Seun Kuti has returned with a third album of songs, in this feature and interview, ahead of a gig at London’s Village Underground on April 2nd, Dele Meiji writes about the music, and what next for the Afrobeat warrior and social activist. 

In person, Seun Kuti is relaxed, laid-back with the ease and impish energy of a man whose destiny seems assured, yet his recently released third album, ‘A Long Way to the Beginning’ is a tentative departure from his first two, featuring collaborations with a number of other notable musicians, including the Nigerian singer, Nneka, and American musical virtuoso Robert Glasper, and billed as his tightest, most electrifying album yet.

In the Tradition

The album  is firmly, and sometimes, a little unimaginatively in the Afrobeat tradition, but a few of the songs on A Long Way to the Beggining glitter brightly, and offer the promise of greater things for this artist if the balance between keeping the flame of tradition and authenticity alive and innovation can be made. The tracks ‘Black Woman’ – where Nneka’s reggae-infused tones and lyrics lend body and resonance to an anthem to black femininity, and political activism, IMF and Kalakuta Boy are three of the best, alongside the Yoruba track, ‘Ohun Aiye’.

On Black Woman’ Kuti name checks his grandmother and leading Nigerian feminist and nationalist activist, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti – and other prominent African women in a welcome departure from Afrobeat’s predominant gender politics.

With this album, Seun Kuti at last delivers with tracks that stand the chance of being a memorable addition to the incantatory Afrobeat tradition, as well as appeal to an audience outside of diehard Afrobeat fans.

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Still, it’s not an album that  explodes some of the restrictive gender boundaries of the Afrobeat tradition – ’Black Woman’ is the only track where a female vocalist, Nneka, takes a leading role, and though the lyrics celebrate black women as political actors it sounds – sometimes – like a romantic idealisation rather than a celebration of their power; as the one guest artist who makes by far the biggest impression, Nneka is woefully underused as she features on only one track. It would be great to hear what she could have brought to the wonderfully explosive, and sticky track ‘IMF, as well as to a later track on the album called ‘African Smoke’ – rather than the lacklustre vocals from M1 of Dead Prez, who taints what is otherwise a brilliant, stomping track for Afrobeat fans and anti-capitalists everywhere.

His previous two albums have been well-received but none have produced the sort of iconic music against which he and most other Afrobeat exponents are measured. A Long Way to the Beginning might just start to change that.

Lazy Audiences, Fela is gone, get over it

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When I speak to a few afrobeat aficionados, as well as a player in the Nigerian music industry, they express admiration for Seun Kuti, but still beat their chests with loyalty to Fela. For some, this writer included, there’s an impression that his current schtick is too close to an imitation to be the work of the real musician. That there’s still something missing, or something to come.

Interviewing the man himself, and a close listen to the music should dis-abuse anyone of the idea that Seun Kuti intends to be a mere imitator, but there’s still some meat to the idea that his potential, talent, and expressiveness of Seun Kuti is yet to come to the fore.

Exponents of Afrobeat, post Fela – Seun Kuti included – unfairly – have to deal with the laziness of an audience stuck on Fela’s music; many of those who say they don’t like Seun, Femi or other Afrobeat exponents, haven’t really given the music a chance. Half the pleasure for any audience comes from learning the lyrics to the songs – so much of the pleasure of listening to Fela’s music came from listening to tracks like ‘Zombie’ and repeating his transgressive lyrics.Seun Kuti’s lyricism is not always on par – but on this album there are some compelling moments of verbal artistry, and often angry ( and if you learn the lyrics) sticky and memorable words. Not least, the delicious and transgressive joy of (IMF’s International Motherfucker.

If you listen to and learn the words from just one track, listen to ‘Kalakuta Boy’ – partly an homage to Fela Kuti, but more clearly a declaration of Seun Kuti’s own authenticity – it seems a sure bet to capture the minds of Afrobeat and non-Afrobeat afficionados. It’s a well-constructed song, starting with a strong drum kick, and building up to a powerful crescendo.  Alongside African Smoke, and ‘African Airways, they suggest an artist ready to push his lyrics into more interesting, metaphorical – and political – terrain.

Across the whole album, Afrobeat gets an injection of speed, which is not always successful, and the space between the music and lyrics that characterises Afrobeat music is sorely missed. The song, African Airways – criticises the directionless ruling of some African governments; the criticism is like a machine gun – indiscriminately targeting everything not seen as ‘authentically’ African.

