Revolutionary Musical Artist Seun Kuti Carries Fela’s Afrobeat Torch Into a New Era

Like his father, Seun Kuti describes himself as a revolutionary and he is a fierce critic of the corruption of Nigeria's rulers and the U.S. and transnational corporations that prop them up.

Photo: Alexis Maryon

Nigerian musical artist Seun Kuti is the youngest son of the legendary Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Like his father, Seun describes himself as a revolutionary and he is a fierce critic of the corruption of Nigeria’s rulers and the U.S. and transnational corporations that prop them up and exploit the country’s vast natural resources. Nigeria is a country also targeted in Donald Trump’s racist rants. Last month, according to the New York Times, Trump said that Nigerians in the U.S. would never “go back to their huts” if they came to the United States.

Seun’s father, Fela, was one of the most important musical performers of the modern time. He lived his life under various dictatorships in Nigeria and bravely chronicled their crimes in poetic lyrics backed up by massive orchestras. Fela was a genre of music unto himself and he pioneered the musical ideology of Afrobeat. Fela was regularly surveilled by the military juntas in Nigeria and he and his family and bandmates and community were subjected to raids and beatings and arrests. Fela died in 1997, but his revolutionary spirit lives on and, for people who really know his music, his influence can be heard across the globe in the music of artists who may not even know his name.

Seun Kuti’s forthcoming album, “Black Times,” is a mixture of the sounds and politics of his father’s era combined with a searing denunciation of the same power structures that persist to this day. Nigeria’s current ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, was also the country’s dictator when Fela was alive and had the singer jailed. Seun Kuti today is the band leader of the massive multi-instrument ensemble founded by Fela, the Egypt 80. When Seun was a small child, starting at age 9, he used to open for his father — backed up by the Egypt 80. When Fela died, Seun became its frontman at the age of 14. “Black Times” will be released in March. Seun’s music, like his father’s, is militant and made for people of struggle. Seun Kuti spoke to Intercepted from his native Nigeria.

Below is the audio and transcript of our interview. The audio includes sneak previews of some of the music from “Black Times.”

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Jeremy Scahill: Seun, welcome to Intercepted.

Seun Kuti: Yeah, thanks for having me on the show.

JS: So, I want to begin just by getting your response to the U.S. president Donald Trump calling Haiti and El Salvador and the entire continent of Africa a “shithole.”

SK: I think the problem that the Western media has Donald Trump is that he’s unmasking the system. You know? He’s unveiling the system for what it really is, and they don’t like that, because the Western system of global white domination depends a lot on plausible deniability, and Trump, in his ignorance, is erasing that.

The fact that Trump sees Africa as a shithole country is no different than — it’s nothing. Because words don’t hurt me, you know? I mean, I’m too tough for words to prick.

But I was surprised that the old liberal media is still silent about the atrocities that Obama committed in Libya, and Syria, and El Salvador, and all these same countries that everybody’s so pissed off about, some words being said about, Obama treated Africa like a shithole. Bush treated Africa like a shithole, you know? So just because Donald Trump articulates it, doesn’t mean I need to see something new. There’s nothing new to see. In fact, I think that’s a toning down of the things we’ve experienced.

If I’m just going to experience bad words from Trump, I prefer that to the actuality to being the shithole that past Western governments have made Africa to realize that it is, you know? So, I don’t think this is anything that anybody should be losing their mind over.

[“Don’t Give That Shit To Me” by Seun Kuti & Egypt 80]

JS: The new album that’s coming out in March has very revolutionary strands that run through it, where you’re invoking the name of various liberation fighters and freedom fighters. And it feels in a way like this album is aimed at a lot of young people globally.

SK: Well, for me it’s not only young people, I think it’s directed at the poor and working class people of the world. Listen to any head of state, any big-time leader in this world use the word “poor people.” They don’t say poor people anymore. They are completely erased out, because nobody lobbies for them, and there’s no representation whatsoever for the poor.

For me, I think this is a message for humanity, not only for young people to rise-up for humanity, to stand on the side of humanity. Like this whole trump brouhaha, Trump said this, Trump said that is just salty liberals. This is the way elites behave. They hate to lose anything.

When the liberals lose, the leadership turns salty, the elites turn salty in the group, they start to promote some kind of division. You know? And then everybody begins to repeats their narrative.

And this is what is really destroying the world: The fact that everybody regurgitates the narrative of the elite. You know, as if they care about the people, as if they care about the Earth, as if they care about our social constructs. They only care about the dollar.

I mean last year, the elites took 85 percent of the money that was generated in this world. one percent of the population of this world took 85 percent of the money that we generated last year. And it’s only going to rise, every other year, and that is the new outrage in the world, and that is what is causing so much pain, and that is what I want people to see.

I want my message not only to be as something that speaks for young people, but all people, so that we begin to speak with our narrative, we begin to say our own things. Because nobody else is saying those.

[“African Dreams” Seun Kuti & Egypt 80]

JS: The era when various African nations achieved independence is now, you know, many decades removed and it seems as though there is a sort of recolonization of African countries that is occurring through a combination of Western, white powers.

