A lot has been written about Seun Kuti: Prodigal son?… Check; Living in the name of the father?… Check; Brother’s foe?… Double check. But besides being son to the late, great Fela, Seun is incontrovertibly his own person, who only happens to have gotten an early start playing in his dad’s band at the age of eight. He’s always had to face up to the expectation that some day he would continue the work his father had begun. But where do you draw the line of duty? Where Fela’s music stops or where his social and political criticism begins?
Having Fela as father and calling Kalakuta (Fela’s commune-residence) home must have been a wild fuse especially for a growing child, what with all the vices – weed, women, and a truckload of harbored drifters – but the ultimate housemate, Seun argues that Kalakuta is only complicated when looking in from the outside. “Growing up under Fela was very normal”, he says. “Though we lived with loads of women and boys because the house was open to everyone, the good thing was that my father believed in equality [so] from the moment you’re born he believed you were equal to every uncle, aunty, brother or sister, and could therefore call them by [their first] name[s].” So Seun and his siblings were chummy with everyone, calling them by name, and there were no exceptions, not even Fela himself. And he made sure all six of his children – Yeni, Femi, Sola (who’s late now), Kunle, Motun, and Seun – called him ‘Fela’, with a penalty of ‘seized’ pocket money for anyone who even called him ‘daddy’. Seun learned fast, and so didn’t have a problem calling his father by name because his pocket money meant a lot to him; in primary school , while other kids brought N1 coins to school, Seun always had N20 tucked away in his socks, and N80 in his school bag, a total of a N100 everyday! Seun admits that as kids they were spoilt with money but that also taught him that money was nothing and shouldn’t influence his decisions in any way. “Money is not my priority for doing anything”, he says matter-of-factly. “I understand that true happiness is mental happiness, so I try to make myself happy before moving on to make my pocket happy.” So while Fela was being very laissez faire and sparing his children the rod, Seun’s mom was his check, spanking him when he came home a minute past curfew. But right now it’s Saturday, August 30, 2008, and Seun is no longer that little boy with loads of money in his schoolbag and socks. Tonight, he’s full-blown Kuti, and is performing at The Shrine.
Fresh from a three month European tour, and preparing to leave for his headlining show, Seun is neither nervous nor tense; this is something he’s been doing since his preteens – first as backup singer in Egypt 80, the band fronted by Fela, while at the same time taking piano lessons and teaching himself to play the sax. Back then he only sang, adding his childlike voice to the chorus of male and female back-up singers that included his mother, collectively responding to Fela’s chants.
After 25 years, Kalakuta is still home, and as Seun gets dressed, the conspicuous ‘Fela Lives’ tattoo on the upper section of his back exposed, the Alborosie album from reggae act Herbalist plays on his laptop; the room is stuffed with nine friends all sprawled out playing football video games, sharing a wrap of weed, and passing around a bottle of Red Label whisky. Even in his mature glory, Seun is still very youthful.
Next hour, Seun dressed in an Ankara ensemble, drives into The Shrine in his Mercedes XL Jeep and, followed by his entourage, he makes his way backstage. Settled in, an attractive girl beside him strokes his knee gently, his friends laugh at his jokes while people come in occasionally to pay him homage… On stage, Egypt 80 starts to play, setting the mood and creating the ambience for Seun’s entrée which doesn’t occur till well into midnight. It’s easy at this point to think that music is THE premeditated path charted out for spawns of Fela. But you’d be dead wrong. Considering the liberty of choice Fela brought them up with, Seun could have ended up anything else. Flashback to high school: as soccer captain at Adebayo Mokuolu College, he easily could’ve become Nigeria’s Beckham; but as a child, he discovered a passion greater than football. On tour with Fela (who always wrote a letter to the school authorities demanding that his children join him on his twice-to-three-times-a-year tours, even during exams), an eight year old Seun watching him perform at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, got carried away with the beauty of it all and at the end of the show decided that this was an easy job because all you had to do was get on stage, sing, dance, people liked you and gave you money. There and then, he said to himself “Wow! This is what I want to do when I grow up.” So, Fela walks off stage and little Seun trotters after him to the tour bus saying “Fela, I wan’ sing”, to which Fela replies “Oya, sing one song.” Seun rips into “Sorrow, tears and blood.” An impressed Fela then announces that immediately they hit Lagos, Seun would start rehearsing with the band. Today, exactly seventeen years after that incident, he’s frontman, Chief Priest, and Holy Grail for the same band he’d grown up to admire. And as they perform tonight, there’s an uncanny resemblance between Seun and his legendary father – down to the form and broad simian look. Watching him sway his hips and make those delirious ape motions, one word pops to mind: Karma. Irony or not, it appears the father becomes the son and the other way around.
