In this interview with SULAIMON MOJEED-SANNI, leading Afrobeat musician, Seun Kuti, who recently released his third album, A Long Way To The Beginning, speaks on youth uprising and the days of struggle of his father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
How was life like in Fela’s Kalakuta Republic?
The Republic was not a conventional place to raise a child but it was an effective way to have that communal feeling and make me realise that I am just a little out of a big picture. And that is what we all are, no matter who we think we are. And I understand this by trying to live within this standard. Many people try to say I’am not humble when I say the truth but I don’t see saying the truth as being arrogant. The truth is what it is, it is the truth. Actually, I am a very humble person who sees myself as part of something.
Even in my band, they tell you I am a part of the band; I try not live in excess of my band. I believe in that communal social development amongst people. For me, it is very important. This is what Kalakuta has taught me about life. It is not about showing off what you have or what you have achieved. The truth transcends all that. When the truth comes out and I see that nobody is saying it, I, say what is on my mind because I have been raised to say what’s on my mind. I am lucky my father, Fela, raised me to say what is on my mind. I wished other people too had parents that raised them to say what’s on their mind. It is the training from Kalakuta, being able to see someone as great as my father living such a humble life. Fela had a super huge ego, but he was able to understand his struggle was bigger than everybody. Fela had a god complex, he was larger than life, anywhere he went, he had at least 30 girls and boys with him. When he arrived, it was like a mini-town hads arrived. Yet everybody got paid, fed, and sheltered by him.
But when he got home, he humbled himself; he subjected himself to the same rules that he set for everybody. He slept on the floor, was easy to approach, and you began to understand that the life he chose to live did not have to affect who he was. In Kalakuta you quickly learnt about life. Fela did not hide anything; you learnt the good, the bad, the ugly quickly, so you started getting used to it fast; not that you grow up and life starts surprising you.
People always talk about Fela, forgetting that I have a mother too. I didn’t just fall from the sky into the hands of my father, I have a very beautiful, powerful mother who raised me as an only child. My mom had nothing to think about other than me.
During the persecution years, how did the family cope and where were you?
Firstly, somebody said online that Fela didn’t raise me, that I didn’t even know my father, that Fela only recognised Femi, Yeni and Shola as his children. That was a real insult to my father’s personality. The person thought he was insulting me, but he was insulting my father. How do you think Fela would give birth to children he didn’t recognise or children that he refused to take care of. I lived all my life with Fela. I used to open shows for Fela. I started playing in Fela’s band when I was eight years old. How did I do all these things without knowing him?
There was no year Fela was not persecuted. He died few months after he was released from the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, detention. Growing up in Kalakuta Republic is the reason I would hear gunshot and won’t flinch. Because the cops often showed up there. Despite that we survived.
Fela was not really arrested all the time. When I was born, Fela was in prison; I was born in 1983, he went to prison in 1984 and did not return until 1986. He spent two years. Then we were living in the Old Shrine – my sister, my mom and step-mom – but when he came out he completed the house that has been transformed into a museum now. Then we used to visit him in prison, and that serves as one of my earliest memories of life. Then I cried and they told me to leave but I didn’t understand why I would have to leave, while they took him back into the prison. Fela was relentless in stating his autonomy and the police too always came to show he was living within a state. It was a constant battle, a lot of people got hurt in the process, innocent people.
Another time Fela got arrested was for murder, then again in 1997 for igbo (marijuana).
You talked about opening shows for Fela, and now you lead the Egypt 80 band. Did you ever think of having your own personal band?
Egypt 80 is my band. And it would continue to exist after I am gone.
In your album Rise, you talk about youths rising against the multinationals and government. Do you see an Arab Spring in Nigeria?
No, because we are not Arabs and young people in Africa need to start wondering why something that happened in Africa is called Arab Spring. When they are persecuting gay people in Nigeria, and young people are saying why should the West tell us what to do? If you think the West care that Africans are throwing fellow Africans in jail, you are in a dreamworld.
First, the West called something happening in Africa, Arab Spring. That is definitely to disconnect it from sub-Sahara Africa. So that we, Africans, in sub-Sahara Africa that are not in the North of Africa are not inspired because this is where they get all their raw materials from, this is where most of their exploitation takes place. They exploit them in North Africa too but they are more liberated than sub-Sahara Africa. So they don’t want us to call it African Summer. Let them do their Arab Spring, we would do our own African Summer soon.
Western countries don’t care when they lock up black people. You know they are already complaining that immigration is too much; they know black people would soon be using the persecution of homosexuals to seek asylum in western societies. They are only protecting the economic disadvantage the law would bring by bringing more mouths to feed, more asylum seekers. It is not about the gay people in Africa. If Western countries cared about Africa, have they not been to the Niger Delta to see the amount of destruction to the environment that multinationals and fellow Africans have caused? On the 24 hours gas flaring going on there, Western governments did not speak openly about that; they are talking about gay people. And you think they care about Africans?
No, they don’t. They are talking about gay people to protect their interest. They are legally bound by the U.N. Charter to give those people asylum.
The advent of Hiphop music seems to be pushing Afrobeat to the background?
I don’t think it is relegating it, I just feel the battle field in not even. It is not a fair fight. Whereas the hip-pop gets all the airplay on the radio, are called for all the shows and get all the corporate support and the government support too because the message they regurgitate is the message the blind, backward, archaic governments are happy with. Message of impunity, of waste, of consumerism, that’s the kind message the federal government enjoys, so it can tell us we can only grow by foreign investment. That’s the message of imperialism, message of continual subjugation of the African continent, the message that tells us to continue to patronise western products exclusively as the only way to progress; neo-colonialism.
The playing field is not level, I don’t think it has clouded Afrobeat in anyway. Musically, nobody does more work than me and my brother in Nigeria as artistes; plays more shows, does more musical things. We don’t just release videos, albums follow, we do world tour, we are always working all the time. The extra thing, is the visibility of the commercial side of it based on billboards, adverts on TV and radio, people are not given the option of our own type of music.
Since you started performing at the New Afrika Shrine, what mileage has it added to your brand?
Well, the Shrine is the home of Afrobeat music. I believe that the Egypt 80 playing at the Shrine is only natural, not like an extra for the band because the Egypt 80 band has always been playing there.
The contribution of your late father to nation building through his philosophy and music remains indelible. Do you think the nation has given him the due honour?
On a national level, that is impossible. If the Federal Government of Nigeria honours him nationally, it means they are acknowledging what Fela said as being true. Do you know the weight of such admission? We don’t have people who believe in Fela in government now; the people in government are anti-progress and truth.
Yes, Lagos State honoured him, because he is a Lagos icon. The state government cannot detach themselves from Fela, because at the root of government of Lagos State, they know the importance of Fela. But we have to understand that Fela’s fight was on a national level, he never had issues with Lagos State government, all his advocacy was always with the federal. He did not discuss state governments in his songs, it was against Presidents and Ministers.
That’s how Nigeria is. People often say, face your local government chairman or state governor, forgetting that the bulk of development lies with the federal; even our constitution is federal in structure. The federal government sits on the bulk of the money and we have to make sure they spend the money on the real owners – we – not the few thousand people in Abuja. And that time is even gone; the time they had the chance to make the change. Don’t you wonder why, in a country were the government admitted we are under-educated – the government knows, I know – why do they continue to speak in English? Why not pidgin English, that everybody understands? With pidgin, there won’t be any place to hide. But with big grammar, they find agents to translate falsehood to the people in their local joints. When the government speaks in pidgin, we don’t need the translation of lies that comes with it.
…Read full interview in TheNEWS magazine