SK: The recolonization started immediately after the independence. But, you know, the Western media hailed the coup plotters as strong leadership, the kind of leaders Africa needed. You know, military dictatorships were entrenched, and strengthened by Western governments in Africa.

The ideology that give Africa its independence has long been betrayed. In my country today, Buhari is an 80-year-old general who was in this same military that destroyed our original dream in Africa. Because, you see, the African military is an occupying force. The African military in every country is not an army of the people. You have to understand, all of them are conscripted by the colonial masters trained to protect Western interests and they are still an occupying force in our countries still today.

You know, the modern army is not allowed to raise its own leaders. And, you know, when people tell me about how little progress Africa has made since its independence, I’m like, “Africa was not allowed to be independent.” As soon as we were independent, coups were planned all over the country, and nobody talks about that. There’s no outrage about that. And if we do not address unseen hand, I don’t think there’s any way we can get to the roots of the problem or the solutions to it.

JS: In the case of Nigeria, you have the most populist country in Africa, you have incredible mineral and natural resources, and yet Nigeria is constantly ruled by corrupt leaders who collaborate with, in particular, multinational oil corporations and American oil corporations that both literally kill Nigerians but also kill the land. What about the role of oil companies in propping up these dictatorships in Nigeria?

SK: Nigeria was colonized by a company, United Africa Company, UAC. This is how the West operates. They put a company. You know?

Now our problem is coming, can we compete with these companies? Impossible. These companies are not companies: They are governments. You know, Shell is a government. Chevron is a government. Texaco is a government. So, all companies are governments that, they have unlimited political backing by government. They are the arm of imperialism.

ITT is the company that America used to destroy the whole of South America. So that’s why I keep saying, until the people can stop their governments from imperialism, sabotaging the growth of indigenous people all over the world, they cannot be changed.

I mean, countries have been destroyed because of these people. Millions of people have been killed for these people to sell oil and take oil.

[“ITT” by Fela Kuti]

JS: Your father had his song “ITT” which, ITT of course, as you were you were referring to, it’s International Telephone and Telegraph, but your father changed it to “International Thief Thief.”

SK: Yes.

JS: As I’m listening to your music and your commentary about contemporary institutions like the International Monetary Fund and Western powers, you can definitely see the legacy of your father manifesting in your work today. What would you like to see happen in your home country of Nigeria given that Muhammadu Buhari, who is in power now, was also in power when your father was alive and this is his, you know, next go around. But what should happen in Nigeria, in your view?

SK: We need to organize and energize. You know, the indoctrination we have so far, to the motherland people, here on the continent, you know? The psychological damage that has happened over these periods that we’ve been under this subjugation and oppression, from within and without.

You know, because you have to understand, so many elites here perpetuating the same evils against the motherland people. So, we just need to energize and organize so we can embrace the reflection we see in the mirror.

For me, right now, I don’t even see Africa as the only home of motherland people. You know, everywhere all motherland people deserve the opportunities and the wealth of Africa. Africa should be used to better the life of motherland people, of its children that are scattered all over the world, due to the history of slavery and whatever happened in the past.

So, for me, I need an Africa that is looking inward. You know? To take our own destiny, you know, in our hands. So, this is what we get in Africa. You know, the narrative, you know, that sometimes there is an opportunity, America backs it, the media backs it, everybody spins with it, they sell it to the people, packaged. And we forget the essence that has been betrayed by those things. Justice must not be betrayed.

JS: Can you talk about your views and feelings about Afrobeat and what it represents today?

SK: Afrobeat is a movement, you know? Not just a musical movement, but a social, political movement to create an expression for the life of people.

The musical expression, Afrobeat is the musical expression of African existence.

JS: What was the concept that your father was employing when he would form these large, sort of orchestra-type ensembles where you had the dancers and so many musicians? What’s the philosophy behind that kind of performance?

SK: It’s simple — because music is social. You are blessed with the gift, you must empower as many people as you can. This is not a personal gift. Maybe, you know, you’re almost a slave to this gift. You know, big band music, you bring many musicians to eat and everybody can also make a living from that. And also, it gets you the big sound.

[“Corporate Public Control Department” by Sean Kuti & Egypt 80]

JS: What do you want people to take from the album that you’re giving in March?

SK: I want the world to — it’s solidarity, you know? I want to wish solidarity. You know? All people involved in all the struggles all over the world for the progress of humanity, for the progress of even our social development, you know that counters the narrative.

JS: How do you view your personal future? Are you going to run for a political office? Are you going to remain a revolutionary artist? What’s the future for you?

SK: I don’t know, man. The future is right now. You know? Right now. That’s it. It’s easy. Every second is the future. You know? So. I guess I’m still a revolutionary artist. [Laughs.]

JS: Alright.

SK: But seriously? What can I say?

JS: Yeah.

SK: It is what it is. I take it one step at a time and, I go where the ancestors lead me.

JS: Well, that’s a great note to leave it on. Thank you very much for joining us Intercepted.

SK: Thank you very much, man.

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