An Intuitive tête-à-tête with Seun Kuti, the second and youngest son of that 20th century icon/super star, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, at the UK’s flagship live jazz music venue – Ronnie Scott’s. Soho’s home of jazz welcomes Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 in a rare intimate outing with his band, celebrated as Seun Kuti & Egypt 80: FELA/AFROBEAT. I was not sure if Ronnie Scott’s will be able to withstand the Afrobeat power, fury and constant swear words of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, but it was fun finding out. Boy-oh-boy, it was absolutely mental. The audience was blown away by the power and the ferocity of the fire-raising Seun Kuti and the legendary EGYPT 80 band – one of the greatest live acts sound ever. What would his father think of him performing at Ronnie Scott’s? Read on!
In 1997, Nigeria and Africa, and certainly it would not be a hyperbole to affirm that the music and political world lost a music legend and fearsome Afrobeat innovator Fela Anikulapo-Kuti; simple known as FELA and still rightly acclaimed as one of the 20th century most incendiary live acts. On the other hand a young man lost his father. It cannot be pressure - free being the offspring of a music Giant, nonetheless, Oluseun Anikulapo-Kuti (known simple as Seun Kuti) the youngest son of the Nigerian legend of Afrobeat and political protester extraordinaire, seems to have no worry stepping into the big size puffy unusual shoes of his father Fela Kuti. Five years after their inception, following the death of the legend – Fela’s original band EGYPT 80, made-up of a quarter-century of Afrobeat musicians now headed by Seun Kuti continues to travel musically forward and find themselves more and more loved by fans of Fela Kuti and fans of Seun Kuti. This just shows Seun’s ease with his inheritance. But Seun exclaims otherwise.
“It’s been a battle to get to where I am now”, said Seun. “There were those naysayers and detractors alike who denounced my choice to front my father’s band as both lead vocalist and saxophonist; (including the British press amongst others) who said it was shockingly arrogant of me and that I have a speck exaggerated pride or self-confidence to try and fill Fela’s boots. This was never my intention or ambition or aspiration. While my father’s influence cannot be underestimated, nobody can walk in Fela Kuti’s boots. No one can beat Fela Kuti. No one can replace Fela Kuti. Full stop. And who cares what critics’ think anyhow? Just kidding!” he sighs. (Laughing hysterically) He adds: “The British press are cool with me these days. I love the British newspapers. I believe everything in them about me, good and bad. You have to work hard to remain in this business.” Seun is been scripting and singing live in concert with Fela since he was a child. He maybe the son of a music icon but was and still is determined to do it his way, he tells me. He disputes any idea that he might need to intensify either his fury or racy moves on stage or with his soundtracks to stand out in the world of Afrobeat music still dominated by his late father.
When it comes to Afrobeat hopes are high and this is an unwelcome distractions I think Seun could do without or take on as a challenge. It’s a proverbial situation for kids from musical families. “Yeah. I’m definitely used to it. It’s f**king cool. I don’t mind it.” he tells me. “Fela will always be number one”, Seun said, letting the thought follow. “I do accept who I am considerately. You cannot be the son of Fela Kuti, a truly inspirational person without feeling that huge shadow over you. A renowned protest vocalist who orated against immeasurable suffering in his home country of Nigeria and across the continent of Africa, he asked? A multi-instrumentalist, human rights activist, a revolutionary and political rebel for the less privilege the world over, he asked? “Nonetheless, it has not stopped me from doing my own thing while carrying the baton. Really and truly, if you be yourself, fans and critics alike will accept you for that” he enthused. Furthermore: “Afrobeat is more than just music. It’s a movement. It’s about politics, economics, social welfare, culture, anti-corruption – all of that and more besides in musical form. I grew up believing in good old African values set by my father: hard work, equality and freedom. I am never led by money or headlines grabbing regardless”. More than anything Seun wants the youths and followers alike to always do what makes them feel better about themselves. “You have to love what you do in other to be successful, he opined.
