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Boisterous activism still runs in the Kuti genes
Christopher Thompson, The Africa Report
October, 2006

Seun Kuti certainly has kept his father’s verbal punch: "Nigeria’s leaders? They’re senile old men. Nobody challenges them," he told The Africa Report

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.

Boisterous activism 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.

"Broadly, 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.

Performing on 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," Seun said.

However, he 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.

Seun’s Afrobeat 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 soundtrack.

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."

His generation 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.

Although 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."

International perspectives
Seun was 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 is there."

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.

Distrust of 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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