying I was too young to be leading Fela's band, you know, I'm not musically inclined enough. And at that time, I heard he finished grade 8, music theory. But it's afrobeat for Christ's sake, not salsa meets Latin jazz … I don't understand. Afrobeat is beautiful simplicity. With a basic idea of music, you can be an incredible afrobeat musician. You just have to have good ears, and you have to be inspired. Talent is very important.

So that was it for me in the beginning. What can I say? I'm still here today. It took a lot of work though. It was not planned. That's why I still try not to plan anything, because I realize that planning things is like a stupid thing to do. You are not in control of the world. You can't plan anything, because you want to do something now, and someone 10,000 miles away can be making a decision that's going to affect your little project you've been trying to put up for the last five years. And you know come in 20 minutes, some guy says something on TV and it's gone. So I don't plan stuff. I believe things happen. I plan for the next second. The next breath. That's what I do.

B.E: That's an inspiring story. What about recordings?  I know there's this new album about to come out, but have you recorded before?

S.K: No, no, no. I've never really done any record. I have featured with like one or two guys on their songs, but I've never really done any records. Basically, I feel all the flak and criticism I got in the beginning for doing what I did kind of helped me. Because I then realized that I had to be ready to come out. I can't give these people the opportunity to crucify me. You know, so, even though, then I could have come up with something earlier. Like everybody does. Just put an album together. But I thought we should wait, just keep doing a live thing. No matter how hard it got. One day we would be ready. And you know come here we are. I've not really done much recording a last 10 years, but now I've been recording a lot in the last two.

B.E: Tell us about this record.

S.K: I don't know. What can I say? It's the best record ever made. It's my record. What do you want me to say? I think, maybe after the interview you guys can listen to a few tracks, and you guys can say something. If I talk about the record now, it's going to be like me blowing my own horn.

B.E: Can you tell us about what some of the songs are saying?

S.K: Yeah, yeah. Afrobeat was created for a certain purpose, and for a reason. It's a movement. And until the goal is achieved really, the basis of what the music is about cannot change. You know when people will be talking about, "Why don't you put some salsa, some calypso, other African music, some jazz, some funk in afrobeat." And I'm like, "Man, all these other genres should put some afrobeat in their shit. You know, I don't want any of that in my own music. Because my music has something is doing to the world, and I believe in the originality of afrobeat, you know, being my source of strength, and what raised me."

I think that afrobeat was created for the emancipation of the black mind, and the freedom of the black race, and until that is really achieved… Basically, we have rulers in Africa right now. Once we begin to have leaders. We used to have leaders in the 50s and 60s, but you Brits, Europeans and Americans all conspired and sent your CIA to kill all of them. [LAUGHS]

M.W.: You laugh, but it's true. Lumumba. Sankara. 

S.K: It's true. But what can you say?

Marco: Do you address those on this album? Do you address any specific contemporary issues?

S.K: Specifically speaking, we didn't do that, because this is our first album. We need to let them give us a chance. And then we can be more specific. But you know, we still speak of the issues we have in Africa. Probably I'm not mentioning names or saying anything to anybody directly, but I'm speaking in general terms. This album is basically like social commentary, my views. When I laugh about this, when I say it and I laugh, because you don't expect me to suicide bomb myself. Laughter is the best medicine for it. You say it, and you laugh. But it doesn't mean you don't think about what to do about it.

M.W.: Your dad recorded some very long tracks. They would start on side A and go on to Side B, and last up to 40 minutes. How long are your songs? Are you restrained for the music business, so that they can be downloaded?

S.K: Very restrained. I think the longest track we've got is like nine minutes, which is very long. I have not really checked the timing, but I know they're not as long as my dad’s. My dad had beefs. He said, if Bach could release after his death some decades and decades ago, and release albums that are three hours long and they are still published, he doesn't know what he can to do a song at 40 minutes long. Because he's just as good. You know, so. Even towards his death, he used to call his music Classical African Sound. Not afrobeat anymore.

B.E: Tell us about a couple of other songs.?