Going on for three hours non-stop, Seun is a fireball of manic energy. The atmosphere wafts with the tang of marijuana, beer bottles are scattered around in their hundreds, and The Shrine is almost as its name suggests: a place of worship. It doesn’t matter what Seun preaches, mic in hand, he’s a prophet and his followers listen attentively and watch in a Day-Glo haze. There are no chants, no fanatic screams, just body movements to the band’s rhythm and a quiet feel of devotion and respect. A white girl in her late twenties, all gypsy energy, sways in an odd way that almost feels like she’s one of Seun’s painted dancers; somewhere directly in front of the dais, a young guy stands hypnotized and, without a single word, holds up a fist militia-style for minutes in utter awe. These random worshippers have come out for an all night vigil and, just like in church, there’s no segregation or discrimination. R&B and Hip Hop may be black music, while bluegrass and punk white, but here, black and white, old and young, charmed and thug life, all are represented. 36 year old Frenchman, Austin, a regular at Fela gigs when he was alive, says he’d been to see Femi Kuti perform two weeks previously; he believes the same spirit works in both of them. Seun was literally born to do this, and seems unconcerned by the constant comparisons to his father, perhaps unlike his half brother Femi Kuti, twenty years his senior and a more established and internationally known performer with whom he once famously had a bitter rivalry. While Femi often seems burdened by the weight of being Fela’s son, Seun embraces it; being his father’s son is part of who he is, something he’s accepted and he doesn’t deny that his musical career was built with influences from his dad, and taking off from where his father left off is about building on Fela’s legacy, not escaping it.
But his choice hasn’t been all butter and bread or a bed of thorns either, and Seun can’t really say he’s stepped into his father’s shoes or is moving Afrobeat forward, because right now he’s not the only one in it. In Nigeria, perhaps more than anyplace else, Afrobeat is anti-establishment protest music, so the government does not exactly warm to it; not even the corporations want to be associated with it because it seems nobody is willing to get in the black book of the government. Thus it’s the case that no one books an artiste that will speak against the government because, according to Seun, in Africa we have “freedom of speesh, not freedom of speech.” “This is a place where you can say what you want”, he reiterates. “But we all know you can’t say what you like, so we don’t get enough support here; but Europe, America and Asia are a huge market for us, especially Australia. The competition out there is incredible so you can’t exactly say I’m the only one stepping into [Fela’s] shoes. Afrobeat is moving on with or without me; all I’m doing is my best to make sure the integrity of the music does not change.”
Seun is performing some of Fela’s repertoire and, apart from his more youthful and energetic moves, nothing seems to have changed. Seun’s own compositions are politically and economically conscious, but they beg the question: how far is he willing to go the route that was ultimately his father’s undoing? Fela, while alive, was as acerbic a critic as they came for the voice of a generation – biting and finger-poking in obvious songs like “Zombie”, “International Thief Thief”, and a handful of others. Seun doesn’t so much believe in the ‘’stand up and fight’ ethos of his father’s generation as he’s more about ‘stand up and think’, because, according to him, no one is thinking anymore. Which isn’t to suggest that Seun is just a talker; he knows you can’t have change without power, so he’s got plans to go into politics in the future. But should the country be any better by then (with constructive leadership, for one) he says there’ll be no need for that. He’ll just act as watchdog “hounding their asses” to work even harder… Seun – even if he does say so himself – admits that he’s earned his place “…my name should be Seun Paid-my-dues Kuti” he says with a distant look in his eyes. “It’s hard for a young man in Africa to say he wants to do Afrobeat because you need to get a band; instruments are stuff you could learn, but putting a band together is difficult. How do you pay them without having shows…? Afrobeat is the kind of genre with no shortcuts; you just have to pay your dues.”
When Fela died in 1997, survive was all the family could do in order to stick together. At first it was difficult for Seun, who’s gone full circle musically from being just a part of the band to leading the band; and in between breaking out, going to college, coming back and recording an album. Singing his father’s songs on stage doesn’t suggest that Seun hasn’t grown – he discovered his own sound during his first three months in the tranquility of Liverpool, studying and broke as hell. That was when he composed the single for his self-titled debut. “I have my life planned out in stages”, he says confidently. “This stage is when I dominate and become a world-renowned artiste, and the next stage is politics. This point I’m in is about albums, shows and stuff, but I can’t plan their turnout because the world has become so small that it’s wrong to plan long term; you make plans today, and tomorrow some motherf***** makes a decision on the internet that will change the world and affect your little plan.”
Messiah or not, it’s hard to meet Seun and believe his plans will do anything but sail. And being anything but a fortune cookie myself, something tells me that Seun might not have chosen the Kuti name but he did choose Afrobeat; and this is more than just milking his family name for all it’s worth. To him, this is a way of life, one he doesn’t plan to stop living any time soon.
Photo Credits: Onyekachi Banjo
Graphic Design: Olalekan Oladunwo