14 August 2017
The son of the Afrobeat revolutionary spoke to academic and author Michael Veal about how he carries his father’s message
Day two of the Rototom Reggae University moved deeper into the festival’s ‘Celebrating Africa’ theme – putting Nigerian music centre stage.
Regular panellists David Katz and Pier Tosi welcomed two distinguished authorities on African music. Seun Kuti, musician and son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, engaged in a frank, politically charged conversation with Yale ethnomusicologist and Fela biographer Michael Veal.
As background, the University screened the Swedish documentary ‘Fonko’ on the music of Nigeria. Narrated by rapper Neneh Cherry, it contrasted the rise of modern Nigerian pop with Fela’s 1970s struggles against the country’s military dictatorship. Seun and his brother Femi were interviewed on their unstable early life in the face of persecution.
Seun then explained in person that although he and his father’s band Egypt 80 would play a special show of Fela’s music on the main stage– the group“had never split”. Imitating his dad’s intense tones, he repeatedFela’s maxim “my band is the most important thing to me”.
He recalled that growing up in his father’s Kalakuta camp (which Fela defiantly declared an independent republic) was stranger “from the outside– it was all I knew”. His father had mellowed by age 44 when he was born. Fela died when Seun was 14 “before I had a chance to rebel”.
Describing Fela as “the most important African musician of his generation” Professor Veal contextualised him as a break with the African tradition of praising the powerful in music. Seun said that today, when Nigeria is ostensibly a democracy, most musicians use their songs to praise consumerism and the American dream. His own revolutionarymessages were not attacked by the authorities but shut out of Nigerian media platforms. “A tumbleweed is worse than being thrown in jail”.
Referencing police brutality in America he bluntly stated “inAfricablack cops shoot black people every day”. He also raised a topicthe Fonko documentary seemed to miss – that the colonial creation of Nigeria around multiple cultures was a factor in its wealth gap andinstability. “I am Yoruba – my culture existed thousands of years before 1914”.
On the subject of Rototom’s Celebrating Africa theme he tackled another unspoken truth – lack of unity in the diaspora.Despite his father keeping the company of Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff, Reggae and Nigerian music rarely appear in the same venue.“Reggae is African music,” he said“Jamaicans are African people taken by force making African music in Jamaica. I’m in the right place”. As if to underscore the point, a spectator waved a Nigerian and Jamaican flag on a single pole.