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Seun Kuti—The music of change

Published: 
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Wesley Gibbings

On August 12, 1997, a precocious 14-year-old stepped out on a Lagos balcony to face a mourning crowd of thousands. 

It was an unplanned assignment for the youngster at the burial ceremony for his father, the iconic Nigerian musician and political activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Seun Kuti paid eloquent tribute to “my father, your father, our father” on that memorable occasion and has since gone on to commit to the use of music as a weapon of war against what his father insisted was a veritable cycle of corrupt and violent dictatorships in a society torn by ethnic and political conflict.

An older, more travelled Seun, 31, arrived in Trinidad for Emancipation celebrations in July and both looked and sounded like the famous father. He is no clone. But he comes close. 

And he carries the same messages of African pride and self-confidence as his father did throughout a career that spanned the Koola Lobitos era of the early 1960s right through to Egypt 80—the band that continues to carry the Kuti flag into the current period.

On a Queen’s Park Savannah stage, Seun would explain the difference between profanity and art before launching into an energetic performance of IMF—International Mother F….r. More durable but nervous fans scanned the venue for the police. They never came, and all was well.

“You bring pain/People power/You bring tears/People power/You bring suffering/People power/To my people/People power/International Mother F…er.”

Almost 40 years ago, Fela had in song branded the ITT Corporation (a US conglomerate) “International Thief Thief,” describing its chief protagonists “Motherf…..s, bastard motherf…..s.”

On why the radical, irreverent Kuti message resonates both musically and lyrically with audiences all over the world, Seun regurgitates a creed familiar to followers of the late, great Nigerian musician: “The black situation is not an African phenomenon alone. Afrobeat music, an original form of representation of this feeling, because of its honesty, tends to mirror and project this feeling quite accurately. Your message gets to them on a personal level.”

Meeting Seun in the lobby of the Trinidad Hilton seemed, to a Fela follower, like meeting family you have only heard about or had seen in photo albums shared by enthusiastic old aunties. There’s a toothy smile when the opening lyrics from his song Rise is quoted from memory: “Our ear don full for your words/Our stomach still empty.”

It’s easy for the interviewer because this is familiar terrain for those who’ve scanned the many verses of the earlier Kuti period when a younger Seun shared stage space with his famous father and listened to anthemic verses on the rape of their country.

In a sense, however, Seun has seen it fit to convert lament into messages of hope. In African Problems, he sings of the need “to teach the people a new mentality/make dem appreciate Africa’s superiority/make dem know say no be so things suppose to be.”

But this is not that the protest must end. In the same song, he declares that “Na leader dey put us for this mediocrity/Take away our peace and liberty/Leave us to live in endless pain and poverty/We no understand this their government policy/We dey sell us into second slavery.”

“I believe that projecting reality through your music is what can inspire people,” Seun tells T&T Guardian. “I was not necessarily thinking about black people in the Diaspora but about black people in Africa itself.”

“They (Africans of the Diaspora) are going through the same systematic oppression. The only difference is that in Africa it is supervised by fellow Africans. The police force, the military —Africans who are willing to harm, maim and kill other Africans.

“This makes people confused. It kills the trust. We are oppressed in the West and we are oppressed in Africa. Where is the hope for black people?”

Seun posed the same questions to a T&T audience on the eve of Emancipation Day celebrations. The evening before, he had attended the inaugural screening of Finding Fela!—a documentary on the life and times of the enigmatic musician/activist. Hosted at the Grand Stand by the T&T Film Festival, there were the obligatory “VIP” chairs at the front and plebian seating which ensured more than 90 per cent of the packed audience could not see the entire screen which had been mounted too close to the ground in the cramped space. One vocal audience member noted the several ironies. Would Fela have turned back at the door?

Equally unacceptable conditions prevailed at the Pan African Spectacular the following evening, during which Seun appeared as the headline act following South African singer, Lorraine Klassen and a seemingly endless flow of supporting acts hampered by amateurish sound engineering, rescued several times by outstanding performances from the Wasafoli dance group, Ella Andall protégée, Ruanne Cabralis, and the professionalism of Klassen and Kuti.

Then, Seun’s alto sax fell heavily to the ground during his first song and worked no more. Off came the black, silk shirt. Stage hands continued to fiddle with the sound monitors. The saxophonist could not be heard. There was feedback. 

The spotlight operator did not appear to understand that during solo performances by members of the band, Seun was no longer the centre of audience attention.

But Seun soldiered patiently on—checking occasionally in vain to see if his instrument could somehow be repaired on stage and promising to be back sometime again to render the evening’s missing solo interludes.

But the music played on. Afrobeat on a scrappy T&T stage. Seun’s original potpourri of his father’s gift to African and world music fused with jazz and hip-hop riffs designed to raise both pores and consciousness. Few will forget the musical moments.

The day before, in the Hilton lobby, an exuberant musical prodigy spoke of life as son of his father and as a man of his own. “I try as much as possible to practice what I preach,” he said. 

“There is no consequence if I say one thing and do another.”

“You can be a successful and aspiring African without being lavish and ignorant and submissive. You can be direct and courageous and talented in your own way without having to succumb to political propaganda or regurgitate the message of politicians.”

“I think my own lifestyle portrays what I want people to see. I identify my ideology through my own existence,” Seun added.

On stage on July 31, there was great talent, patience, a measure of defiance (IMF) and an unmistakable commitment to sharing a genre music lovers of all tastes have come to appreciate as an artistic platform for change.