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Seun Kuti, his father’s son and a man of his own
Seun Kuti is a man heading towards greatness. Find out all about him in this exclusive interview with Pulse.
Seun Kuti‘s lineage is as great as it gets. He is the great-grandson of Reverend Canon Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, the first Nigerian to record and release an album.
His grandmother is arguably Nigeria’s foremost feminist, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the woman who made a king go into exile.
Yeah, and he is the son of Nigeria’s rock god/greatest musician/iconic rabble-rouser, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Afrobeat creator. The lineage is strong and proud.
36-year-old Seun Kuti is the leader of the Egypt ’80 band, (or as he refers to it “an African musical institution“) which has an unrivaled great legacy.
During my interview with him at his crib in the suburbs of Ikeja, ‘Big Bird Kuti‘ as he calls himself on the ‘gram, puts things into perspective.
“I have been in the band since I was 8. It is more complicated for people when they are outside looking in than for people like me that are inside. Being in Egypt ’80 has always been a part of me. It’s the 28th year I have been in the band, and I am 36. I have been in the band all my life basically” says Seun Kuti.
For all his years in the game, Seun Kuti just notched his first Grammy nomination last December. Don’t get it twisted despite this milestone, Seun Kuti feels like he is not a vet even though he is the voice of the legendary and storied Afrobeat band.
“...This is just my fourth album but my band (Egypt ’80) this is their 54th album.
“I told them ‘finally you guys get a nomination after 54 records.’ It’s not only for me, but my father’s band has finally gotten a nomination as well. It is a win-win for us” he explains.
Seun Kuti is in Los Angeles now to embark on a new tour. He will also be performing at the Grammys on Sunday, February 10, 2019. Grammy nominations are not new to the Kuti clan.
His older brother, Femi Kuti has had four Grammy nominations. Will Seun be the one to break the duck?
“Well you know, we are in it to win it. Is that not how they say? Yeah, I don’t think it is beyond us to win” he admits but he isn’t totally fazed by the nomination.
“For me, it is not about the validation of the Grammys alone, but it is more important to gain the validation of my people and the class of people that I represent,” he says.
There should be no doubt he takes his Grammy nomination seriously because to him “it is a validation from my peers to match the validation that I believe that I receive from my people and that the class that I feel I represent.”
Two months ago, during the flurry of music concerts and festivals known as ‘Detty December‘ in Lagos, Seun Kuti had quite a number of gigs.
I ask him if there is now an upswing in the number of young Nigerians appreciating his music since he usually plays abroad to a foreign audience.
“I think if they are exposed more to music they would appreciate it. I think it is a matter of exposure and visibility. I think our entire media, and not only in Nigeria really, I think it is a global phenomenon that people that own and control the media, that control the institutions of influence, want the world to see things from their perspective. They want their narrative to dominate society. In all the media that they own, they want the things that represent them to be showcased” he says.
Seun Kuti further explains that Nigerians should be exposed to alternative genres of music especially those with a black narrative. “We shouldn’t stay on one plane and one basic level” Seun Kuti adds.
He might be the man right now with a Grammy nod, another overseas tour and regular gigs in his home country but this rock star has no airs about him. He lives modestly. His living room is so plain and deceptive, you wouldn’t think that one of Nigeria’s biggest music export lives here but he does.
However, when you soak in the vibe of his living room, you notice something striking, a red Che Guevara flag pinned to one of the walls. This indicates that just like his grandmother, father and older brother, he is a revolutionary.
Seun Kuti is quite vocal on social media. He is not afraid to express his views on political controversies and issues affecting millions of Nigerians. He uses his trademark IG hashtag #GetTheSax (an interpolation of rapper 50 Cent‘s #GetTheStrap) when he is airing his thoughts on key issues.
I prod him towards the upcoming elections. On Saturday, February 16, 2019, millions of Nigerians will head to the polls. Seun Kuti tells me he won’t mention specific names concerning the elections. He prefers to speak holistically about it.
“I am looking at how we engage with the election because of the way the political and business elite from Nigeria have indoctrinated the people,” he says.
Seun Kuti is woke to the political game because he comes from a political lineage. He says more Nigerian families need the political experience to pass on to the younger generation.
He understands that Nigerian democracy is just two decades old and it will take time for our politics to be multi-dimensional. “In Nigeria, in our politics, we don’t even have a liberal or conservative sides…that’s where everyone is stacked. We are not even matured enough to have an opposing idea to the status quo” he says.
Kuti further says that “this generation of Nigerians should become more politicized not in terms of voting but in terms of class consciousness, understanding the difference between business and political elites and we the working class and poor people. We need not to aspire and dream to the same things they are aspiring and dreaming too. This is what is keeping the majority of us down.“
With his trained eye, he picks out the flaw in most Nigerians, individualism over the greater good. “I see the majority of Nigerians really don’t want a better Nigeria.
