Q&A: ‘The goal is to be free, not white’: an interview with Seun Kuti

AiW Guest Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè

Oluseun Anikulapo Kuti (born 11 January 1983), commonly known as Seun Kuti, is a Nigerian musician and the youngest son of legendary late afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. Seun and his brother, Femi, are the two commercially successful musical offspring of the late Nigerian afrobeat maestro. Seun has been enjoying a wonderful career leading his father’s former band, Egypt 80, and following the political and social ethos of his father; about three-quarters of the current Egypt 80 line-up consists of musicians who not only played with Seun’s father but often were arrested and harassed alongside him.

Seun’s discography includes the following: Think Africa (12″, 2007), Many Things (CD & LP album, 2008, Disorient Records), From Africa With Fury: Rise (2011, Knitting Factory Records/Because Music), A Long Way To the Beginning (2014, Knitting Factory Records), Struggle Sounds (EP, 2016, Sony Masterworks), Black Times (CD & LP album, 2018, Strut Records).

Seun is an artist who walks his talk. He was among the Nigerian artists who actively participated in the Occupy Nigeria mass protest against the fuel subsidy removal policy of the then Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, in January 2012. 

Sometime in January 2019, Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke visited Seun in his home in Lagos. He had a conversation with Seun, flanked by images of Seun’s heroes Fela Kuti and Che Guevara, about Seun’s family and growing up without his father, music career, the idée fixe emanating from it, the parts of his life the media talks less about, and his late mother, amongst other things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your father, Fela, passed on when you were just 14; could you please speak about your growing up without your father and how you have evolved? 

Well, there is nothing special about me to say or talk about in terms of the death of my father. I grew up with my dad. [When he died,] I was already 14, although I was not an adult. Being an orphan as a Fela’s child, how do I put it? – I can’t compare myself with children from poorer homes who lost their dad. It’s not like we were left financially wanting. But the issue is having your father around for guidance as a young man, to have a strong relationship also so, in that aspect, he was greatly missed.

And even before my father died, he had invested a lot in me, securing my future and what I wanted to do. I’ve always followed that general path that I was already on. And my evolution as a man from teenager [to] adulthood had been steady in terms of understanding my responsibilities and what I have to do in my life. I wouldn’t say my upbringing was the same as most people – also, you know, growing up in Kalakuta had given me an understanding of humanity, life. Also, the social responsibility that we owe to our society. In that aspect maybe, I had a different upbringing. 

People seem to be talking about Fela but not about the women with him. Can you please shed more light on your mother?  

My mother’s name is Fehintola Anikulapo Kuti and her maiden name is Ogunade. She’s from Ipoti-Ekiti. She was the disciplinarian […] My mum was very tough. She worked for my dad, she was a real revolutionary. My mummy would tell me stories of scars all over her that she got while supporting my father’s movement and struggles. Even after the Kalakuta raid, she was stabbed with a bayonet in her hip and the tip of the bayonet broke in there. And because it’s the army people that raided them, they had to take them to court with the bayonet in her hip instead of the hospital. That’s the most gruesome wound she ever had; she couldn’t walk for about eighteen months and had to go back for an x-ray before they saw there was a foreign object in her hip. They had to open it and bring it out before she could regain movement of her right leg.

I understood that trauma, but in Nigeria, we don’t understand it – post-traumatic stress disorder. We don’t understand that people go through violent trauma especially when it’s based on oppression and brutality. Both the perpetrator and victim are mentally scarred – even my father. Now that I’m a grown-up, I see some of his behaviours, some of his outbursts, and I understand he suffered a lot from post-traumatic stress disorder, because of the amount of violence they saw from the government. But people don’t understand, they trivialise what Fela went through in his lifetime and people think it’s just Fela that went through it. They don’t understand that my father put his family on the line and everybody got a piece of that. Everybody. Even me growing up, I saw people get shot by cops for nothing. One day, in front of the Shrine; one day in front of Kalakuta. They came to the house and shot randomly – till the day the man died, it was ceaseless. So my mum was that kind of woman who understood before I did that I was coming up in a cruel world and had to know what I was doing and be highly disciplined, highly responsible. She didn’t have time to explain it, she just had time to enforce it. So I understand now that she, too, was a victim of men’s violence. She was a great woman. She sang on almost forty albums with my dad. She was with my dad from 1974 till the day he died. So they had a long, strong relationship. My mum was the closest woman to my dad, kept all his money, cooked his food. 

Before your debut album that ushered you into the limelight, you almost pursued a career in football and I know you’re still a football aficionado. Looking back now, would you say you are satisfied with the decision you made several years ago? 

I was already satisfied when I made it. The only reason I didn’t play football is because I can’t play it forever. That’s the reason. I like the sport but I don’t have any regret for not playing. 

In your debut album, Many Things, you seem to continue from where Fela stopped. There are two tracks I would like to hinge my question on: ‘Na Oil’ particularly, and also ‘Many Things’. You sing about the cliched problems of Africa, the same issues that Fela sang about. We are still beset with the same challenges; what impact do you think the music is making?

