The sense of legacy here is undeniable. SEUN KUTI is a branch on a family tree that has profoundly affected musical, cultural and political landscapes over the past fifty-plus years, and counting. His father, the legendary Fela Kuti, first began the process of birthing the music now commonly known as Afrobeat from as early as 1969 and, since then, this form of music has reached the most diverse and disparate communities in areas all over the world. It is proof that music can join people together no matter what manmade boundaries may exist.
The politically charged rhythms and words of Afrobeat now carry a timely relevance in the wake of the rise in racial hate crime and the rise of right-wing rhetoric that has reared its ugly head in recent years. It’s a message that now needs to be heard more than ever.
For Seun himself, he carries his father’s torch not only through his music and through the message of the music, but also with the musicians that play with him. He tours and writes with EGYPT 80, the band that played with Fela on such classic recordings as Underground System and Beasts Of No Nation.
An accomplished musician and songwriter himself, Seun has enjoyed critical acclaim for his albums Many Things, From Africa with Fury: Rise and the most recent, 2014’s A Long Way to the Beginning. In anticipation of his up and coming show at Liverpool’s Invisible Wind Factory on March 20th, Christopher Carr talks to Seun over a rough phone connection to Nigeria.
It’s a while since you last played in Liverpool. Are you excited to be back out on the road and to play in Liverpool again?
Yeah, I am. We all are. For me, touring is great and it’s great to be back in the city. Yeah, I lived there for a little bit as well, for a bit in the past, so, it’s great to be back.
So whereabouts in the city did you live?
Yeah, well, I went to LIPA for a little while. So yeah, It’s going to be good to get back to the city after some time.
Do you think that, with the recent resurgence of divisionism and right-wing ideologies, that politically conscious music has a renewed relevance?
Oh yeah, well, technically. But also it has to be said that, ah, politically conscious music has always been relevant. But the truth is that the mainstream media had a hold on people’s minds. They made people believe that, you know, music, or political music had nothing to do with them and they were overly exposed to really bland, superficial stuff, you know. So for me, it’s about, if you’re a true artist, and I mean not just music, but an artist, your playing better will benefit humanity. That’s why it has been the nature of music corporations to make sure that they buy the means through which the artist can reach the people. They buy the voice of the artist, thereby dictating what is art, and what should be consumed by the majority. So I believe that today politically conscious music is really relevant, but because of mainstream media, people should discover their own truths by themselves.
So how does it feel to lead a band that, along with your father, had such a huge impact both culturally and politically?
Well for me, you know, Afrobeat music, you know, has transcended the Kuti family. We are a cultural family for music. But, Afrobeat music today is not limited to this band. Irrespective of the significance of the band that plays, what matters is the significance of its message. Afrobeat music has inspired the world and inspired many young musicians all over the world, not just indigenously. Now, that being said, the pride that I feel when I play with this band is the pride of…. Vindication… of our message. This message that birthed the band, that birthed the idea of the band. That message is so pure, so strong, so liberating, that it goes past the physical lives. It’s an experience. Because Afrobeat isn’t just music it’s an experience, and an experience that reaches everybody, whether you’re white, black, Asian, everybody. And Fela was the man, that physical man that, that created the music for us to feel and to hear the kind of message that can be passed on and on, you know. We can get to the real depth of it and, that is what I am proud of, you know. And, other than that, you know, we are kick-ass musicians as well, which is nice!
Yeah we won’t argue with that! So, talking of Afrobeat then, how do you think it has changed in the days since Fela’s heyday? It is now being played by multiple different generations all over the world and of all different ages. How do you think it has changed and how do you think it maintains its appeal across the generational gaps?
Well, I think it is the purity of the art itself, yeah, the art. Because, ah… there are always people who appreciate the pure artistic form of music. Yeah, people who appreciate the message. So I think it’s these things combined of being a pure art form with a good message. Yeah it’s very important, very important. Also, I think it has an appeal because it’s not mainstream. So listeners and artists discover it organically who haven’t discovered the artistry. So they will discover it and be like ‘wow!’ and they will explore this new world of music and sound, you know? Whereas if it is too mainstream and it’s already all given to you it won’t feel as exciting because it’s already out there.
So as you’re music has continued to evolve, you’ve collaborated with various musicians over the years, one of which was M-1 from the hip-hop group Dead Prez. Are you particularly conscientious about who you work with? How do you choose your collaborators?
Well, I’m very particular about the type of philosophical stance that the artists project, it’s important, you know, like I don’t want to feel that we cannot express ourselves equally, you know. A positive relationship is very important and the message that they send out. It’s about getting across a message that we want to get across in a consistent way. So we have to be of the same mindset.
How do you think that music and art directly impacts politics?
Well, I think where politics is concerned, the message of art and music is political anyway because it is coming from the artist and it is aimed at empowering the people. Really, there is an opinion that politics is cut off from the people. This is an image which misrepresents politics, you know. It impacts politics, because when an artist has commercial endorsements, you have to wonder where their point of view is coming from. But when a real artist creates music they are talking directly to the people about real issues going on and, you know, really being a source of action and backing a message. Politics can be impacted by the people if they are empowered and music empowers the people. So music is political.
So far then, where has been your favourite place to play? Also, where are you most excited to return to?
EARTH, man! Earth is my favourite place to play. I’m glad I get the chance to play and to travel. I try to put on a show that is multi-dimensional and that can reach people regardless of where they’re from or their race or anything. But so far it’s only Earth that I love to play; anywhere on Earth. The only places on Earth that I love to play the most would be countries that, you know, stand for my principles and echo my principles. But, anywhere, you know, because the world is my stage.
So, who right now are your favourite Afrobeat musicians? Any recommendations?
SK: Oh well, I can’t say, I can’t say. I know ninety percent of the Afrobeat bands, you know, and I know the big bands out there today. They’re all friends of mine, you know, some really good friends. So I have a favourite but I can’t say! You know, I can endorse them when I’m out on tour, but I can’t choose and I can’t pick favourites because everybody would be pissed off! “We read your interview – good one Mr Kuti!”. Yeah, it’s all fine, man!
On a final note, Liverpool can’t wait for your show. People are excited.
Ah, it’s my pleasure, you know? And, ah… get some chicken and chips! Whereabouts are ya? Fuckin’ amazin’! Ah, I love you scousers man. It was the craziest time of my life living in Liverpool, trust me. On Percy street, I lived on Percy Street. Yeah… it’s a crazy city.