S.K: We've got "Many Things." It's a track I wrote about the interesting things I see in my country, happening politically, about our lives. We have "Na Oil.” It's a parable, but the parable actually pleading to our rulers in Africa to respect our lives. Sarcastically. You know, we are pleading to them. And we have "African Problem.” It's my crossover track. My manager, Martin, hates the track. I love it though. I put a bit of hip hop in there.

M.W.: Let's talk about the oil track. What's going on in the Niger Delta? What do you see going on?

S.K: A very vicious cycle. It's all about money. The government gets money from the companies. They bribe the elders of the land to appease the people. They in turn don't give the people anything. They keep it in their pocket instead. They leave their people suffering and crying, instead of the government or the multinationals looking into it directly. They are happy, because they have the chance to drain the soil, so they don't pay attention to where the money is going… The multinationals, first of all, don't pay attention to where the government is putting the money. And the government now, they don't pay attention to where the so-called leaders of the community are putting the little change. The little change that the government gives to them. You know, so basically, attitude reflects leadership. So me right now, I feel that violence is not really the answer to it, because even the so-called movement of the Niger Delta, the so-called freedom fighters, are fighting for themselves. They kidnap people and make money, and spread it among themselves. Instead of taking that money and putting it into the community, putting it new schools, these so-called freedom fighters drive around and state-of-the-art SUVs, the best cars, the best clothes. They're just doing it for themselves basically. Because the government in Africa made Africa into a kind of… I don't want to say Nigeria alone, or the Niger Delta. The whole of Africa is now in a kind of survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Nobody really wants to think about politics. Nothing. Everyone just wants to make money. Because they've made surviving so difficult.

You can give up whatever you're doing in Europe or America, and say, "I want to be a freedom fighter." Even if you are not working. You are a volunteer. You are not doing something. Your government gives you some certain kind of welfare that helps you survive as a human being. But in Africa you don't have that. If you're not doing something for yourself, nothing is being done for you. So you could either choose to eat, choose to live, or choose to die. It’s like that. Either you choose to live or choose to die. And people definitely want to live, but also I'm trying to say, "If we all want to keep living like this and die like this, then our kids will also live like this and die like this. What we have in Africa will not last forever, and until we start making it work for us, we have a very short time to really appreciate, to really get the benefit of our continent. A very short time left. Time is truly, truly running out. Because when we run out of all these things that are making all these big multinationals and colonialists come to Africa, we are going to lose all importance to the world. They're going to forget us. The black continent. We will keep suffering and living like this for the rest of our life. 

So that's why I say it's a vicious cycle what's going on in the Niger Delta, because still, it's all about money and oil. And still, people take money and don't do what they're supposed to do, or kidnap people, and still don't do what you're supposed to do. So what's the difference between you and your government? If you're going to try to make change, even if it's with violence, you decide it, but make change.

That's why I have a song called "Think, Africa." Because if we are doing all this fighting, even making our new children, giving them guns, the ideology behind the bloodshed has to be right. If everybody fighting the fight is still thinking for himself. "Ah, let's win so I can loot some money and be rich." If that's what you are fighting, after the whole fight, and even if you win, you are still going to be where you are, because you're still going to do the same thing you are now rolling over, and they are going to pick up guns against you again, so they're going to keep on going in that circle until we start to change our ideology.

M.W.: You've spoken out against violence and the use of guns before…

S.K: It's necessary. I'm not against the use of guns in Africa, although we don't manufacture guns. I feel right now we still have a chance for dialogue in our own country. Really, when Europeans look at Africa, they see a lot of rebels fighting, killing innocent people as they see it, but you know, if you put yourself in the shoes of the oppressed, until you are that dog that is backed into a corner, you cannot really blame a man for how he reacts. When a man has been turned into an animal, really turned into an animal, he has to go really straight back to basic instinct. And this government that he's going to against has guns and weapons. He's not going to go in there with fists. He is also going to try to get a gun. My problem is not the guns, it's where are these guns coming from. That's my own problem.

M.W.: But given that you feel there's very little time to solve these problems,…

S.K: Yeah, probably two or three generations.

M.W.: … do you understand why the rebels in the Niger Delta have picked up weapons?