Many Things is an album I released eleven years ago. I have gone on to do three more albums since then. I feel, for me personally, the argument has to be elevated. Because I realised many of Fela’s songs that people know are those songs that simplistically touch on the things that have happened in Nigeria. Fela had many songs that are more educational and analytical. Songs like ‘Look and Laugh’, ‘Confusion Break Bone’, ‘Why Blackman dey Suffer’, quite a lot, ‘MOP’, ‘Political Statement Number 1’. These songs are historical documents, not just touching on the basics but actually analysing and trying to get to the root cause and proffer solutions to the issues. I think that is also a part of the argument that is important.

I have to also talk about the real impact on society. Nigerians are allowed to fully grasp and understand what the music is for and how they should engage with it. So I find that many times our songs are only understood in a reactionary way. People become emotional because there is no guidance in understanding that you can also be revolutionary and actually try and put them in practice. So I don’t think the impact is what should be at the moment.

And many people even say Fela was a prophet and that, for me, is a denial of their own lack of action. What Fela was singing then was already happening. In the ’70s and ’80s, poverty was not widespread among professionals, among city dwellers. The value of the naira was strong. People had one income households and could send their children to the university, everything was easy. That’s the only reason they did not believe Fela because it was not happening to them, even though it was happening to people in towns and villages and the poor areas of the city. So, it is just that now, nothing protects people anymore. Everybody has to be involved in some kind of [degrading] occupation, and so everybody thinks Fela was a prophet because it’s just happening to them now – this gives themselves an excuse for not being more engaged when he was singing. Fela was not a prophet.

I think fifty years from now too there will be people like this, too, who will hear my music and say “Seun was a prophet” [because they, too, are not feeling these things now] – he sang ‘IMF’ international motherfucker, ‘African Smoke’, ‘Higher Consciousness’. But there is no prophecy there. I am already living the reality and it’s the reality that inspired me. 

You use music as a form of protest and you seem to wield such power among the youth. I was at the Naija Resistance Movement (NRM) gathering at Kalakuta yesterday and I was impressed by the level of discussion there and all that. Do you sometimes feel this as a weight on you?

The thing about it is I am a citizen; I am not part of the masses, I am not part of the public. That is one thing I am looking to inspire among the NRM members – that they understand they are citizens and act like citizens and carry themselves as citizens. And, most importantly, understand the responsibilities of a citizen. If you’re a citizen of this country and refuse the misnomer the political ruling class continues to impose on us, you will understand that, just like eating and breathing, going to school, going to work, our civic responsibilities are paramount. That is what is missing from the mindset of most people. You know, many people will say they are afraid to die, but our roads are more dangerous than revolutionary struggle. I can tell you that our hospitals are more dangerous than revolutionary struggle. Engaging with Nigerian police just by driving towards a checkpoint is more dangerous. And we all know we can lose our life any moment, but we are never afraid to go out, we are not afraid to enter our car, we are not afraid to go to this death trap hospital, we are not afraid – I mean the tanker that exploded on the highway and killed people, how many of them knew they were going to die that day from a tanker that belonged to a billionaire that couldn’t service it? So, if you’re not afraid to go out when you know death is possible, like a tanker falling from a bridge onto your car, why are you now saying you are afraid to engage in a struggle? Those are lame excuses that do not hold water. People are afraid to be citizens and that is what I’m trying to remove from them: they shouldn’t be afraid of being a citizen. 

You have collaborated with and featured several artists on your albums. What informs your decision to feature other artists? 

It’s always about the music and the relationship. Many of the people I work with are people I have a relationship with and they are highly musical. My co-producer on my last two albums, Robert Glasper, for example, you know, is a great musician and can speak that language – so yeah, that’s what really informs who I choose to work with, their ability to speak that musical language in the studio.

Going to your second album, From Africa with Fury: Rise. It was co-produced by Brian Eno and John Reynolds. Brian Eno is particularly noted for his ambient music, for popularising the genre. Listening to the album, I find his signature on some of the tracks. Can you comment on the seeming fusion of Afrobeat and ambient and the way Afrobeat is being integrated into contemporary music? 

When I have a co-producer it’s not really about the music – it’s about producing the album itself as a product, going to the factory and working with other people in the studio. The studio is the music factory, you know. Having the ideas of a musical master like Brian Eno in the studio is a learning curve. It is not really about what he’s going to bring into the music but how he is going to direct the course of the production and give you a technical masterclass and understanding of what it means to produce an album. I thank him a lot for that. Brian Eno is an eight times Grammy Award-winning producer so it’s not easy getting to sit down with him. 

The album also parodies the class system and Nigeria’s spurious claim about being the giant of Africa. I’m interested to know more about what inspires your music and how you get it rolling? 

I think any artist who is worth his salt has to be informed by some forms of reality. It is the interpretation that matters. I always tell people that there is no music in the world that is not political. Even when people say their music is not political, that is a political statement. Artists in general must be one way or the other inspired by the reality surrounding them. 

