Seun Kuti; afrobeat evangelist, political orator, and son of an icon- is holed up in a bland business hotel just off the Old Street roundabout. The young Nigerian has been fielding a stream of press all day, and has had enough. After a flurry of confused phone calls with his PR, I finally establish a time for Ransom Note to catch some face time with the man– but it seems no one sent Kuti the memo. He answers the door to his anonymous 5th floor room, nude bar a skimpy towel, convinced his interview duties for the day are over. Eh? He exclaims when I let him know that he’s not in the clear yet, “Heh, well come in, we’ll do it now.” I’m ushered in, noting the peeved, half-dressed girl side eying me from the hotel bed.
He’s the image of Fela – or at least the Fela I’ve pieced together from a handful of iconic photos – handsome with a broad grin, charismatic like a star should be. He motions me to a chair and rests himself down in another. On the TV, BBC News blares. Can you turn it down? I ask “Every time I look at my TV I think it’s Andrew Marr on” Seun replies, muting the news “They all look the same these BBC guys. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Marr though, I’m a great fan of his writing, I like his politics, the way he asks his questions on his show, his books, he’s a cool guy.” I’m pretty surprised by this. “He used to edit the Times. I’m not sure about his politics…”
“Ha, well a lot of people would think that he’s on the opposite spectrum of what I do and what I’m about but he’s also focused, he’s out there with what he believes.”
“Are you focused?”
“Do you have much luck with that?”
And he’s right- he does. Kuti’s near constant touring has bought him global acclaim, and his appeal has spread beyond the 'world music' niche, lazily attributed to anything not made in the West. Whilst his elder brother Femi has forged a more conciliatory route, softening Fela’s revolutionary message into a general plea for peace and love, Seun has sharpened its point, directing wrath at politicians, the IMF, Nigeria’s wealthy elite, and any whom he sees as complicit in the exploitation of Africa. He channels the rage of Fela and releases onstage in a burst of rhythmic, occasionally cacophonic energy. Musically he remains firmly rooted within the afrobeat framework set out by his father, and whilst his elder brother has collaborated with contemporary Nigerian pop acts, Seun is quite vocally dismissive of the idea, as our conversation went on to show…
R$N: What can we expect from the Field Day live show?
Seun Kuti: Field Day is gonna be interesting. It’s my first time at a festival I’ve heard a lot about. I don’t know about Jose Mourinho, but this gig is gonna be the special one. Ha!
How big is the band now?
The Egypt 80 is a 14 piece.
And you’re still pursuing a very traditional sound-
Afrobeat is not traditional. It’s very different to traditional African music, but I believe Afrobeat music is Africa’s first professional sound mixing traditional music and Western influences – well when I say Western influence, I mean black music of the struggle.
But still, the afrobeat sound you’re playing, is- maybe not traditional, but could I say, old school?
Maybe you should say original.
Original, OK, But it’s very different to what, say, Wande Coal does right now.
Artists like that, they aren’t afrobeat musicians, they are pop artists so they’re going to sound different.
But surely a lot of these current West African artists are taking contemporary American RnB and blending it with African themes in the same way Fela did with the contemporary RnB of his time?
I don’t think Afrobeat ever took anything really from Western music. Put it this way, I suppose Fela was influenced a bit by James Brown, but Fela always denied that. He said that he enjoyed James Brown’s sound, and that his guitars were unique, and that that sound was heavy, and going to influence Africans, but he was adamant that it was the other way round, that it was African music influencing James Brown.
For me I believe that pop music is pop music. It is what it is. RnB and pop music are closely related, but the difference with afrobeat is that afrobeat is not trying to be Western, Afrobeat is trying to be African. The pop music that is called afrobeats - and this is completely crazy to me that this music is related to afrobeat, with this ‘s ‘ on the end – this is being promoted because it is what the West likes. It is what the commercial music channels like to see, black people trying to be white, trying to be European. They don’t like Africans talking about real African stuff
Does saying things like that make you unpopular with other musicians in Nigeria?
I don’t care. I’ve been in music for a long time. Most musicians think I’m arrogant, they say oh Seun is arrogant, because my brother choose to work with a few artists in Nigeria, but I don’t work with anyone who’s sound I don’t enjoy. If I don’t like a sound I’ll tell you, this sound is shit. I don’t care if you sold a million records.