S.K: No, I still don't. Because even though they have picked up weapons, they are still not improving the situation. So I still don't understand. As I've said, they've picked up arms… That's what happens in Africa. We don't want to do the hard part. We hate going through that. And the hard part is actually the mental aspect of the struggle, getting the mind right, before we… Well, if I was in the Niger Delta, with guns kidnapping, I wouldn't kidnap white people. I would be kidnapping government officials, man. Those guys, I would make sure they are the ones kidnapped, without kids at least. And I'm sure they could make the change. I'm not advising anybody to do that. I'm just saying if it was me. I'm just saying. Because I feel that getting a Shell worker, that is basically working nine-to-five trying to earn an honest living in this situation, it's not fair to his own family. Because I'm telling you, if you kill him, it will not stop Shell from doing what they do, or Chevron, or all his companies.

M.W.: Do you think the last best chance for dialogue was Ken Sarowiwa, and why do you think he died?

S.K: Well, Ken Sarowiwa is a very, very—I don’t know--complicated issue. [PAUSE] I don't want to speak about it, boy. He was not the last opportunity. He was not even the solution. He was a great guy, you know, at the end. Toward the end of his life, he tried to write a lot of things, but he had already dined with the devil. So.

M.W.: As far as change goes, Nigeria has had an election. There is a new president, Umaru Yar’Adua? What you think about him? Have you written any songs addressing this change?

S.K: No, no, no. Actually, we are finished recording. I'm writing songs almost every day, so he will get in there soon. I'm still watching him. He hasn't even spent a year in office, but I don't think.. It was not an election. It was a selection. They didn't elect anybody. Obasanjo just selected his best people and put them in power, to continue his reign. You have to understand that these people… We have men that still live in the country who are older than the country. Nigeria is only 47 years old. It turned 47 on the first of October. These men are 75-year-old, or 80-year-old men. They were there in the beginning. They created the chaos. They know what to do about… Right now they are busy laundering. They are cleaning up their money with our economy, putting their money in the economy, hiding it. Cleaning up. That's what they're doing right now. People say Nigeria is getting better. Only the banks are improving. That is all that's improving. The banking. You know, to help them clean up their money. They are trying to bring all these monies, because the international community is looking at their finances internationally, and seizing some money. Not all of it. Not even enough of it. They are seizing some little guys, so everybody's taking precautions. The banking system in Nigeria is six star. We have six star banking. Trust me. I'd rather bank in Nigeria than any other country in the world. That's how good our banks are.

Being in a situation like that, you know, well, you have to understand the reasons why people…. That's why, before in my life, I didn't want to be in politics. But you need power to make change. There need to be a lot of changes.

B.E: When you say there's nobody in politics who is free of that colonial history, or that they are all older than the country itself, do you think that's a bad thing? If you imagine 50 years from now, when that's not true anymore and nobody knows colonialism from first-hand experience, do you think that's going to be better? Do you think that experience of having been through the transition is part of the problem?

S.K: Well, that's why there's history. So anybody who cares to find out where he's from will know the history of Nigeria. So I don't think in 50 years time when all these people are gone it's going to make any change, if we don't change it now. Because they're only going to hand over their ill-gotten wealth, ill-gotten material things, and over inflated egos to their children, who are going to use this money to continue buying up the country. Because these people have enough money to last more than 10 generations -- I tell you. So until somebody comes to correct that… I don't see why a farmer, who is working every day and night for the last 40 years cannot even afford to own a two-story duplex. He lives in a little house with his two wives and kids, and you, just because you are a general in the Army for 10 years, you own refineries, companies, houses. It's just not right. And I'm telling you, if Patton knew what Nigerian generals were making, he would probably be a Nigerian army man. [LAUGHS]

M.W.: You have invoked your father’s word “Democrazy” in talking about democracy. Tell me what you hear that word, but also, compare your sense of democracy with the United States right now. George W. Bush for the last eight years.

S.K: We taught Bush well. People don't know. He is very trained by Nigerians, by Obasanjo. In how to rig elections. Towards the beginning of the second term, Obasanjo visited him twice, and gave him some tips. I'm sure he must have given him some tips. He also came to Nigeria, and he was so happy to say, "Oh thanks. It worked. I'm there."