A Long Way to the Beginning is another album that has further cemented and attested to your artistry, both lyrically and orchestrally. People have been swayed by tracks like ‘IMF’, ‘Black Woman’, ‘African Airways’. But I would like you to know your perspective on the roles of women in African society. 

One of the biggest weapons of the system of global domination and imperialism, both Arabic and Western, is the division of sexes. African men are being portrayed as people who don’t respect their women. […] The subjugation of women was taught to the African people. African people had gods and goddesses by the time we were in contact. And we were in the level of worshipping women – I mean women were even the rich people in our societies. They were the Iyalojas who ran the economy, represented also in the king’s council. Now, with this division, African women need to be allies of their African men. And African men need to be allies of African women. That is the only way we as a people can elevate ourselves. We must stop the division, the toxic behaviours amongst ourselves internally that we must address. [W]e must call out oppressors internally and expel them from our midst. The goal is to be free, not white.

I’d like us to extend the talk on ‘IMF’ I just mentioned if possible.

I think everything I have to say, about IMF and world aid and donors and all that, I have already said on the track. There are so many reports and anyone interested can do the research – there is no need to be flogging a dead horse. Aid is wrong for Africa. We must look for self-reliance and cooperation, we cannot look for aid and handouts anymore. What we need is cooperation and self-reliance. We’ve received almost 360 billion dollars in aid in West Africa alone and where is the impact? Even the people that give out this aid know it’s handouts to their supervisors, a way of giving kickbacks to the people they put in charge of us for a job well done. I mean, in your entire existence as an African child, what impact has aid had in your life? 

(Laughs and throws hands up)

No, I mean, say it. 

I don’t think I have benefited from aid. 

So case closed. 

To the next question, ‘Ohun Aiye’, that particular track is somewhat different from the others –

I didn’t write the song, that’s why. The song was written by Baba Ani. For me, I wanted a highlife track on that third album because it was a story – a long way to the beginning, meaning a journey. It’s also a figure of speech to highlight how far I’ve come in my career and how far Afrobeat had come. And part of the Afrobeat journey was highlife music. If you go back to the musical beginning of my father’s career, he played some sorts of highlife fusion music. So I brought that song as part of the musical journey. ‘Ohun Aiye’ was a big part of that kind of journey. 

Your latest album is Black Times – congratulations on being nominated for the Grammy Award. Although you’ve always been vocal about the criminalisation of cannabis in Africa, another track from the album features this argument; the album cover features it too. 

Well, I don’t think that is something to debate anymore. Nigeria still criminalises marijuana because they get aid from America for doing so […] And there is nothing [America] loves more than throwing black people in jail. I mean, go to America itself and see how many black people are in jail. A book called The New Jim Crow shows how the American system oppresses black people in jail. They invest so much in prisons because as soon as they throw you in jail, you’re disenfranchised. They encourage that in our society as well. I tell people, the way you can’t get a loan in America is the same way you can’t get a loan in Nigerian banks. That’s the biggest evidence to know there is a global conspiracy against black people. 

America itself has almost legalised marijuana in almost twenty-something states so it’s a commodity; they also make big money from it [AiW editorial note: medical marijuana is legal in 33 US states; recreational marijuana is legal, or soon to be legal, in 11 states and is decriminalised in a further 15 states]. It’s big business, brings employment. And the Nigerian government itself has not done any independent research on marijuana to know that – why did they make it illegal, because oyinbo said it’s illegal. Case closed. Things should be reviewed. 

Your language now – speaking about your language, the language you employ in your albums – you use English, Pidgin English, and Yoruba. But I’ve noticed you encourage and favour Pidgin English more. Are you also of the opinion that Nigeria should have its own variety of English as a way of identifying ourselves?

Our identity is our own languages, our own traditional languages. Part of what Nigeria is. Nigeria is that blanket that covers our cultures, for the world to emulate. So if you can’t speak English as a Nigerian, you’re stuck in poverty. Whatever intelligence you have is trapped within you or your society; we cannot really project to the world who we are completely. So here is the catch-22: the English language is nothing but a key for young black people to access the world, as our own real identity has been subdued. But the mistake we make is that people see the English language as a goal: the more proficient you are the more opportunity for you. But they should just see it as a key to open doors that are closed to our real identity, closed to our language. Because you can’t use Yoruba outside Nigeria to achieve anything, even within Nigeria. These are the things Nigeria was made for. One of the things for which Nigeria was created by the British was to subdue the culture of the people of this area, so we have to understand and treat it as such. 

I don’t really use English in my music. I always try to sing in Pidgin English because that’s what most of us understand. Nationally, we know that about 70% are not educated enough to even speak any English so that’s why I wonder why our government talks to the people in English when they know that the majority of the people don’t understand what the fuck they are saying. 

Thank you, Seun Kuti.

Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. His chapbook of travels across Africa, Transacting Stories: Markets, People and Places was recently published by Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organisation, part of their exhibition, ‘A Volatile Negotiation Between the Past and Present’ at the 2019 AfriCologne Festival, Germany. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.



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