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Seun Kuti on His Music and His Politics

Seun Kuti on His Music and His Politics

Courtesy Harry S. Pariser

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At 39, Seun Kuti is many things. Singer-songwriter. Band leader. Saxophone and keyboard player. Father, husband. Politically active Nigerian citizen. Social critic and community leader. He is married to Yetunde George Ademiluyi and has a daughter Adara, who was born in 2013. Seun is the youngest son of the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his wife Fehintola Anikulapo Kuti. He took over as leader of his father's band, Egypt 80, in the aftermath of Fela's death. He has been playing in the band since his father inducted him at age eight.

We spoke with Kuti the afternoon prior to his stellar performance at The Independent, a music venue in San Francisco, that evening.

All About Jazz: Can you please tell us something about how you were raised and what was the environment and atmosphere like?

Seun Kuti: I was raised by my mom and dad at the Kalaluta Republic [a commune begun by Fela Kuti and once destroyed during a 1977 thousand-strong military raid].  It was a musical environment, one which was very political as well as heated. My dad always had a commune, you know, with a lot of people, hundreds.  I was raised with my half-sister.

AAJ: What motivated you to pick up the saxophone? 

SK: Seeing my dad play all the time. 

AAJ: Are, are there any artists who influenced your playing?

SK: As I grow as a musician. I try to develop my musicianship; I definitely try to expand my understanding of the instrument. And one of the ways of doing that is by listening to the greats like Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderly. There are so many great saxophonists out there.

AAJ: So do you write lyrics before the music? Or does the music inspire the lyrics? Or does it vary? 

SK: Well, I will put it this way. I always have things I want to talk about on every album I make. As I'm inspired to compose the music. So I will be, like, that sound is is for that message, and that sound is for that message.

AAJ: How did you come up with the lyrics to your song "Corporate Public Control Department"? 

SK: I'd rather not really go in-depth into the story, because it is a weird story. But I decided to write this song. It was not originally part of my compositions for the album Black Times. The song is about what the government represents in the world today. It was a way to portray the reality that we working-class people all over the world experience in relation to their governments. I've always felt that the government—all over the world today, from Africa to Asia, to South and North America, everywhere, from Europe to Australia—are in power just because they really want to control the people on behalf of corporate interests. So I felt it was a perfect title for that—Corporate Public Control Department.

"They come with their politics of war; They come to divide us; They come to divide us with war." —Corporate Public Control Department (Seun Kuti, 2018)

AAJ: Please tell us about your two new songs: "Love and Revolution" and "Emi Aluta." 

SK: "Love and Revolution" is a song that was inspired by my wife, really—to write a song that portrayed love from the perspective of revolutionary ideas and Black liberation. Basically because many people around the world today only see love as this ideal of romance that has been sold to us through music and movies for generations now.

So people see love only as kind words and material gifts. I feel that love is dependent, and my experiences with my wife also justify [that conclusion]. We are trying to see it as two people coming together to see how best they can make the world a better place. Not just because we want to tell each other nice things and go on holiday and buy roses and all that. But to really experience life from the perspective of our relationship and see ourselves as a reflection of what's right and what's wrong in the world and fixing ourselves, in a beat to fix the world. For me, that's the true meaning of love, you know, in the world where especially love is also interpreted in quite capitalist terms—in terms of ownership. 

People really love the things that they can own or the things that they already own, you know, so that's where the value is, [for them]. So we human beings are not allowed to really express our full potential to love the world we are in, to love the forest, the river, the trees, other people's children, and other people also. Without putting things in this box where it has to be your wife, your kid, your husband, your friends, your cousin, your family, or your property before you really can see value in those things. As human beings, we have the capacity to extend our empathy and sympathy and affection and generosity, and kindness beyond this little circle that the system continues to teach us we should concentrate on. That's why we can't sleep at night while the Amazon forest is being destroyed because I don't own it. Nobody owns it. Nobody owns the rivers, so they can be pulled polluted and things like that. So this is the idea, really of "Love and Revolution." It's quite a personal track for me.

"From the time when she meet me; My soul never empty;  She teach me how to love; she teach me how to war; She say my spirit worth a little more;  She fierce wise beyond her years;  She respects the ancestors (oh yea); You don't wanna mess with her I advise ya; She bless me with her presence with her essence;  When I close my eyes her fire is all I see." —  "Love and Revolution" (Sean Kuti, 2022)

These songs were released from a live recording, a show we did in Lagos at Cloud Studios. We put it out just to give our fans something to anticipate towards our next album.