M.W.: Bush has been promoting democracy around the world. What's the difference between his sense of democracy and yours?

S.K: Well, my own sense of democracy is actually a democracy or freedom is real. Not where freedom is just for the rich. Because people don't understand what they are doing. People think they try to make life hard. They want to watch everybody. No. What they want to do actually, in my own sense, is try to make the rich-- not the rich like we are; we are comfortable; we are not rich-- they are trying to make the rich guys above the law. Life is easier for a rich guy. For example, you are in the airport. I'm trying to travel with my bag. I have my laptop and I have my saxophone, and I can't take two bags across Heathrow. I have to try to stuff my laptop in my saxophone, or drop my saxophone. It's crazy. But a rich man, he gets to Heathrow. He says hello. Go to the back. Sit down in the VIP lounge. Walk to his private jet with whatever he wants. Nobody searches him. He gets into his plane. "Oh, hello. This flight is supposed to be six hours. Please, make it in 4 1/2 hours." Then he sits down. Ahhhh.  

Just by looking at the airport you can see where the world is going. Five years ago, seven years ago, you could take two bags to the airport. Like a rich man. No stress, no harassment. But since this new change in the world has been happening, things get harder and harder. When you are not known, things get extremely hard. But the rich guys don't see it. They're just like on top of everything. So that's what they're trying to do as I see it, to the world basically, in terms of democracy. Probably, it's not democracy that's going to give us that system. So probably we need to start looking for a new system where people are actually equal, not equal to their bank account. You know?

M.W.: Do you get as much political inspiration from the older members of Egypt 80 as you do musical inspiration?

S.K: Yeah, well, they are all activists. Some of them have been through beatings with my dad, arrests and all that. Everybody, they all have their political views. But they can't be as defiant as that of the Kutis. I think it is in our genes to be very, very defiant. I'm telling you, man. Because some things, people can just take and smile. And I'm wondering how can these people smile about these things? I can't smile. I can't even sleep.

B.E: I want to ask about your audience now. You talked about all the resistance you got from the family, the press, and so on. But what's it like now?

S.K: The last gig I did in Lagos was at my brother's place, the New African Shrine. We did a gig together for my father's 10th year celebration. And it was…. Yeah. You know, the thing about Nigerians is that they know good music. They enjoy the music, so we get a lot of support, but no support from high up. Because in Nigeria, basically the only two afrobeat bands are me and my brother. Really. I mean a band that's trying to be, not just a flash in the pan, but trying to be a proper band, running the same set of people for years, going and tours, record contracts. Not locally, but internationally. Also trying to get international appeal. Getting critics to come down and watch your gigs and write about them. Just me and him at the moment.

And it's because it's so hard in Nigeria. You can't understand how hard it is to own an afrobeat band in Nigeria. You know? Even when the government sponsors thing, they won't put any afrobeat. They're trying to make afrobeat seem like old music, crazy people's music. But the youths identify a lot. My brother's place is the only place at the moment where you can go and listen to afrobeat live. In the whole of Nigeria! Ohhh. Incredible. There are at least 20 places in New York where you can do that.

Although, the resistance is not physical. They are trying to crush the movement, but the music is a very powerful weapon, especially when it is backed by truth. It is very hard to stop.

B.E: People play up the rivalry between you and your brother.

S.K: Yeah, they try. But there's no rivalry. We are very cool with each other. I always tell people, "Just enjoy the music. Then don't disturb yourself with comparing and trying to find out differences in trying to start something." People try, because you know, that's what people do, trying to make the most of everything I guess. But there is no rivalry. At least from my side.

B.E: Have you got a name for the new record?

S.K: Well, tentatively, we are saying Think Africa. But I don't know. I might change it. Something came up, and I had a good idea to say A Long Way to the Beginning. So I want to check and see if any album has been named that. If not, I just might name it A Long Way to the Beginning.

B.E: Sounds like a great title to me.

S.K: Yeah.

M.W.: Seun, thank you so much.

S.K: Ah, that's why I like interviews with you professionals. In Nigeria, by now you're just setting up all the stuff.