By Naila Francis
There’s no eluding the shadow.
If you’re going to follow in the footsteps of an icon, the comparisons are inevitable.
When that icon happens to be your father, the constant looking back can be as exasperating as it is encouraging.
But Seun (Shey-oon) Kuti, son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I know who I am. Even if I sell 100 million copies of my album, even if I tour the world six times, even if I win 70 Grammys, people will be talking about my dad. There’s no escaping it,” says the younger Kuti, who has even adopted his father’s second Yoruban name of Anikulapo (“I’ve got death in my quiver”) and references the legacy upon which he is building with his self-titled debut, “Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80.”
After years of singing and performing his late father’s songs, Kuti, who comes to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Saturday, has issued his own incendiary collection of politically pointed oeuvres that swing with all the brash militancy and invigorating dance rhythms of his father’s hallmark sound. “Seun Kuti,” released last week on Disorient Records, is an explosive attack on the corruption, ignorance, maladies and other ills ravaging contemporary Africa, the music a pressing and vibrant horn-saturated blend that brims with inventive guitars, keyboards, percussion and vocals.
That Egypt 80 is comprised of more than two-thirds of its original members, who for years played nightly at the Shrine nightclub at Fela’s Kalakuta commune in Lagos, Nigeria, keeps much of the band’s original sound in tact — the gritty funk-jazz fusion steeped in traditional African rhythms and chants that was pioneered by the elder Kuti.
And while his youngest son asserts that he is very much an individual, he is determined to maintain a certain degree of purity when it comes to preserving the kinetic big-band formula.
“Afrobeat is what I want to do. I don’t believe it has to sound like any other genres. They want to put hip-hop, soul, samba, Latin music to try to make it modern. I say Afrobeat is already modern,” says Kuti, who speaks, as he sings, with a muscular urgency. “Afrobeat is the future. All these other genres need to put Afrobeat into the music.”
Although he acknowledges a love for hip-hop, which along with rap, has gained sway over the Nigerian music scene in recent years, he is not a fan of much of what he hears in his homeland.
“In Africa today, the establishment supports hip-hop because the kind of hip-hop they do in Africa today is very … it’s light, it doesn’t teach you anything. It’s ignorant hip-hop that talks about rubbish,” he says. “But it’s what the establishment pushes. It is not a big threat to them, not opposition, not asking questions; it keeps people in the box they want them to be (in).
“Hip-hop doesn’t have a wider audience; it has a bigger commercial support. But Afrobeat, with or without support, will still carry on living because it’s the truth.
“Afrobeat is not a kind of music you just perform. It’s the kind of music you have to believe in. It’s a movement that takes over your life and it’s a personal movement as well.”
And so along with a musical legacy, Kuti has also inherited his father’s defiant outspokenness and inflammatory politics. “Many Things,” from his debut disc, lambastes governmental hypocrisy and the empty promises made by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, even including an excerpt from one of his speeches, while “Mosquito Song” decries the inexcusable prevalence of malaria due to corruption.
Already, Kuti, who recently teamed with Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour in a project to fight malaria, is feeling the consequence of his vocal censure.
“I was raided a few months ago before I came on tour,” says the singer and saxophonist, who still lives on the Kalakuta compound. “My brother (Femi, Fela’s oldest son and also a musician) was also raided as well because what we do is clear. But we just have to do it.”
Still, he hopes to avoid some of the more flagrant provocations that frequently landed his father in prison. Fela, who declared the compound that housed his family, band members and recording studio in Lagos the Kalakuta Republic and therefore independent from the Nigerian government, was one of Nigeria’s most controversial figures. He formed his own political party and was as fiercely supportive of human rights as he was critical of Nigeria’s militaristic governments.
But while his father’s politics were largely influenced by Pan-Africanism, Kuti takes a more encompassing approach.
“I’m a worldist,” he says. “I embrace all black culture everywhere in the world.”
Nor, despite a flamboyant stage presence, is he given to the wild antics of his father, who famously married 27 of his backup singers and dancers in 1978 and then later divorced them.
“There’s no way I’m half as crazy as my dad. There’s no way I can be as crazy as this man. I’m too modern. My dad was old school with the craziness,” says Kuti, laughing.
Yet for all his impassioned commitment to continue his father’s work, when Fela died in 1997 at 58, Kuti’s decision to take over the band was a spontaneous one. A “good sportsman,” he had figured he would work a 9-to-5 and then play music or soccer on the side. When the dissolution of Egypt 80 seemed imminent following his dad’s death, he stepped forward — at age 15.
“It became my responsibility to keep the band alive. I couldn’t pursue any other dream,” he says. “A lot of people in my family were saying, ‘We give you five years,’ or three years. Even the press was saying that. But it’s good to be able to believe in what you’re doing and then prove yourself. I feel vindicated. Being here today means we’re a strong musical force.”
– The Intelligencer