16.11.16

Fight for the Future: Seun Kuti of Egypt 80 finds the sweet spot for reinventing the liberal revolution



Talk about being at the wrong place at the right time. Just as the crumbling vibe of liberal democracy was revealing itself the week after the election of Donald Trump as president-elect, Seun Kuti, the youngest song of Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, had armed himself with a new single, "Gimme My Vote Back." Anticipating events, or at least picking up on the signals of the truly disturbing election year in America in 2016, Kuti and his large band entourage arrived in the country in San Francisco and headed into the Southwest for the first time, finding himself with a willing receiver of a political rant over the telephone as his tour bus crossed the desert for a show in Phoenix.

"Yeah man," he laughs. "I'm the middle of nowhere."

Asked about his impression of the states during his first days here, he needed little more than a simple question about how it felt for him to be in the U.S. just as history had been made. On the phone he was more than ready to answer the bell of global activism Egypt 80 is known for.

"We liberals need to look at ourselves, not complain about the results," he says. "The democratic establishment was not able to inspire the people's will. With a progressive candidate we wouldn't be where we are today. We are no longer revolutionary. We are reactionary, and we have to stop that. The liberals have to fight. We have to stand for something."

The single "Gimme My Vote Back" was influenced by Kuti's observance of the political season.

"The hate speech. The lack of trust. Once there was civility. In Africa we have had bad rulers, but we always knew where America was coming from," he says. "With this song I saw this relationship, but the goal of it was more than just about the election. When we vote for a candidate we give them our destiny. But now we need to take it back and give it to the people."

Such talk is in keeping the with message and music of Egypt 80. Seun Kuti became the lead singer for the group after his father died in 1997, taking on the mantle of human rights activist and charismatic performer just as his father had, at the age of 14, as if he were a young royal.

"I played with the band when I was eight years old," he says. "By the time my dad died, the band Egypt 80 had become a musical institution. Most of them had been in this band longer than I was alive. We all believed in the message and the music we made, and that's why we kept on doing it. It was a love with what we do."

An Egypt 80 concert is a relentless celebration, with long-distance pieces running into the double figures in minutes, beginning with extended intros as Kuti whirls around the stage, or unleashes spine-tingling jazz riffs on sax, always the center of attention, and the evolution of the Yoruban tradition with each completely aerobic action launching the audience into a dancing frenzy. Then comes the call and response of the background singers, two females in somewhat modernized traditional outfits, shaking it, and the rest of the song constantly punctuated by an apocalyptic horn section.

Shows consist of new material and older material dating back to the days his father led the band. Many of those older dancing raves have had a larger impact on Western rock than many people might realize, especially progressive rock as it moved out of the classical, renaissance and Elizabethan folk of the early 1970s into a kind of pan-African appropriation, much in the same way the blues had invigorated pop in England a decade before. It was the music of Fela Kuti going back the 1970s, who also inspired the Broadway show, "Fela," that impacted such art rock bands as the Talking Heads, Roxy Music and the reformed King Crimson. During that time, Peter Gabriel stated Fela Kuti was one of the most progressive rockers he'd ever heard. Such albums as the Talking Heads "Remain in Light" and King Crimson's "Discipline" showed how Kuti's Afrobeat sound had brought new energy to post-prog rock, and it would be hard to imagine Gabriel finding his voice in the 1980s without adopting Africa's humanistic world music appeal.

Most of the current Egypt 80 lineup played with Fela Kuti and still carry the scars of years of persecution, having been arrested and harassed by governments in Nigeria.

One example of the kind of tribulations band members experienced occurred in 1977, after Kuti had created a commune called the Kalakuta Republic with his dozens of wives, family members and followers of the singer's mystical brand of Yoruban religion. According to Wikipedia, "In 1977, Fela and the Afrika '70 released the album 'Zombie,' a scathing attack on Nigerian soldiers using the zombie metaphor to describe the methods of the Nigerian military. The album was a smash hit and infuriated the government, setting off a vicious attack against the Kalakuta Republic, during which one thousand soldiers attacked (Kuti's) commune. Fela was severely beaten, and his elderly mother (whose house was located opposite the commune) was thrown from a window, causing fatal injuries. The Kalakuta Republic was burned, and Fela's studio, instruments, and master tapes were destroyed. Fela claimed that he would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of a commanding officer as he was being beaten. Fela's response to the attack was to deliver his mother's coffin to the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, General Olusegun Obasanjo's residence, and to write two songs, 'Coffin for Head of State' and 'Unknown Soldier', referencing the official inquiry that claimed the commune had been destroyed by an unknown soldier."
Seun Kuti's politically charged new three-song EP, “Struggle Sounds,” stays on the revolutionary road first paved by his father. It includes the explosive song “Gimme My Vote Back (C.P.C.D.)” (short for Corporate Public Control Department).

“More than ever we are convinced of our mission and the purpose of our music,” Seun recently stated. “The ‘Struggle Sounds’ EP is a true reflection of my social and political beliefs. I give honor to my parents and every revolutionary who made this possible even before I was born.”

On the song he sings "“Every few years politicians come. They come from the left and come from the right ... They come with their party and their media. With their same lies and promises … they come with their politics of hate and them take and divide us.”

As the interview neared its end, with Kuti barely taking a breath, he still barely needed any questions to keep on going.

"We are more than just what we do," he says. "I am a father, a son, a musician. So I want to be relevant as a musician. We want everyone to have a good opportunity. Which was what the elite doesn't understand because they are so greedy.

"Sometimes it makes me so crazy in the world, you just need to speak out. Changes are taking too long. What Africa needs is a different situation. By 2060 sixty-five percent of my country will be under the age of 35. Youth will be a part of the world's natural resource. So we need to sacrifice now so the children can enjoy the future."