Revolutionary

But nobody can accuse Kuti of a reductive Africanism – his recent op-ed on Nigeria’s passing of the Anti-same sex marriage bill demonstrated his liberal, open-minded and fearless attitude and personality, one keen to speak truth to power.

African Airways doesn’t have the resonance –of ‘IMF’ but its message is on point, pointedly critical, though here too, the pace of lyrical delivery somewhat chokes the music Seun Kuti’s voice doesn’t have the colour of a musician like Duke Amayo who sings for Antibalas, but other musicians in the past like Billie Holiday have compensated for relative vocal weakness with an adventurousness in their delivery which Seun Kuti might benefit from. Still, in an age where live performances and remixes are all, it would be interesting to see what variations and plays Kuti makes when he performs these new songs.

‘Higher Consciousness’ – also less catchy, but similarly powerful, is an anthem for the kind of young voices that drove recent movements like ‘Occupy Nigeria’.

African Smoke, another conscientizing song, but not anywhere near as compelling as the stellar tracks Black Woman, and ‘Ohun Aiye’; It may just be me – but there is a lyrical ‘busyness to some of Seun Kuti’s songs which a little judicious restraint would resolve, rather than have the vocalists, competing with the instrumental parts. There’s a cleanness to tracks like ‘Dirty Money’ by Brooklyn-based outfit, Antibalas that suggest a little more sparing use of vocals and instruments would benefit Seun Kuti and Egypt 80.

On Concerts, Traditions & Collaboration

Having seen Seun Kuti in concert, and listened to his music for a while without being blown away – I was ready to slam this album – but it’s an album that rewards repeated listening, and one that makes a listener buzz with the anticipation of hearing the tracks live.

I’m much more enthusiastic about singing along to ‘IMF’ and its pleasingly expletive articulation, and the perfect collaboration that is ‘Black Woman’.That said, the collaborations on the album sometimes feel hemmed in, and – safe, for lack of a better word.

The collaboration with Robert Glasper is obviously the richest; Glasper appears on a large number of tracks on the album. Yet despite Glasper’s fancy work it still doesn’t feel like this tradition is being extended and deepened – there’s very little risk being taken here with a firmly established tradition and audience.

Seun Kuti himself says that Nigerian musicians are becoming more traditional in their music, by which I think he means, largely conservative, and constraining themselves to celebratory music.

When I interview him, I ask about his brother, Femi Kuti’s recent collaboration with Nigerian pop phenomenon Wizkid, on the song ‘Jaiye, Jaiye’ and what he thinks of it. “It’s a good song. It’s not the best song my brother has ever done, but it’s a good song”

More pointedly, he says in response to working with the artists in the popular genre of ‘Afrobeats’, that, “I did a song with Shanks…but you see Nigerian musicians are becoming more and more traditional in their approach to music; you know my level of consciousness is because – I won the lottery. I grew up in a home that (sic) consciousness is part of you, and you are expected to understand the goings on of the world around you”.

Talking about his collaborations, he says he expects the artists he works with to ‘have a certain level of consciousness” around their music and politics.

His choice of collaborations certainly reflect that, but I can’t help thinking there may be missed opportunities to connect the political message of his music with the popular power of some of the recent crop of Nigerian musicians, not all of whom are purely about bling, and being brashly sexy.

Afrobeat & Afrobeats: Ne’er the Twain shall meet?

There’s a certain sense that those Afrobeats musicians exist on one side – and ‘Afrobeat’ on another side, and never the twain shall meet.

The traditionalism Kuti alludes to cuts both ways, and he could very well be describing the development of Afrobeat since the passing of its original exponent.

Within the tradition itself, there’s a degree of fossilization – dancers are still all female, and the range of instruments doesn’t push the boat beyond the range we’ve heard on Fela’s albums.

In Seun Kuti’s case, taking on the legacy of being Egypt 80’s bandleader has probably shaped the music, and I ask him if he sees a future where he breaks out of that, and where he sees his music going after Egypt 80.

