For Seun Kuti growing up in the shadow of a famous father was more blessing than curse. “I am used to being my father’s son,” the singer and political activist laughs down the line 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 combines African music with American jazz and blues. He is carrying on his father’s legacy in a highly visible way by fronting Fela’s group, Egypt 80, whom he brings to Ireland for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. In Nigeria, there is an assumption that Seun “inherited” Egypt 80 from his dad upon his death in 1997. In fact, the process was carrying on was more organic and informal.
“I’ve been in the band since I was eight. I used to go and do shows with my dad. From when I was 14 to the day 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 wasn’t a rule: ‘Oh Seun has to be the one’. Of all the the kids, I was the one who could work with the band or keep the spirit going. It was never imposed. That’s what I love about it — we chose each other.”
He and Egypt 80 have played Ireland previously and his memories of those occasions are warm. As are his recollections of working with Sinéad O’Connor, with whom he duetted on her 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 up to jump on the track. I was truly honoured. We knocked out in a few hours. Sinéad — her soul is searching for that which transcends her. She was always going to go above and beyond 'self', which is something 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 Movement of the People (MOP) — which had the goal of “cleaning up society like a mop” (hence the acronym).
MOP was revived by Seun several years ago and he is a regular presence on Nigerian television, calling out corruption and criticising the embedded elites who control the country and its wealth. He feels that every musician should have a political component to their work: otherwise what is it all for?
“Everything in this world is political,” he says. “Many artists in the world are content to hide, to disavow their responsibility towards humanity or towards nature. Towards the future of this planet. For me, the mainstream, the corporations — they like those kind of artists, who can distract people. Make them [the audience] blame themselves for the ills of the world. Instead of facing the true evil destroying the world, which is imperialism, capitalism, oppression.
"The exploitation and oppression of large number of working class people over the world. As an artist, it is very important to my well being that I am honest to my existence. And that my existence is captured by my art.”
He also feels it is important to combat negative stereotypes. “Lagos is quite a vibrant city. It has 12 million of more. But there's corruption everywhere. I’m not one who buys into rhetoric where the actions of a few are used to paint the whole of a nation in a certain light.”
He contrasts the way in which people from around the globe are, or are not, caricatured. “Nobody goes around saying Americans are all baby-killers because people in America go into schools and kill people every week. A few Africans commit a crime and then everyone from that region is bad. There are 200 million people in Nigeria. Maybe 300 million in the world. If we were truly bad, the world would know.”
He’s been keeping busy since lockdown. Kuti has also been reflecting on the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, which were as seismic in Lagos as anywhere else in the world.
“Black Lives Matter was a big thing in Nigeria. It inspired us to understand that we, as African people, need to organise ourselves and stand up. One of the African manifestations of Black Lives Matter was the SARS protests in Nigeria [SARS standing for Special Anti-Robbery Squad]. Which were also grounded in police brutality. This is where you have to understand what African people are going through all over the world is systemic.”
He believes racism is largely systemic rather than about individuals and their prejudices. “When we see cops brutalising African people in America or Europe, maybe you understand it 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’re doing the same thing. So it’s not about the officer himself being racist. It’s the institute of policing itself that is racist.”
This isn’t just true of policing he says. “The banks all over the world — you have the same story. The way African people cannot get loans in banks in America and Europe — it’s the same with Africans not able to get loans from banks in Africa. From so-called 'black-owned banks'. So it’s not about who owns the bank sidelining African people. It is the institution of banking itself that does that.”
In addition to Sinéad O’Connor, Kuti has a long list of collaborators. He’s worked with Chicago rapper Common and in September released an alternative version of his single Kuku Kee Me remixed by Black Thought, aka Roots rapper Tarik Luqmaan Trotter.
“That came about during lockdown,” he says of the Black Thought record. “Many artists couldn’t express themselves artistically to the world. We started expressing ourselves inwardly. In that moment you have clarity – you can talk to other artists. You guys are sharing ideas. That’s exactly how that came about.”
And it is that spirit of collaboration which he will bring to Cork for the Jazz Festival. After a three-year hiatus due to Covid, Cork Jazz 2022 promises to be a coming-together to remember. And Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 will be there at the heart of the action, reminding us that the best music always finds its audience and that true art knows no borders.
- As part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival, Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80 play the Everyman Theatre on Saturday, October 29; and Live at St Lukes, Sunday, October 30