Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on August 2012Growing up the child of a legendary entertainer and political firebrand isn’t easy—especially when you’re the youngest of eight. Seun Kuti encountered all sorts of headwinds after his decision to take on the mantle of his towering father, Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.
“The family said, ‘Fela is dead, the band can’t survive,’” the lean 29-year-old Nigerian recalls on a sunlit afternoon at Naeba Ski Resort, where he and the band his father founded, Egypt 80, have just wrapped up a feverish two-hour set at the Fuji Rock Festival. “But I said, ‘No, we’re going to keep playing.’ It was hard, because people used to compare me to my Dad.”
“I grew up hearing his music all my life, but I didn’t understand how big it was because Fela was so humble,” the singer and sax player continues about their relationship. “He slept on the floor. He was not proud. To be that great and be down to earth is the philosophy of Afrobeat music. The connection to the common man is important.”
The favorite son of Fela’s, Seun was joining his Dad on stage by age eight. He would open for Egypt 80, singing a few songs before they took the stage for marathon outings of jazz-inflected African beats and uncompromising messages of political empowerment.
But then it was over. “I started playing in ’91 and ’92, but then Fela got sick and died,” Kuti says of his notoriously womanizing father’s death of AIDS in 1997.
It took the younger Kuti a decade to return Egypt 80 to a place where it could act as a major draw at events like Fuji Rock. “The government, which controlled the media, wanted Fela to be dead,” he explains. “Everyday there was bad press about me. They said I was a cokehead. But my Dad taught me about the reality of life. He said, the press has that name because they are there to press you down. We kept playing in Nigeria for ten years before we broke out. But that helped my art. I never thought we would play for 100,000, so we just said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
A generation distant from its post-colonial creation, is Afrobeat still relevant? “For me, what’s happening now is not a lot different from what happened in the ’70s,” Kuti responds. “To take a line from my father, he sang around 1978, ‘How can you say the country is getting rich when the people are so poor?’ The same thing is happening today. The government says the country is growing by eight percent, but every year 20 percent more people become poor. So we’re still going through the same shit our fathers went through.”
Kuti has little time for the bling-bling lifestyle celebrated in contemporary pop, whether in Africa or the West. “In England now, they are taking Afropop, and they put a commercial gimmick at the end to make something they call ‘Afrobeats,’ and they sing about champagne and cars, which maybe only three percent of Africans can afford,” he says. “That is not the direction Afrobeat should go. Afrobeat cannot be used to sell Gucci.”
A member of the tiny upper class he just described, Kuti could have taken the easy route and chosen the expat life in London or New York, but he prefers to remain in Lagos.
“As a Nigerian, you have plenty of inspiration in your daily life. The politicians are talking lies every day on TV, you see people so demoralized they accept the bullshit,” he says. “That’s why I still live in my country. I want to understand how it is for my people. I know I am privileged, but I also know the music has to be for the majority. Art should be about what the people are going through. This is what drives me.”
A new album is in the works and Kuti offers a hint of what’s on it: “I have a new song called ‘IMF’—international motherfuckers—that tells you all you need to know.”
Kuti says the difference between the situations his father faced and the ones facing contemporary Africa is that now Africans have the smarts to fight corruption and use the system to their own benefit.
“If you look at how people are directing their anger, it’s properly, and that comes from education,” he concludes. “This is where the change is going to come from, and I hope Afrobeat can continue to be the music that drives that.”
Club Quattro, Nov 20 (listing).