I saw Femi worked with Wizkid on Jaiye Jaiye…
That’s a good tune, not the best he did, but OK. If I want to make music with other artists I want to make important music. I don’t want to waste my talent on something that will be forgotten in 2 years. If people come to me I tell them straight up, I don’t like that sound, and what you’re talking about and the message you’re conveying has no interest for me. I don’t think that’s being arrogant, that’s me being true to myself. If they do a song I think is deep or relevant, then of course I want to be a part of that.
There does seem to be an influx of an American consumer ideology into the lyrics of the Afrobeats scene
It’s senseless, when you talk about things only 3% of Africans can afford. What they’re doing to young people in African is stressing them out. Everybody in Africa is acting like ‘I’m richer, I’m better than you because I’ve got a car’, everybody just wants to make money, and young people commit crime to do so. Young people see someone from their hood who’s made some money through music, and now he’s saying ‘I was poor but now I’m rich look at me with all my stuff, Im better than you blah blah blah.’ I don’t see how that kind of message helps young black people. When you feed it them from the radio and TV it makes them think they want to achieve it by any means necessary. And it helps our politicians, because when you corrupt the minds of the youths from a young age they will continue to be corrupt, unchecked, and when they have the corruption and criminality in their mind it allows the government to be equally as corrupt. Its part of the plan to keep the minds of young black people mentally enslaved.
So how would you like things to change? Are you concerned with being a force for change?
I believe music should be a force for change. It’s not my job, I’m just lucky to have that understanding, my background has given me that understanding. Whatever happens Africans should reap the benefit of their continent. There’s no compromise in that.
Would you consider a move into politics?
Well, I’m already into politics… the president hates my ass man haha! He hates because I’m telling the truth and most artists don’t.
I was in the New Shrine a couple of years back, hoping to hear some of that truth, but I ended up feeling like it was more of a tourist spot, and to be honest, I felt a little disappointed…
The Shrine, you know it’s not just a place it’s an ideology. You have to understand that that original shrine had that real mysticism to it because it was a mystical place. I think that’s the only thing missing from the new Shrine, that depth of perception, that multi-pronged approach to expressing yourself in all ways. You have to understand that for Fela to create that he had already become a force, a force that the world understood. So give my brother some time. People put him under too much pressure with what they expect him to be and to do with the Shrine, they don’t see the sacrifices he’s made.
Is it hard sometimes to carry the weight of Fela?
Well for me it’s part of who I am. I don’t see it as a weight on my body, I carry it like I carry my feet. It’s just me. It’s like an extra limb- it helps you balance, sometimes it rocks your balance. It is what it is. Fela taught us to accept who we are, completely, and a big part of who I am is being Fela’s son. I have always been Fela’s son, and I will always be Fela’s son. It is not for me to change it, so you need to live with it and understand it as part of who you are.
OK, so moving from Nigeria, how do you feel about England when you come over here?
I feel that everyone is looking at me thinking ‘urrrr that foreigner is here to take our job!’ It’s changed a lot from when I was here at university. When I was at Liverpool Uni, just 10 years ago, I came to London so often, and there was a different vibe – even then, even at that time, people would complain that London was changing, that there were too many cameras, but now it’s completely different - everyone is segregated, everybody is staring at everybody, London has lost that soul, that vibe that I felt was cool. Like one day back then I was smoking some weed, walking around in Camden and two old white guys came up to me and were like, yo, whats goin on! And these white guys are like, 60 or something, and we went and had a smoke together. That could never happen today, it’d be impossible. I just feel London - I just feel watched when I come to London, and when you’re watched you act different, so I think that’s what’s got into the mindset of Londoners – Londoners used to be more fun. And Cameron- Oh! (words fail Seun at this point)
Ha, don’t get us started… Finishing up, what have you got planned musically?
We’re working with a young rapper in Nigeria called Juggernaught – I’m writing music for him. And I’m working on a remix of my last album, then looking at a new album from me in 2016.
What sort of remix?
All sorts of styles – house, electro, maybe some hip hop, but nothing pop. You need to have an edge! If you don’t have an edge you’ll be forgotten..
Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 will be appearing at Field Day later this year. More info and tickets here.
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