“What I want is for young people in Africa to believe in Africa, to come together for Africa. It’s horrible to hear about these stories of Migrants dying like mammals in the seas. African migrants in particular escaping to Europe with all the risks involved to come and build Europe more than anything else”. Seun is a strong contender for the angriest musician on the planet. He still rages and talk wildly and utter profanities profusely on stage like his father. And he brought it on full throttle to the Ronnie Scott’s show. And the audience approved at every word. Once he was known for colourful costume trousers and funky boots just like his father, that were just as wild as his music, and a lifestyle of wide-eyed partying that rivalled any rock band in the western world. Seun (Angry) “I am just like you yeah! You are a journalist/reporter, observing, looking for breaking news and highlighting and analysing news worthy stuff and then put pen-to-paper. As a musician singer/songwriter I put the message out there in my lyrics to raise awareness about the untruth and the s**t propagandas politicians and big businesses do in Africa and if truth be told in the UK and the US put out there too”.
“The vision of the Afrobeat movement is to challenge the way people think about the mainstream news they read by offering them different, wholesome and productive perspectives”. Seun believes that no matter what you do or who you are, you have to give back and his way of giving back is to educate the people, be it in Africa. UK or far-flung Australia. “We become teachers to the masses via our music-words. We’ve definitely been affected and continue to be affected by a lot of s**t in the world at the moment. I feel more comfortable in telling it as it is. We deliberately set out to challenge the governments in Africa for their ill-treatment of their citizens, however, we note and deliberately set out to challenge global perceptions of Africa and its people, because we recognise that Africa is misrepresented and underrepresented in global affairs and in global media because its stories continues to be largely told by the non-Africans who have never lived and research the continent properly. Africans are very resilient. What I want to do as a number one priority is to show young transnational Africans that their homeland is beautiful”.
“Yes, there is poverty-stricken people in Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia and England. Yes, there are Somalia’s that are struggling. F***k it. That story has been written in Western newspapers and broadcast on BBC-TV and Radio and American TV, over and over. It’s about time we talk about Africa’s growth rates. The economy may not be at a galloping pace, but they are surely better than those of many other regions of the world. Africa is going through remarkable changes. I challenge you to print this. We aim to educate the masses that there are different ways of taking in the news - more productive rather than the negative sensationalism news that is delivered currently in the western mainstream”.
There’s no doubt that SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80 is one of the guiding voices of Nigeria’s and indeed Africa’s contemporary instrumental music scene. They are a band that deftly searches for untracked and thrilling musical spaces to occupy. But will Fela Kuti not turn in his grave if he is aware that his almighty radical youngest son (inheritor to the throne) performed at a mainstream/British establishment music venue – an avant-garde venue - welcoming the Mothership radical son to planet Ronnie Scott? Oh JMJ!
This Liverpool university music graduate, described as ‘frighteningly intelligent’ said: “This is not just about music, I reiterate. Everything I write is personal. Topical lyricism. I’ve got to feel something, fundamentally, I’ve to have something to say. I have to have experienced it before I go down that road to that stage, any stage for that matter to perform live". “People always ask, what’s the difference between Western audiences and audiences in Africa? I always say it’s not about the country. It is about the venue. I believe my father will part me on the back”.
Seun first began performing with Egypt 80 at the age of nine, warming up audiences in Africa, UK and North America included with performances of his father’s songs. Though, Fela Kuti passed away over twenty years ago, his Afrobeat vibration is unbelievable booming as never before, thanks a lot to Seun and his brother Femi Kuti. Seun was 15 when he lay to rest his father in Lagos-Nigeria and also took over his band at age 15. His half-brother Femi was 20 years older, had already established a distinctive musical path of his own, but over the past 13 years Seun has cut his own unique musical path, incorporating contemporary influences into the traditional Afrobeat approach. And the older guys in the band (average age 60) help keep his ego in check. “The one thing I am is very humble. This is not the be-all and end it all. I still have a lot of work to do and that keeps me grounded”.
Grounded, perhaps, but unquestionably on the way up. Regrettably Seun finds himself challenging many of the same injustices his father battled in his glory days, from corporate self-indulgence chiefs to pugnacious leaders to the ever-futile battle on corruption and human rights.