On the eve of his tour to WOMADelaide, Afrobeat artist Seun Kuti tells Jane Cornwell he wants Africans to stop fighting and start thinking about the future
SEUN Kuti takes his time coming on stage. Here at Cargo, a live music venue housed under railway arches in East London, his big band Egypt 80 is building tension, working the room on his behalf. Electric guitars are vying with blaring horns and wailing keyboards. A giant conga is being beaten with what look like baseball bats. Two female backing vocalists are tracing speedy figures-of-eight with their bottoms. A capacity crowd is whooping in anticipation.
‘‘ We’ve got to get up and think, not get up and fight,’’ declares Seun ( Shayoon) when he finally appears, decked out in a tight African print shirt and flares, alto saxophone hanging around his neck. ‘‘ We have to start using our minds.’’
Later, when he strips off his shirt, he’ll reveal the words ‘‘ Fela Lives’’ tattooed across his sinewy back; right now, however, there’s no doubting that the 26-year-old is his father’s son. ‘‘ Fela created Afrobeat to fight injustice,’’ he says over a trademark blend of jazz, funk and African hi-life rhythms. ‘‘ What started in Nigeria is now a global movement. The message is beating louder than ever.’’
Seun Kuti was 14 when his father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, aka the Black President, died of AIDS in 1997. More than one million people lined the streets of Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, to watch the funeral procession, mourning a rebel who took on the country’s autocratic and corrupt leaders and was regularly beaten and incarcerated as a result.
The most notorious African musician of the 20th century ( he once married all 27 of his backing singers in one go, then divorced them all soon afterwards), Fela Kuti was a fearless voice of the masses, delivering politically charged songs with the self-same dance orchestra that backs Seun Kuti today.
‘‘ These guys are the real deal,’’ says Kuti, relaxing in Cargo’s tiny dressing room after the encore-filled show. He nods as various Egypt 80 members file in and out: septuagenarian musical director and keyboard player Baba Ani; the flamboyant Adedimeji Fagbemi, aka Showboy, wearing dark glasses and carting his baritone sax. ‘‘ Some of them went through arrests and beatings with my dad. They are all activists. They all have strong political views.’’
Seun’s half-brother Femi, 20 years his senior, has been channelling the fury and passion of Afrobeat with his own band Positive Force for decades. Though rumours of sibling rivalry abound ( they are yet to appear on the same international stage), Femi resurrected his father’s Lagos nightclub The Shrine in 2002 and regularly invites Seun to play there. At present it is the only venue in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, to host live Afrobeat music.
‘‘ The Government are still trying to crush Afrobeat but the resistance isn’t physical any more,’’ says Seun, referring to the infamous 1978 incident when Nigerian soldiers stormed his father’s compound, attacked Fela and threw the latter’s elderly mother — the women’s rights campaigner Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti — from a window ( she subsequently died of her injuries).
‘‘ Afrobeat is on the rise across the world. There are at least 20 places in New York where you can see Afrobeat live. There are Afrobeat bands in Australia.’’
Seun Kuti’s appearance at the WOMAdelaide festival will mark his first visit to our shores. Years of international touring have fine-tuned his act, broadened his fan base and revealed Afrobeat fans in high places. When visa and immigration problems threatened to sabotage Egypt 80’ s 2007 tour of the US, none other than Illinois senator Barack Obama stepped in to help.
‘‘ This is the first real hope for Africa in a long time,’’ Kuti says of President Obama.
As a child Kuti was his father’s orchestra’s mascot, travelling everywhere with them as his mother sang and danced in the chorus. It was while watching Egypt 80’ s legendary concert at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, at the age of eight that he decided to become a singer (‘‘ My father laughed, then said, ‘ Why not?’ ’’). He joined the orchestra and often did an opening set at The Shrine.
‘‘ Fela never taught me in the musical sense.’’ He shakes his head. ‘‘ But he taught me that I am a member of the band, and that the band are the most important thing ever. When he died I knew I had to keep them going.’’
When he was 20 he was reunited with his father’s one-time manager Martin Meissonnier, whom the band had invited to Lagos from Paris to watch them rehearse with their new frontman. Struck by the similarities between father and son, Meissonnier ( by then a documentary maker) offered to manage Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 after the young bandleader had taken time out to study music in England, just as his father had done. After which, armed with an arsenal of Fela Kuti standards, Seun Kuti started performing and touring in earnest.
Eager to forge his own identity, he waited until 2008 before releasing his Meissonnier-produced debut album, Many Things , which sees his growling vocals tackling such African ills as malaria, inequality and political apathy over an Afrobeat template flecked with reggae and rap.
‘‘ I didn’t want to do an album when I was 17 or 18,’’ he says. ‘‘ Afrobeat is not pop. You have to talk about what you understand. Now I can see that the whole of Africa is locked in a sort of survival of the fittest mentality. Nobody really wants to think about politics. Everyone is just trying to get by. Many are wasting blood for nothing. I’m saying we have to stop fighting and start thinking about how we can really make proper, long-lasting changes.’’
So does it bother him to be continually assessed in terms of what his father did? ‘‘ Being in my dad’s shadow is a good place to be,’’ he says with a shrug. ‘‘ He was a very great man.’’
‘‘ I’m an artist in my own right, of course, but ultimately it’s Afrobeat that matters.
‘‘ Why?’’ He flashes a grin. ‘‘ Because Afrobeat is the truth.’’ Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 play WOMADelaide on March 7. His CD will be released locally on February 15.