“They want a better self. They want to replace the oppressor. They don’t mind getting jobs in the banks and helping the oppressor launder money. As long as they get their jobs, Nigeria don better be that” he observes.
We then speak on spirituality and how it affects his day to day life. For one, Seun Kuti doesn’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo prophecies of Astrology and zodiac signs.
He also doesn’t believe “in any type of creator, per-ordained destiny and those kinds of things.” He defines his spirituality as “elevating from surviving to thriving.“
Seun Kuti further breaks down this concept to me. “My spirituality has to do more with the harmony of man and his space. And not only the space we occupy but our mental space and also space, the universe, the cosmos itself and what it means to our own existence, not in terms of the zodiac, astrology.
“Spirituality for me is harmony, let’s find a way we can have…even in our own mundane existential so-called problems we have to find those harmonies, economical harmonies, medical harmonies. We have to find a way to make it work for everybody. It is that harmony that is spirituality for me” he says.
Seun Kuti also has an affinity for African religious institutions as well. That’s pretty obvious by looking at his left arm. He has the word ANTI inscribed on his skin with the A representing the All Seeing Eye of Horus.
“Many of our histories are told by folklore and they are tied into the worship of the gods. Understanding those poems and folklore is part of how we have also lived in this space we occupy that is currently called Nigeria. Understanding, that is self. A man with no culture is a savage” he states.
Seun Kuti is a thinker and this is obvious by his train of thought that meanders seamlessly into different topics. When I ask him how he relaxes, he deviates into a commentary on gender equality, the shackles of religion and monogamy.
According to him, the subjugation of women was handed over to us by Europeans.
“‘A woman’s place is in the kitchen‘, this is an European proverb. It’s an European saying with no equivalent in any African language that I know. I am Yoruba and I know it does not exist.
“These people brought the subjugation of women and taught us and instilled it in us, made sure the people that adhered to it rose up to the top of society. Women were liberated. They had money in our society. They went to the farm, (they were) working” he tells me.
He also bashes religion for holding down women also, “I am more for things that have equal gender participation. I want us to remove all the subjugation that we learnt from Europeans from our society” he says.
Seun Kuti has a 5-year-old daughter, Adara Kuti. “My dad didn’t use to lie to me so I try not to lie to my daughter. My dad was honest and he was always at home. I try as much as possible to be there for my kids” he tells me as he explains what he learnt from Fela with regards to fatherhood.
Going down memory lane he says this about his relationship with his father, “Fela was a perfect dad for me because by the time he had me he was old. He was in his late 40s, by the time I was 10 he was already in his 50s. He was always at home and we had a great relationship. I have a lot of lessons I learnt from him.“
Seun Kuti learnt more than parenting skills from Fela. Going on tours with his dad led him down this path.
In 1989, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti performed at the famed Apollo Theatre. After his performance, Seun Kuti was inspired to become a musician.
Big Bird Kuti remembers the day like it was yesterday. He starts by revealing a quip about his legendary dad. “Fela used to be one of those people who used to get paid in cash. There were no wireless transfers back then and if they existed back then I am sure won’t use them. He didn’t take cheques. Every show he did, they brought his money cash.
“Fela will be on stage playing his music having a good time. After every show, there would be money everywhere, girls everywhere. I thought ‘wow this is the best and easiest job ever!’ You get this money, you have all these people that love you around, they are playing your music, and you are always having fun.“
The life of a rock star appealed to him. After the show, he walked up to his father.
“I told him I wanted to start singing and he said ‘so you want to sing? Can you sing?’ and I said ‘yes’.
“He now told me to sing a song and I sang ‘Sorrow, Tears & Blood’. He said my rendition wasn’t bad and ‘when you get to Lagos rehearse with the band’. And that’s how I started singing with the band.“
Seun Kuti got the money and the fame he wanted quickly. He started getting paid for being a member of the Egypt ’80. N200 for an 8-year-old in 1989 was serious money.
The flow of cash did not stop there. Every Friday night at the old Afrikan Shrine in Pebble Street, Ikeja, he would open for his father, performing a couple of songs.
“Then all my dad’s friends and my fans at the shrine…because I had my own fan base too. They used to come and watch me because I used to open the shows for my dad too, perform one or two songs.
“I kid you not, I might have like N700, N800, on a Saturday morning. My mom would say ‘let me help you keep it’. She would take everything and give me N200. I wasn’t worried, she could keep the rest.“
Also, he had pocket money from Fela. Seun Kuti had been balling since day one.
Then on August 2, 1997, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti passed away. All of a sudden, a 14-year-old prodigy found himself as the leader of the Egypt ’80. Talk about pressure.
