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Interview with Seun Kuti

A Glimpse into Nigerian Culture on the International Stage

Femi Dancers
Femi dancers.

Ritse gently strums a black acoustic guitar in the dimly lit Potter’s House café and lounge. It was open mic night on that rainy Friday evening in Washington, D.C. The Nigerian songstress started out with a cover of Corinne Rae Bailey’s Like a Star, followed by an original song she had written, mesmerizing the modest group of listeners with her smoky voice. She had been exposed to various musical activities--choirs, vocal groups--by her parents during her formative years which sharpened her raw talent along the way.

Come Monday morning, Ritse will return to her full-time job as a Web designer.

Fast forward a couple weeks. Former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell takes the stage at the Africa Rising! Concert held at the Royal Albert Hall in London--showing off his hip-hop dance moves to Yahoozee performed by Nigerian Afro Hip-Hop performer, Olu Maintain.

From musty, little coffee shops to glittering global stages, raw Nigerian creativity and talent have been permeating the global landscape for decades.

Nigerian Literary Influences

Literary genius began seeping out of the country during the 1950s and 1960s when novelist and poet, Chinua Achebe wrote the infamous Things Fall Apart with rich characters living during the time of British imperialism, ushering in new generation of African writing.

Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Professor Wole Soyinka  is still considered one of Africa’s most eminent playwrights. Also known for his political outspokenness which landed him in prison for a period, Wole Soyinka’s genius could not be repressed. He has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Cambridge.

Hot on their paved trails is up and coming Nigerian-born fiction writer, Chimamanda Adichie, who recently won the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant. Her captivating novels transport readers into life during the Biafran war and have received critical acclaim worldwide.

Musical Legends from Nigeria

The early sixties ushered in a new, raw West African sound. This fusion of rhythmic jazz music, driving saxophones, and vocals sung in Yoruba called Afrobeat  was invented by musical legend and icon, Fela Kuti. Also known for scantily-clad dancers gyrating at dizzying speeds, the visuals and pure energy one felt during a Fela concert was transformative.

Fela died of complications resulting from HIV/AIDS in 1997. However, Fela’s legacy lives on through his children--Femi and Seun Kuti--solid musicians in their own right. Femi Kuti’s style and energy behind the saxophone is reminiscent of classic Fela with a modern edge. Seun Kuti, at once a saxophonist, vocalist, and Fela’s youngest son, now leads his father’s former band, Egypt 80.

While the name “Kuti” is synonymous with Nigerian music, there are scores of influential musicians from the country who regularly play to sold out international venues. King Sunny Adé was one of the pioneers of Nigerian Juju Music. This distinctive style of music is driven by the percussive sounds of drums, often including talking drums, and pedal steel guitars. Another performer and instrumentalist Lagbaja wears a mask during all his performances to symbolize the unseen faces and unheard voices of Africa.

Nigeria-Arts.net aims to build a catalog to musical acts and talents that draw from the over 250 distinct ethnic groups in Nigeria performing various styles of music from Highlife and Fuji to Afrobeat and Sakara.

Ritse tells me later on as during an interview:  “Nigerian legends have placed a mark on the musical map. They ultimately caused the world to stop and listen by creating a whole genre of music that could have simply been classified as World.”

From up and coming acts like Olu Maintain, D’Banj, and 2Face Idibia--that fuse Western hip-hop with an African-style of delivery--to more traditional soulful songwriters like Asa, there are many artists working away developing their crafts in the hope that they will connect with audiences that not only appreciate their sounds, but are curiously about the underlying culture which fuels those sounds.

Not only as an international audience taken heed to this body of work, but Nigerian music has inspired a slew of cover bands from across Europe and North America.

Bands such as Chopteeth and Baoku & “The Image Afro-Beat Band”—whose band members are mostly of Caucasian descent—play some of the funkiest, grooviest afrobeat sounds while paying homage to the West African origins of those songs.

The Booming Nigerian Film Industry

Hollywood came first with flashing lights and glitter, introducing the world to its often unique admixture of raw talent and polished superficial content (with some notable exceptions). Bollywood, the Mumbai-based film industry, followed suit with choreographed dance sequences and high pitched chants, introducing audiences to Indian pop culture in bite-sized pieces.

Hot on the tails of both Hollywood and Bollywood is the fast rising film industry in Nigeria fondly monikered Nollywood. With spellbinding storylines that border on the bizarre, including the presence of loud booming voices which are quick to yell insults, and a penchant for ignoring editing, Nollywood fever has gripped the entire continent. Movies usually span 3-disc sets, each with both A and B sides, so reveling in a Nollywood flick is an all-day affair.

The Future of Nigerian Creativity

Ritse recounts one of her experiences: “I won't forget hearing a Fela song come on while at a dinner party at the home of a friend. You must understand that this was a pleasant surprise because my friend is your typical all-American boy from the Midwest. I went up to him and asked if he knew anything about what he was playing. 

His response was ‘I don't but its good stuff isn't it?’”  

With a population pushing 145 million, it is no wonder Nigerians are spreading across the globe, aggressively infiltrating various fields and forms of creativity. From journalism to literature to fashion, Nigerians are not only assimilating but infusing strong cultural traditions and style into their ever-growing spheres of influence worldwide.

These artists are just a few stars from a sea of millions of shining stars within the galaxy that is Nigeria.

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