To which he emphatically replies “There is no After Egypt 80. Egypt 80 is going to outlive every one of us…Egypt 80 is not just a band, it’s an African musical institution – the Egypt 80 that is the most recorded band in the world; people tend to put THAT under the radar. [Laughs] So, I believe, personally that there’s no end to what the band can accomplish in terms of continuing the legacy of Fela – and also developing new talent and new music for as long as there’s time”

Room for Innovation

Later on I press him a little more on the development of his music, and innovation, and he replies, placidly but emphatically “For me, you know, I believe Afrobeat is the best kind of music around that anybody can find anywhere – so I enjoy the music that I make and that for me is the main thing for any artist; every time I make a new album, it’s a new album. I don’t really believe that it has any ties to any song that has been played before; it’s just a new album. New Music. New Ideas. And I’m satisfied.”

Despite that, and his eagerness to keep his father’s legacy alive, the collaborations on his third album, his partnership with Brian Eno, and the social and political voice he’s defining for himself suggest Seun Kuti wants to be, and maybe more than a Fela Tribute artist.

Defining himself, with one of the tracks on the album as a ‘Kalakuta Boy’, he makes being Fela’s son a more expansive idea, than just being the lucky guy that “won the daddy lottery”, as he puts it, and places himself amongst the large number of people who grew up or have taken inspiration from Fela’s world, and its values, which are a fierce repudiation of all the depredations of post-independence Nigeria, and Africa, and the global economic system that feeds it.

Funmilayo’s Legacy

No doubt, the legacy of Fela looms large, you can hardly miss it, tattooed as it is on his back – but you get a sense that Seun’s engagement with the political and revolutionary identity he’s been bequeathed is being calibrated in a way that fits how he sees himself, and which truth be told is probably more realistic – as part of a wider legacy of political struggle, of which his grandmother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is the fiercest example.

Describing her and her influence on his father and his own upbringing, he says “…you were expected to understand the world around you – and imbibe your culture and generally think about…the true nature of the world around you; but you know, Fela himself grew up in this background – you know from his mother, who was the first black woman to visit China. She was a feminist – people don’t understand the capitalist and communist struggle of the 50s and 70s in the world, and that’s why someone like my grandmother is only celebrated because of driving a car, something so superficial – because we don’t want people in Nigeria to understand that she was a communist. She was the first black woman to visit China and a confidante of Chairman Mao – so you have to understand the level of intelligence in that woman, that she must have passed on to her children.

About Fela, he says. “You know, it was after he went to America, that he started to understand the real struggle – of the black people in the world, then relating it to what’s going on in Africa, then coming back to start passing messages gently – with songs like Jeun ko ku’ – which was his first hit…then Don’t Gag me – before he became full-blown confrontational – and Fela didn’t throw the first punch, you know his first political song was because he was illegally detained”

Maybe because he has been born into a time with less ideological clarity, and certainly one in which the solutions are less clear cut, the political answers Seun Kuti proffers are also less explicit, but they certainly reflect a common sentiment amongst Nigerians of his generation and younger.

Transforming Nigeria

Perhaps it reflects the political and social calculus weighted against Nigeria’s revolutionaries – that the music of resistance essentially becomes the declaration of despair, and calling things as they are – but not necessarily seeing where a change can happen.

Kuti says when talking about the possibilities of political transformation in Nigeria, that “Where Nigeria is bad as well is that…for there to be change in everything…everything needs funding…but the thing in Nigeria is its difficult for anything to be funded or for it to be pushed without having an ulterior motive or vested interests. You know young people with good ideology get absorbed because they want to push their agenda, but they get drawn in and bought over by the same evil that they want to change; you have to understand that the people that are holding Nigeria back are very rich, and powerful. And they’ve made sure that Nigerians are not educated enough, you know, to understand their own strength and their own power”

His take on the politics of Nigeria is that it’s lacking in ideology, which is mirrored in an increasingly debased society.

The country’s priorities are warped, and hell-bent on rampant consumerism. A culture to which his song ‘Ohun Aiye’ seems to be a riposte.

Ohun Aiye – Worldly Things

Ohun Aiye, the only song on the album sung fully in Yoruba shows another side to Seun Kuti’s voice – placing him firmly in the tradition of throaty voiced Yoruba singers, of which Lagbaja is probably the most famous internationally in recent times. In style it owes something to the celebratory tone of music coming from many contemporary Nigerian musicians, but pleasingly, it mixes up the jolly nature of the music with a cautionary tale about the illusions of being wedded to material gains. In style it’s reminiscent of the music made by New Orleans funeral marching bands.