Initially in it for the thrill, music now became a profession for Seun. “Music became like tough after my father died, and I had to be the only one doing the whole show and that wasn’t my responsibility before,” he says.
The criticisms and comparisons came fast and thick. A mob of music listeners saw no wrong in comparing a teenager to a legendary multi-instrumentalist and composer like Fela.
Seun Kuti has never allowed those snide remarks to affect him. He brashly says “anybody that compares me and my dad is just stupid.“
“I always said that people that always did that were stupid. First of all, I was 14 when my father died. People were comparing me at 14 to a master like my father.
“At that point, I knew that people were stupid. Generally, in all my life, they have not disappointed or let me down with that opinion. That is that” he says firmly.
The comparison is not unique to Seun. Femi Kuti was also a target of those criticisms. For people outside, they hold a simplistic view of something so complicated.
“When people say he is his father’s son, I say that’s really a basic way, an overly simplified to look at what I have done in my life” Seun Kuti explains.
He has done enough to stand out as his own man. On his last album ‘Black Times‘, Seun Kuti featured the great guitarist Carlos Santana who shares the record with Michael Jackson for winning the most Grammys in one night, eight.
“Carlos (Santana) wrote about me in his autobiography and he quoted lyrics from my song so when we found out I was like ‘if I am in Carlos’ radar that much that he listened to my music so much that he is quoting me in his music let’s try and get in touch and see if we can make music together‘.
“I reached out to him and he was really benevolent about it. He was a really an open guy at least to me” says Seun Kuti on how he hooked up with Carlos Santana.
The gist now becomes funny as he confesses that 71-year-old Santana whooped him in a game of basketball in his home in Las Vegas. Seun Kuti quickly adds, jokingly, that Santana was more conversant with the court that was why he was able to defeat him.
Carlos Santana was benevolent to Seun Kuti by clearing their collaboration for free.
When composing music, Seun Kuti does not record in spurts like most artists who pick songs from their stash when its time to put together an album. He prefers to compose songs all at once for his body of work.
He further lets me into what it takes to create music. “It takes a lot to create something and as a musician, songwriter, arranger, instrumentalist, you ought to have a bit of creator’s complex. You have to believe that it is a special thing. That’s the gift- to make something that has never existed before.
“For me, you have to go into your creator mode and when I am in that zone every other thing works itself out.“
When not in his god mode creating music or touring, Seun Kuti relaxes.
Big Bird Kuti is an ardent Arsenal football fan. Wearing a blue Arsenal jersey, he admits that he loves playing football games. I count nine PS4 pads in his living room.
“I play a lot FIFA. As a matter of fact, I want to exact revenge on someone who beat me but he has run away because he knows I have gone to recharge” he jokes.
Seun Kuti confesses that he does not play much football these days because he is 36. He jokingly says that he is now a coach and is working on getting his coaching badges. Really though, Seun Kuti invests in a local team in his neighbourhood as a way of giving back and helping his community grow.
His dream is to see a neighbourhood kid in his team one day play in the Premier League.
Apart from football he also likes reading. “Reading helps me relax and it takes me somewhere else. I read political books.
“I used to read theological books but there is so much you can use to investigate so much theology before it is false and you don’t need anymore. It is like hammering the same coffin. When you are enlightened you have to let it go” he says.
Our conversation winds down and Seun Kuti gets up to head out for an important meeting with his entourage gathered in his home. I shoot him a question on the road outside his crib. What is the future of Afrobeat?
His nephew, 22-year-old Made Kuti has started playing in his father’s band ‘The Positive Force‘ and is being groomed to be the next Afrobeat star from the Kuti dynasty. “For me Made is a great hope for Afrobeat music,” says Seun about his nephew.
He admits that as per the ‘Egypt 80, it might not even be a Kuti that will lead the band after him.
Seun Kuti is optimistic about the future of Afrobeat music. “I think a lot of Nigerians we see in Nigeria are playing pop music or being Hip-Hop or producing because they can’t really afford a band, but there will come a time in this country when there will be a grant for people like that, and there would be community centers where they can play, rehearse just like any place in the world where there are many Afrobeat bands coming up” he explains.
Despite having a famous last name, Seun Kuti has worked for everything he has, the accolades and the fame.
It wasn’t easy at first, “we would play a show and maybe like 20 people, 10 people would show up. I knew because I saw the tickets. I realized pretty early that even if the people that show up are 10 or 20, do a good show. I am ready to do a show if there are only three people there” he reveals.
It is with that dedication and hard work he has paved a way from himself.
Even the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of legends have to put in the work to make a name for themselves. Nothing is given. “You have to be two times good as you think. You need to be two times better than the next guy” he utters.
Seun Kuti might be his father’s son but he has clearly shown he is a man of his own. Get the sax!