"Emi Aluta" is a song about the hypocrisy of African organized religions—Christianity and Islam. They claim to come to Africa to rid of all these evil things that we do spiritually. So any time you go to any church in Africa, they are casting out demons. They are seeing visions. They are in the spirit. But I never seen a lot of these priests ever calling out any of the politicians who are right there in their church for the evil things that they do, you know, but these same people are able to see invisible spirits and devils and witches and actually apprehend them, you know?

And I'm wondering where those powers come and be used to apprehend, you know, the politicians sitting right in front of them. So that's, that's what "Emi Aluta" song is about really. Instead of this holy spirit, maybe we should start to catch the spirit of "aluta," this Latin word for struggle, you know?

So I just use it because in my country, in Yoruba, we also use the Latin word; we have struggled a lot and continue to. So every time that they struggle, everyone, l say, "Let this spirit overcome the holy spirit."

"Blame we friends,  blame we cousins, blame we neighbors;  Blame the cat, blame the dog, blame the birds;  God no see, the politicians, wey dey thief all the money; Imam no see the politician, wey dey thief all the money."—Emi Aluta (Seun Kuti, 2022)

AAJ: How has COVID affected the arts and music scene in Nigeria? How has it directly affected you and your band? 

SK: We had a few tours, and a few shows had to be put off.  We were planning to record our album, but we couldn't. We were able to work at home, and it gave us time to also develop our new material.

The only downside was economic. But, as long as we were able to compensate in other aspects of our existence in terms of developing our art—also just being able to re-energize, recharge, in those other ways—it made up for it. And it was the first time in a long time [to have that kind of downtime]. I could spend time with my family. So it wasn't all bad.  As far as Covid in Nigeria goes, we didn't give a fuck about that. Everything went on; everything went on. Nobody. Nobody stopped nothing.  Parties were packed. Clubs were packed.  Mm-hmm. Well, we were locked down though. We were locked down.

AAJ: What is the situation like for female performers and musicians in Nigeria? 

SK: The situation for female performers all around the world is the same. I feel like the standards set for females, not just music but anything is quite different from the standards set for males.

If you are a [female] musician in Nigeria, I think it's quite tough. Cause you are also navigating a man's world. It's quite a man's world out there in terms of musical entertainment. Hopefully, those kinds of barriers are able to go down in general, so that the gatekeepers are no longer as powerful as they are and [people] can take advantage of these situations.

Other than that, I feel the industry itself is quite welcoming to a lot of younger artists, male and female. It's just navigating the industry. I mean, we had our own "Me too" movement here as well. So being a female entertainer in the world today... is quite daunting. We cannot just act like [this problem of discrimination] doesn't exist or it doesn't happen and just watch what is shown on TV. [The performers] must always continue to address these gatekeepers, whomever it is that controls the industry so that not just women, but [also] young men  [are not] unnecessarily or unduly exploited and abused. 

AAJ: What influence has the evangelical Christian movement had on the Nigerian music scene? 

SK: Oh, huge. Huge! I don't think you can hear a Nigerian song without the artist thanking Jesus or thanking God in at least one line of every song. The evangelical Christian movement, especially the racist evangelical Christian movement from America, has a big influence on the African Christian scene. They spend a lot of money influencing the edicts and doctrines of the Nigerian and African churches in general. When they lose any battle here. in the United States, the next place they go to is Africa to pump some money to instate those things there. That's just, uh, just the way it is.

AAJ: I heard you inveigh, in your last concert here, against the purchase of luxury goods. What life experiences have given you this perspective?

SK: Well, because, you know, as an African I have been made to feel as if only Africans that can afford European things are of value or can be seen as human. One of the huge pressures on African people today, the working class and poor African people today, is the fact that they are made to feel as if they have no value. Except if you can afford things. Your ability to consume as an African is what is equated to your humanity. So if you listen to a lot of songs from the lyrics, the message from a lot of the leading Blacks here—in their songs, or watch the movies—a lot of emphasis is placed on these European and luxury and expensive goods, and I just feel that African people need to find out value outside of those things.

AAJ: So what role did you play in the No Sars# campaign and what can you tell us about it? 

SK: Well, I didn't really play any role in the No Sars# campaign. You know, people keep saying, I played a role in the No Sars# campaign. I joined the protest for a couple of days because I'd always said from the start that my role at that protest was just to see if we could politicize the people and elevate the consciousness of young people that were there. Because Nigerian people cannot continue to just continue to target just part of the problem. The No Sars# as a movement wanted to stop police brutality from just one unit of the police, but there was also the larger police brutality issue that all police is involved with—not just No Sars#. So for me, No Sars# was just a moment that Nigerian young people were becoming maybe this part that created their political awareness. But I wouldn't really say I played the role in it.

