In Louisiana, the pressures of carrying on a parent’s musical legacy are well known. Ivan and Ian Neville, the Marsalis brothers and numerous Cajun artists have worked hard to match their historic pedigrees. But there’s even more pressure when your father is Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian creator of Afrobeat—a mix of funk, jazz, and African highlife—whose musical and political influence has been reached by few beyond James Brown or Bob Marley.
Fela’s youngest son, Seun, first became known to international audiences four years ago with the release of his self-titled debut album. At 29 years old though, he is an Afrobeat veteran. Raised in his father’s communal compound in Lagos, he grew up among Fela’s many wives, musicians, friends and visitors. When his father passed away in 1997, it was Seun who assumed the task of leading the famed Egypt 80 band despite being only 14. After taking a hiatus for music college in Liverpool, England, he returned to the band to record his debut, released in 2008.
As scores of modern American and European Afrobeat bands have emerged in the past decade, Seun has brought a level of authenticity to the field, leading an Egypt 80 lineup that still includes many Fela veterans. Baritone saxophonist Lekan Animashaun’s 40-plus-year career includes recording on Seun’s 2011 album, From Africa with Fury: Rise, as well as Fela’s 1971 LP, Fela Ransome-Kuti & the Africa ‘70 with Ginger Baker—Live!
Seun stays true to his Afrobeat roots, but he’s also expanded his global network with collaborations that reach outside that world. In the past few years, he has been featured on Puerto Rican hip-hop and reggaeton group Calle 13’s “Todo Se Mueve”, Nigerian dancehall singer Blackface’s “Good Life”, German reggae artist Patrice’s “No Screwface”, and “Sur Les Traces de Fela” a tribute to his father by Mokobé, a French rapper of Malian descent.
You’re obviously asked about your father a lot, but tell me a little about your mother.
My mother was my pillar of support after my father died. I had to go through trials and tribulations because I kept playing with [Fela’s] band. So many people wanted that band to die. I don’t know why really; maybe the government got to them. But my mother was always there saying, “You know what you’re doing is right. Keep doing what you’re doing.” She was there for me. I think my mom believed in me more than I believed in myself. She was a good woman. My mom was one of only two women who never left my father for one day. My mom was with my dad for 22 years.
Was she part of his band?
Yes, she used to sing. She was a backup singer. And she was my singer as well.
Was it difficult to lead Fela’s Egypt 80 band when you were only 14?
Yes, nothing good comes easy you know. Any time you make the right decision, it is always hard—so this was quite hard. Everybody in the band had known me since I was a child, and my dad had always told me that if you are positive, and you carry yourself with respect, people will respect you. I believed in what the band stood for.
Do you have special childhood memories of your father that you often think back on?
All the memories I have of him are quite special because he is no longer with me. Even the bad memories are special memories. My fondest times with my father are when I would sit with him and he would teach me stuff and talk to me about life. Even though I couldn’t fully grasp them then, he taught me the big lessons about how I live my life. But my fondest memories—at the same time, they have become my biggest regret, because when I remember these times I spent with my father, there were lots of lessons. All I think to myself now is that I wish I was this old and this wise and understood the world as much as I do now, rather than a 10-, 9-, 8-year-old boy, and [I think of] the conversations we could have had.
What particular lessons did he teach you that stand out?
I think all his lessons are important in my life, but probably the most important thing he taught me is to believe in equality. That nobody is more special than anybody else. At Kalakuta [Republic, Fela’s compound], everybody was treated equal. That is one of the deepest lessons given to me. I have never thought of myself as more important than anybody else because of who I am or what I have.
Growing up in the environment of Kalakuta must have been a lesson in and of itself.
Kalakuta is a university—the University of Life. It’s the University of Real Shit [laughs].
Who taught you to play saxophone? Your father, other band members, or just people around Kalakuta?
I taught myself everything I know on the saxophone, but I was classically trained on the piano. I started the piano in grade five, then I picked up the sax, and I started teaching myself because I had the knowledge of music already.
People of course compare you to your father, but what is the biggest difference between you and him?
Our religious beliefs. My dad was a believer in traditional African religion, and I’m an atheist.
Did you ever rebel against your roots in Afrobeat?
No, no, never. As a young man, I enjoyed other forms of music as well. When I was a little boy, I watched hip-hop bands and I watched rock bands, but I always believed that only Afrobeat had the power to keep the message going.
It sounds like you listen to a lot of hip-hop, do you have any favorites?
Well, not a lot these days. Hip-hop is no longer hip-hop. These days, there’s no line that distances hip-hop from pop music. It’s all the same. Everybody is singing with auto-tune. I’m like, “Where’s the hip-hop, man?” You know?
In the United States, political music is not as prominent as it was when Fela first came to America in the late 1960s. Do you feel as if you have a familial responsibility to carry on the political fight in your music?
No, no, no. This is what I believe in, this is what I do. It’s not because I’m from Fela’s family. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, as you rightly said, music was very political. This is the reason why the corporations had to buy the music. Every major record label is owned in part by some big, multi-national corporation now. They realized the power of music because the world was getting hard to govern. People were being educated by music, so they could not sell their bullshit to the world. So they had to buy music to beat us. After buying the music companies, the only artists that they signed were artists who were willing to be vendors for other goods of these multi-national corporations. So they own music creators, they own artists, and they use these artists to sell other products. Popular music and mainstream music has been bought.
You’ve said that first and foremost you want Africans to understand your music, and you want everybody else to feel your music. What is the most important thing that you want Africans to understand?
We have to understand that we have to begin to think as Africans first. We have to be able to make decisions. Because Africa, for 400 years, has not represented the African people, only the interests of multi-national corporations, Western governments, and a few African puppets. We have to start believing in Africa and look for an Africa that will begin to represent us before it’s too late.
It seems as though many Americans also understand that message because even though it’s not the same as in Africa, the United States, especially recently, has also struggled with the power of corporations.
Let me tell you what is happening. The gap in the world and our differences are reducing. The gap in our suffering is reducing. People who grew up in America are beginning to experience what we are going through in Africa. As I said, they are just beginning. But my message is true all over the world. It’s no longer just about the African struggle; I think it’s about the whole world right now. It is us, 90 percent against 10 percent. That is what’s going on all over the world. That’s why [those in power] are using news corporations and the media to promote our differences—so that the people of the world do not see that we are going through the same thing and stand up as one against them. They keep promoting black/white, Christian/Muslim, Jew/Arab. As soon as people look beyond those superficial differences, they’ll see the true meaning of humanity. That we’re the same. We’re going through the same shit, I tell you.
Are the concerts you play in the United States much different from the ones you play at home in Lagos?
They are way shorter! [laughs] At home we play for six hours.
That’s even longer than people play here.
Yeah, in Nigeria, man, we go to jam.