Interview: Seun Kuti

The bandleader talks about the struggles facing musicians in Nigeria

Earlier this year, journalist Matt Sonzala visited Lagos. As he was there, he conducted numerous interviews, getting a unique look into the city’s varied music scene at the moment. In this interview with Seun Kuti, he looks both backward and forward, taking in the enormous legacy of his father – Fela Kuti – what’s happening now and where things go from here.

Where are we right now?

We’re at the Kalakuta Republic Museum. This is the house where I grew up, Fela lived here, we lived in this house with, like, 200 people. This was actually the only house he really ever owned. The house that was burned down was a gift to him from his mother. After that was burned down, this was the new republic and this was his only property.

You were born right in the middle of your father’s career. How many years were you in this house with Fela?

14 years. But I still lived an extra maybe 13 years here after my dad passed. I moved out when I was about 25. Actually, when we started the museum project I started moving out. I was already getting too big for my room. The house is huge, but I only have one room in here. I signed my deal, I was already a known artist, I was making money touring, I had a lot of shit and it couldn’t fit in my room no more.

There were 200 people living here at the peak?

Yeah, even more. My dad had an open gate policy. Anybody could come and live here. The entire space was open to the less privileged and people who had nowhere else to go. My dad would give them jobs. Actually, it was like a community in here. It wasn’t like a cult, because everybody was free to go and come as they please and do what they like. It was a sexy, musical, crazy atmosphere.

Lagos, in as much as Lagos is a pretty old city, is still defining itself.

I imagine music pretty much all day, all night.

Yeah, awesome. This house was alive when my dad was here. The whole neighborhood was alive. If you look at this street, this street is kind of obscure. This street is in the back streets in the middle of nowhere. Because of the legacy of my dad and the spirit of that enigma that he was, so many shops are on this street. A lot of people opened businesses.

Something I’ve noticed here during my first time in Lagos is that it’s a massive city with bustling main roads, but you go down these little corridors, little streets and all of a sudden you come into a whole new community. There’s so many things happening in places you would never expect.

That’s Lagos. I think Lagos, inasmuch as Lagos is a pretty old city, is still defining itself. It’s not really a united city. To simplify, there’s a mainland and an island mentality. People are divided across that line, basically. The island people think they are too good for the mainland people and the mainland people think the island people are nothing but snobs and spoiled rich kids. I don’t really think the city has a universal identity. I think that’s something we are still working on. Other than that, it’s a city you can grow to love. If you are someone like me that is able to blend in both worlds, live on the mainland, still find understanding on the island. For me, I understand the city from both perspectives. It’s great for me, it’s a great city, I love it. I can’t live anywhere else, that’s for sure.

Did you go traveling with Fela at all?

Yeah, always. My dad was paranoid and for good reasons, too. They tried to kill him many times. He always felt like his kids were a weakness. He couldn’t leave the country and tour for three months and just leave us behind. He felt that something bad might happen, so I used to always go on tour with my father. He doesn’t care. He would pull us out of school, he would pull us out of anything. We had to go on tour. Just to be close to him.

My dad only took cash, he didn’t like checks. So after every show there was a pile of money on the table.

Well, that’s a better education than you would probably get in any school.

For me, it was awesome. He helped me decide my career. I was eight when I started playing music. I was like, “This must be the easiest job in the world, you play your music.” My dad only took cash, he didn’t like checks. So after every show there was a pile of money on the table, women everywhere, everybody loves him. I’m like, “This is my job, this must be the easiest job in the world! What else am I going to do?” As soon as I had this epiphany I went to my dad and said, “Father, I want to start singing.” He says, “Can you sing?” I said, “Yeah, I can sing.” I remember I was like, “Why is he asking me if I can? What’s so special about this singing thing?” I did an audition, he was like “Okay, cool, when we get to Lagos you can rehearse with the band.” I started opening the shows for him, so now I really had to go on tour, because I had a job to do. It was really nice. For me, it was nice, my childhood was quite expansive.

You started opening for Fela from age eight?

I opened every show for him everywhere in the world. He died when I was 14, so when he died... When people say, “Seun inherited the band,” I’m like, “That’s bullshit.” I didn’t inherit the band. My brother had his own band already before my father died. I was already playing with the band when my dad died, and I just kept playing. I was not even the bandleader when my dad died, I was just the lead singer, and I was paid a solid wage like anybody in the band. Even now, to be honest, I am not the bandleader of the Egypt 80. I’m just like the CEO of the company.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 - Mosquito Song

I think it’s incredible to see that you’re still playing with the Egypt 80 and still playing with members that played with your father. What’s the name of the bandleader and how did he get with your father?