Of Names & Tradition

Though ‘Ohun Aiye’ is the only Yoruba track on the album, most of the songs weave in Yoruba, and in person, talking on the phone, Kuti, flits in and out of Yoruba; he’s named his recently born daughter, Ifafunmike – a name that harks back to Yoruba religion, though Kuti himself disavows any religious belief.

Given Nigeria’s rapid Christianisation, and islamization, which often spills over into intolerance – with many Nigerians changing their names to dissociate themselves from their ancestor’s past; given his choice of name for his daughter, I ask him for his thoughts, to which he replies, “My daughter’s name is Adara, Ifafunmike Erinalafiya Oyindamola Anikulapo-Kuti – anybody who doesn’t like my daughter’s names should go and give their daughter their own name.”

I ask if he sometimes feels like an island of tradition surrounded by an ocean of ignorance, a word he also picks up.  “yes, sometimes…but you see what I tell people is, there’s a difference between when you’re ignorant and you chose to be stupid, like people in America, that are educated properly but then chose to be stupid. But there’s a difference when you’re ignorant because you just don’t know shit. Most of the time in Africa, that’s the case – people are ignorant, because they’re not educated properly – and I know Africans try to…you know that is the reason people are even Muslim or Christian at all…because they were willing to drop their own religion, when they saw one that they believed sounded better to them”.

On Nigeria

On Nigeria, he says “The truth about Nigeria, he says “is we truly need a change in perspective of government, we need radical change in government, because what is happening in Nigeria is a bit perverse…people don’t really show empathy towards one another anymore – and it’s because they emulate the rulers of our country. The rulers portray the height of soul-less evil; with no remorse …they’re the epitome of it”

He references the current Islamic insurgency in the north of Nigeria, and the government’s lacklustre response as an example of its callousness. “Where terrorists can enter a town, and kill people for hours and there’s no response. You know what is the response time of the Nigerian police if you are being attacked by armed robbers in your house and you call them – if you can call them, because there’s no number to call; so the number, you call it what is the response time – how long will it take them to come and protect you as a Nigerian citizen? You know, and while people are happy to move around by themselves with 1,000 policemen – as personal guard. 250 sss – national guard; everybody is following 1 person – and citizens cannot even get cops to follow them when they need, not to follow them around every day. You know. So for me that’s the height of this soul-less evil that is ruling Africa – so for me, you know – what’s going to happen…is the opposition going to get there and say we’re not going to go around with convoys that is long with all the security, what are they going to do about the police? The police still feel that they are the boss of the citizens – you know, we’re not even being called citizens, we are the masses only, – we’ve not yet attained citizenships.”

Fierce Urgency & Despair

The curious mix of cynicism, anger, and potential  revolution that characterises a large chunk of ordinary Nigerians’ attitude to their country’s politics, finds expression in ‘African Airways’ – lambasting the kowtowing, big man politics and culture of the country – it also borders on a frightening nihilism and resignation about the future, which even Kuti to some extent expresses.

But he sees art, and religion, though he’s an avowed atheist as the most powerful mediums for change in the country. “…in a situation like Nigeria it is the art – only the art can set the people free. Just like it set the people free in renaissance Europe – it’s only the artist that can have a voice where the politicians have a voice- only us, there’s no other person. But a criticism is implied of much of the current crop of Nigeria artists when he says by way of comparison to artists in Renaissance Europe who accepted the largesse of the church but “still try to get the truth to the people”.

If despair is something Kuti feels about the state of Nigeria’s politics, it’s not entirely reflected in his actions – a very prominent presence during the Occupy Nigeria protests, he recently penned an editorial urging gay Nigerians to come out in response to the Nigerian government banning same-sex marriage and criminalising support for LGBT causes.

The editorial was the radicalism of the revolutionary, and Kuti has little patience for the back and forth of politics. Asked about the recent discord in Nigeria’s ruling political party, and the formation of the APC he says “…this is politics that is being played in Nigeria and there’s no time to play politics with the lives of people; I feel that a serious change is an ideological change too…you know, for people in the PDP to just cross over to the new opposition so easily shows that they just have a common enemy, and their common enemy does not necessarily mean the benefit of Nigerians”.

Seun Kuti plays the Village Underground, London April 2nd 2014

A Long Way to the Beginning is available on Itunes.

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