For Seun Kuti, growing up in the shadow of a famous father was more of a blessing than a curse. “I’m used to being my father’s son,” the singer and political activist laughs from his home in Lagos. “I have been his son for 40 years. I think I’ve got the hang of it. »
Seun is the youngest son of Fela Kuti, one of the greats of African music and a pioneer of Afrobeat, a West African genre that mixes African music with American jazz and blues. He carries on his father’s legacy in a very visible way by fronting Fela’s band, Egypt 80, who he brings to Ireland for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. In Nigeria, Seun is believed to have “inherited” Egypt 80 from his father upon his death in 1997. In fact, the process was going on was more organic and informal.
“I’ve been in the group since I was eight years old. I used to go to shows with my dad. From when I was 14 until my father died, I played every week at the Shrine [a performance space established by Fela in 1971]. So when he died, we decided to keep playing. There was no ‘Oh Seun has to be the one’ rule. Of all the children, I was the one who could work with the group or maintain the spirit. It was never imposed. That’s what I love about it – we chose each other.
He and Egypt 80 have played against Ireland before and his memories of those occasions are fond. So do his memories of working with Sinéad O’Connor, with whom he dueted on his 2014 album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss. He remembers O’Connor as a sensitive soul for whom music was about self-discovery rather than commercial gain.
” John Reynolds [O’Connor’s producer] called me to jump on the track. I was truly honored. We knocked out in a few hours. Sinéad — his soul is in search of what is beyond him. She always went beyond “self”, which I respect about her. »
Fela Kuti was a musical innovator. He was also a rallying figure in Nigeria and was outspoken about the need for solidarity among African nations. In 1979 he founded the People’s Movement (MOP) – which aimed to “clean up society like a mop” (hence the acronym).
The MOP was revived by Seun several years ago and he is a regular on Nigerian television, exposing corruption and criticizing the embedded elites who control the country and its wealth. He believes that every musician should have a political component in their work: otherwise, what’s the point of all this?
“Everything in this world is political,” he says. “Many artists in the world are content to hide, to deny their responsibility towards humanity or towards nature. Towards the future of this planet. For me, the general public, the companies — they like these kind of artists, who can distract people. Do them [the audience] blaming oneself for the evils of the world. Instead of facing the real evil that is destroying the world, which is imperialism, capitalism, oppression.
“The exploitation and oppression of large numbers of working class people around the world. As an artist, it is very important to my well-being that I am honest about my existence. And that my existence be captured by my art.”
He also thinks it’s important to challenge negative stereotypes. “Lagos is quite a dynamic city. He has 12 million more. But there is corruption everywhere. I am not one to buy into the rhetoric where the actions of a few are used to paint a whole nation in a certain light.
He contrasts the way people around the world are, or are not, caricatured. “Nobody is saying that Americans are all baby killers because Americans go to schools and kill people every week. A few Africans commit a crime and then everyone in this area is bad. There are 200 million people. people in Nigeria. Maybe 300 million in the world. If we were really bad, the world would know.
He has been taking care of since confinement. Kuti also reflected on the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, which have been as seismic in Lagos as anywhere else in the world.
“Black Lives Matter was a big thing in Nigeria. It made us realize that we as Africans need to organize and stand up. One of the African Black Lives Matter protests was the SARS protests in Nigeria [SARS standing for Special Anti-Robbery Squad]. Which were also based on police brutality. This is where you have to understand that what Africans everywhere are going through is systemic.
He believes that racism is largely systemic rather than about individuals and their biases. “When we see cops brutalizing Africans in America or Europe, you might understand that because the cops are white. You see the cop is a racist. But when you come to Africa, all the cops are black – and they do the same thing. It is therefore not a question of the officer himself being racist. It is the law enforcement institute itself that is racist.
That’s not just true of the police, he says. “Banks all over the world – you have the same story. The way Africans can’t get loans from banks in America and Europe – it’s the same with Africans who can’t get loans from Banks in Africa So called “Black Owned Banks” So it’s not a question of who owns the bank that pushes Africans out, it’s the banking institution itself who does this.
In addition to Sinéad O’Connor, Kuti has a long list of collaborators. He has worked with Chicago rapper Common and in September released an alternate version of his single Kuku Kee Me remixed by Black Thought, aka Roots rapper Tarik Luqmaan Trotter.
“It happened during lockdown,” he says of the Black Thought record. “Many artists could not express themselves artistically to the world. We began to express ourselves internally. Then you have clarity – you can talk to other artists. You share ideas. That’s exactly how it happened. »
And it is this spirit of collaboration that he will bring to Cork for the Jazz Festival. After a three-year hiatus due to Covid, Cork Jazz 2022 promises to be a date to remember. And Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 will be right there at the heart of the action, reminding us that the best music always finds its audience and that true art knows no boundaries.
- As part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 perform at the Everyman Theater on Saturday October 29; and live at St Lukes, Sunday 30 October