His name is Lekan Animashaun and he has been with my father since 1969. He did an audition like anybody else. Back in the day baritone saxes were only played in military bands. Not a lot of funk or Afro bands used the baritone. My dad was one of the first to bring baritone to his music. They were kind of cursed to find a baritone saxophone player that could actually play jazz and not just band music, so that is how my dad met him. He’s so proud of him. I remember the story my dad said: “You got the stuff man, we’ve got to hire you!”

For my father, success meant how he impacted his community, not the amount of money he had.

Well, it’s great to see you still carry on the revolutionary spirit and sound. How have things changed for you? How does it compare to what people were seeing back in your father’s day?

For me, I think, back in my father’s day the music business was more in tune with music. Now, the music business is completely out of tune with music. The music business is not interested in music. The argument about music these days is not really who is the better artist. The argument is who is selling more records.

We, as young African people, have misrepresented what it means to be successful. For my father, success meant how he impacted his community, not the amount of money he had. Success isn’t what I can afford or buy. This is the American dream. As young African people, our dream has to be more communal. A successful African man should be the man that has impacted his community the most.

Today, music is a form of stress. Music today makes a young man that doesn’t have money feel inferior. They make a young girl that doesn’t have a rich boyfriend feel inferior because she ain’t got pretty things. They are making young boys feel inferior because they are not millionaires or driving a Bugatti. This is what you hear on radio and it’s like 1984, George Orwell: Mind control. So now the youths are in this vicious cycle, where music and art is making them feel inferior.

Art has an obligation to society and that obligation is being neglected to the detriment of our new generation.

For me, this is the difference between music back in the day. This is why music had to be colonized. Music is going through colonization right now. Back in the day, they understood the impact that music had in the freedom movements of the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Talk about James Brown, Marvin Gaye, many people in the punk scene. You go to the hard rock for the Rage Against the Machine. Everybody had a political edge, from liberal to complete anarchy.

It changed the world, literally. Young people could no longer be controlled. Everybody starting winning rights. Black people won the right to vote. Women won equal rights. The movement was massive. So they understood that music had to be colonized. They started buying the music companies. Now one music company’s owned by the same company that owns the radio station, by the same company that owns the fashion outlet, by the same company that owns the car distribution outlet.

That’s the difference today... For me, music today is not satisfying. It’s obligation to the people. Art has an obligation, it’s not just entertainment like they say it is. That’s propaganda, that’s a lie. Art is not just for entertainment. Art also has an obligation to society, and that obligation is being neglected to the detriment of our new generation.

The American dream, the way it’s set up, I’m not ignorant of that. I don’t want to go into criticizing the American dream, I’m just saying that it exists. “Exists” – in quotes. Africans in America want to chase the American dream, fine. We in Africa have no rights to chase the American dream in any way. Is it going to the club, drinking and living large? That’s Jay Z, that’s the American dream, that’s Kanye. Buying $2,000 shoes. Those are the heroes young people in Africa look up to and forget people like Lumumba and Mandela.

When young black people in Nigeria are going crazy over people like Jay Z and Warren Buffett I am sincerely heartbroken. Because whatever they have is to our detriment. The African dream is different from the American dream. At the level of development that we are, our dream must be community. We must look inward – community, community, community.

We are learning about our music through MTV Base, so what do we expect when the government does not play its role in educating these children, its own cultural strength? MTV Base, when they came to Africa, the artist that they called to play at the opening to launch this station? Me. The artist they called to launch the first MTV Awards in Africa? Me. Why? Because they wanted it to be an African thing, they are here to promote African identity and African music. But now, who is the artist that they don’t play on MTV Base? Me!

Ali Farka Toure - Jungou

That is what it is. Okay, maybe they play me, but I’m not regularly played, I’m not on a loop. I’m played maybe once every two weeks, or something funny like that. MTV Base don’t play Ali Farka Touré, MTV Base don’t play Lucky Dube, MTV Base don’t play no music from Hugh Masekela. They don’t play them on that; they don’t even play new real music. They don’t play music from Tiken Jah, they don’t play Alpha Blondy. Are these not artists from Africa? Why shouldn’t African youths know about these artists? Are we not allowed to know that they exist? Or is it because of what they stand for?

If I don’t objectify African women in my video, or women in general, then my video is not nice enough. If I don’t lead young African people astray by showing gold chains... Gold chains and diamond chains is one of the worst things to spend your money on as an African. The amount of black people that are dying in the Congo, that they are killing, our brothers and sisters, because of this gold. I have expensive shit – I have an expensive watch to a certain extent – but I would never buy a watch with a single precious metal in it because I know where it comes from. I know that the blood of my people are on all of those things.

I refuse to put big cars and make people feel inferior with music. My video is not nice enough. That is what it is. It’s difficult for young people in Africa to even know the real music that is out there in Africa today. The real artists in Africa are not being represented on any of the media stations that are in the face of the young people. It’s difficult. How do young people know, when they’re never given any indication that it exists?

By Matt Sonzala on November 14, 2016

On a different note