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activism still runs in the Kuti genes
Christopher Thompson, The
certainly has kept his father’s verbal punch: "Nigeria’s leaders?
They’re senile old men. Nobody challenges them," he told The
Seun comes from a long line of Nigerian activists. His great
grandparents were anti-colonial activists in the 19th
century, his grandmother Funmilayo was a pioneer feminist and campaigned
against the British colonial authorities in her home city of Abeokuta,
and his father – Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afrobeat king – was one
of Africa’s most innovative musicians, and a leading activist.
runs in the Kuti genes. Seun chose to play his only gig in London
this year at a fund-raising event for a civil rights foundation
established by his uncle, Beko Ransome-Kuti, who died in February.
And it’s not surprising that Seun opens his set with a warning to
the crowd about getting the wrong message about Africa."Don’t
bring bullshit to Africa," he told them and then launched into
a barnstorming version of his father’s "Colonial Mentality"
which castigates those Africans who wear three-piece suits in the
sweltering sun in preference to African dress.
I meant all the news about Africa," Seun said at his hotel
after the gig. "For example, look at the Niger Delta crisis
– it’s hardly reported! I’m not from the Niger Delta, but it affects
me as a Nigerian."
On stage Seun
is electric. He has been performing since he was nine years old,
starting out as a singer in Egypt 80, the band fronted by his father
Fela, who dominated the Lagos music scene during the boom-bust and
military-dominated years of the 1970s and ‘80s. Seun taught himself
to play saxophone when he was eight, and took piano lessons. But
on stage with his father he only ever sang, adding his voice to
the chorus of male and female backing singers that included his
mother, one of Fela’s twenty-seven wives. Tragically, Seun’s mother
died in the middle of his European tour this year.
stage in his father’s legendary all-night sessions offered a practical
introduction to the rigours of a musician’s life in Nigeria’s frenetic
capital. When Fela died in 1997, attracting more mourners to his
funeral than any head of state, Seun and his older brother Femi
were left to carry on the family’s musical tradition. Initially,
Seun stayed closer to his father’s musical roots and hired his father’s
old band Egypt 80 to back him, but has started writing much more
of his own material now. Femi, ten years older than Seun, has tried
to reinvent the Afrobeat sound with much commercial success. Philosophically,
Seun says there’s plenty of room for both of them.
Like his father,
Seun follows politics closely and is highly critical of the current
crop of leaders. Fela used to mock those claiming to support democracy
in Africa but then using political power to loot the economy. "Democrazy"
Fela called it. Seun is similarly skeptical. "There’s a big
question here, look at democracy in the US and Britain. There a
general never chooses the Prime Minister or the Cabinet … this is
what is happening in Africa."
But it’s not
all going in the wrong direction, Seun says. He points to the decision,
by Nigeria’s senate to reject a constitutional amendment which would
have allowed ex-general President Olusegun Obasanjo to stand for
a third elected term. "This was an agenda against democracy,"
said Seun. "OBJ challenged democracy but democracy won. That’s
where Nigeria is now."
How about South Africa? Will it become Africa’s capital engine,
taking up the baton where Nigeria left off? There is a heavy burden
of expectation on the continent’s largest economy. He holds out
some hope of developments in the South after successive military
dictatorships in Nigeria: "South Africa is the only hope to
lead Africa now, because Nigeria has fallen away completely,"
is more skeptical of the hoopla associated with the decision of
FIFA, football’s governing body, to award South Africa the responsibility
of hosting the 2010 World Cup – the first ever in Africa. Seun isn’t
convinced. "How is South Africa holding the World Cup going
to help Africa?" he asked. "South Africans put so much
faith in their government, like Nigeria in the ‘70s – when the naira
was stronger than the US dollar."
On stage Seun
looks like his father’s younger brother: the dress, the dance moves,
the voice and even the yabbis or banter he trades with the audience.
When Seun and Egypt launch into Fela’s hit ‘Water no get enemy’,
older members are transported back 30 years to Fela’s Shrine club
in the Surulere district of Lagos.
is a heady mixture of jazz and funk with the Lagos imprint: swaggering,
unpredictable and irreverent. The band’s tight arrangements are
held together by its leader ‘Showboy’ who opens the gigs with a
dramatically powerful saxophone solo. Then the six percussionists
swing into action, opening up the horizon to a crescendo of trumpets,
horns, drums, keyboards and guitars.
Like his uncle
Beko, who was repeatedly jailed by military regimes, Seun believes
in the power of words to secure change. "We need fresh ideas
for change," he said. "We were schooled by the West –
government for the people by the people. But the West put the military
guy on top. It’s a learning process and Africa is learning its own
democracy. Music can play an important role here."
For him music
is more than entertainment, especially in Africa. It’s an important
tool to bring social change and provoke debate. Many of Seun’s songs,
some of which will be released on CD soon, feature him belting out
critiques of corrupt and brutal regimes over a bubbling Afrobeat
While some laud
the latest round of pledges on debt and aid, Seun raises some awkward
questions about motives. "With Iraq, North Korea and the Middle
East, world leaders needed something positive – giving the beggars
something," he said. "They are hiding behind policies
that will not help Africans directly. Debt relief, huh? Is it going
to create jobs? Africa needs immediate assistance."
is taking the music forward, Seun says. Although he plays some of
his father’s celebrated numbers such as ‘B.B.C. (Big Blind Country)",
attacking political venality in Nigeria, Seun takes it further with
tracks like ‘Mosquito’ telling people that social action must stop
the scourge of malaria.
he possesses the tenacity and musical gifts of his father, Seun
says he has a 21st century message for the new generation.
"Africa has energy now – the real problem is if people themselves
and leaders don’t learn from past mistakes."
playing in Ghana earlier this year in aid of the ‘Live 8’ campaign
to end poverty in Africa while the Irish rock star behind the campaign,
Bob Geldof, was still being much criticized for failing to showcase
more African bands in gigs in London and Scotland. "There was
no African artist in the UK, but it’s Geldof’s thing," Seun said.
"Music is universal; it doesn’t matter as long as the message
But Seun is
also skeptical about the achievements of the ‘Live 8’ campaign.
Lack of action by Western politicians on promises on fairer trade
and increased aid flows, made at last year’s summit, has led many
to question the pace of the promised change. This has not been helped
by the lack of interest the world has since shown in Africa, from
Sudan to the Delta.
politicians and authority is almost inbred in the Kuti family, which
frequently clashed with the colonial and post-colonial regimes.
"My generation is the first generation to think our own thoughts,"
Seun said. "Before us, [Africans] went to the church or listened
to what father told us. So I ask: Why give money to our leaders
who don’t represent us?"
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