AAJ: What can you tell us about the political Movement of the People (M.O.P.)? 

SK: Well, I'm the Chairman of the movement of the people. We are trying to register as a political party to create a platform to truly represent the interests of Nigeria and its people. We believe that the relationship between the citizens of Nigeria, the elites of Nigeria, and the resources of Nigeria has to be dramatically changed. You know, there have to be dramatic changes to the relationship between the people, the elites, and resources. And that basically is the fundamental basic premise for me of the movement of the people. We also believe that the professionals in Africa for a long time have been in alignment with the oppressor.

I say this because there's no way our money is laundered without the help of our bankers.  We know our education is destroyed, with the help of teachers and our lecturers. Our constitution is disregarded with the active connivance of the judges and the lawyers. All the professionals in Nigeria play their role in the destruction of the foundations of our country. So it is important that we also speak to ourselves and ask ourselves when are we going to align with the people?

So M.O.P. is going to do this platform where professional Nigerians, who have been able to find some comfort within the oppressive situation, can build a platform that will bridge the divide, between the professionals, the working class, and the poor people, and nature. We could then articulate to them their situation and let them understand that they also have the power to be in control of their destiny. Not in the same way politics have been played, where people just want to go to people and say, "You should vote for me." No, we believe that the people can truly understand power and [actualize] the amount of it that lies within themselves if they can just organize. So that's the goal of the M.O.P.!

AAJ: What are your views about Boko Haram?

SK: They are an Islamic terrorist organization.

AAJ: How do you see the situation of the Ibo in Nigeria? 

SK: Well, You know, uh, there's a lot of ethnic divisiveness that is spread by the elite of Nigeria. Talk about the marginalization of one group or the sinister plan of another group, the Fulanis, the northerners who want to Islamize Nigeria, and all of that. But if you know the history of Nigeria, it was the Ibos and the northerners that created this Nigeria that we have today, If wasn't for them Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, would never have been prime minister. [The first (and only) Nigerian prime minister, Balewa took office in 1960 and was assassinated during a 1966 coup.] And, even in the Second Nigerian Republic [1979-1983], it's the same thing.  So, personally speaking, I don't believe in this ethnic rhetoric in my country. I know it's the destruction sown by those that will not be affected by its repercussions. 

I know for a fact that those destroying Nigeria are not evil Yoruba, and Hausa; they're from all tribes. In this, they are [in a] conclave where make their sinister decisions. They don't quarrel there. They don't fight there. They don't have disagreements. The money is moved easily. Swiftly. They all live nicely in Europe and America; all their children are friends, you know. But, when it comes to analyzing the issues of the people of the country, then they want to see if there's some sinister plan against one ethnic group or another. So that we people are afraid to have solidarity and camaraderie across ethnic lines to destroy our oppressors together. I think this is what they're afraid of. So they gotta put this ethnic narrative out there. And since they also have a monopoly on violence, they can direct violence how they like to make it seem as if this narrative is true. But I know for a fact that we, as Nigerian people have a lot more in common than we have that separates us or makes us different from one another, you know, achieving. Our children cry the same way, feel hunger the same way; our children are marginalized the same way; undereducated the same way. We are all brutalized by the police the same way; underpaid the same way; underemployed or unemployed the same way. 

So, no matter the number of differences you try to bring about to separate us, I am sure once our young people are able to truly dialogue with one another, they'll find out that they have more in common and more to fight against.  This ethnic narrative is sold to them.

AAJ: What solutions do you see for the problem of corruption?

SK: I don't know. What solutions do you see for corruption in America? I think it's a result of apathy. Corruption is corruption. The issue with corruption in Africa is that, you know, the people we have in power in Africa, are not truly Africans. So they do corrupt things for the benefit of other people. And not their own people. Maybe 90% of American politicians are also corrupt. So are British politicians and corporations and billionaires all over the world. It's not only the Russian billionaires are oligarchs. All billionaires are oligarchs.

The difference is just that those ones here [in the United States], at least they do things for the interest of their nation or the interest of their own class, who are citizens of their own nation. This is just the difference. Corruption is as old as the world itself. It's what makes the world go around.

AAJ: So do you see a solution? Because that seems to me to be the main problem.

SK: No, I think the main problem with Africa is imperialism. We are all scrummaging for 24% of our country. There's no African country that is more than 24% locally owned. And that is the real issue. And that's why 74% or more of each of our countries are foreign-owned. So we have so little of our countries to live off of. And that is what we must, first of all, change.

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