A Conversation with Kuti

In place of this month’s Rhythm & Values article, Jordy has the pleasure of speaking with Seun Kuti directly after his spine shaking headline set at Liverpool’s own Africa Oyé, the UK’s largest free celebration of African music and culture. Kuti takes the time to talk about his connection to Liverpool, Movement of the People, and the state of music as we know it.

“What LA was to my father, Liverpool was to me.”

Mark McNulty

With the rain tearing at a rate of knots throughout the Sunday, an unfortunate shift from Saturday’s accurate representation of a summers day, those with their fingers on afrobeat’s pulse knew to wait the storm out for the genre’s visionary and Africa Oyé headliner, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80. The rain would soon evaporate from the audience as a bi-product of the spell Kuti was about to cast over them. With his music comes movement, and with that movement comes legacy. If you don’t know who Seun Kuti is, a brief history places him as the legendary Fela Kuti’s youngest son. Opening for his fathers band at the age of eight in The Shrine, the infamous club at Fela’s communal compound ‘Kalakuta Republic’, Seun quickly found himself being referred to as ‘The Prince of Afrobeat’. Fully embracing the title, Seun steeped himself in the political charge his father radiated and has carried and evolved that energy into his own unique voice of reason and freedom.

When his father passed away when he was just 14 in 1997, Seun soon took to the daunting role of leading the legendary Egypt 80. Seun says peppered with laughter, ‘I am a product of nepotism I cannot lie, to be eight and playing with Egypt 80, it’s because your dad owns the band!’ Though Seun frequently humbled himself in this way, in the short time spent one on one with him he displayed only the stature of someone who is no one but themselves. His father’s legacy is not one of a looming shadow that demands Seun to seek validation from it, nor to mimic it exactly, but only to build upon it and respect it. Staying true to the word of that evolution Kuti explains after being asked about his favourite live performance “Tonight! What do you want me to say!” He laughs “The last concert has to be the best concert.” Splitting the set between his father’s stalwart material and his own accomplished discography, Seun and Egypt 80 ruled the rain by adorning the audience with his father’s trademark style of lengthy composition and mesmerising motifs. Kuti dancing lengths of the stage conducts the band with both body and voice. Whether it be clear bellows and sweeping strikes with his arms, or a subtle lift of his brow and a sharp cutting of his breath. The band is made up of veterans and young bloods with the legacy of a king on their shoulders. A phenomenal metronomic hive mind.

Mark McNulty

On stage, Seun talks of fond memories of Sefton Park saying “there’s lots of joy here, it’s so good to be back in this park where I used to play football with my friends. Scored a lot of goals here, I don’t play around!” Many in the crowd were just finding out about Seun’s very personal connection to Liverpool after studying here at LIPA twenty years ago. As he darts off stage in his bright red robe after playing his last song, Kuti leaps to his cabin whilst exclaiming to those of us waiting to speak to him, “give me one second, I need my fire water!” I first asked of his connection to Liverpool and what it’s like to perform at the festival, he quickly responded with “To come back here and play Africa Oyé, the biggest African festival, really feels like a 360 moment.” He followed up with “What LA was to my father, Liverpool was to me.” He’s referring here to his father’s critical time in LA where he learnt his chops playing six nights a week in the Citadel de Haiti on Sunset Boulevard, and also where he laid down his first records including “The ’69 Los Angeles Session’. Liverpool is where Seun met his peers, learnt his own chops, and started to carve out his own path. He realised when he started playing the scene here in Liverpool two decades ago that he “wasn’t so bad a player after all!” Though, when you have the giants of Egypt 80 to compare yourself to throughout your adolescence, any one person would pale in their technical shadow. Seun talked about partying in the Karma Club on Allerton Road, elated to find out from a passerby listening in backstage that it’s supposedly still standing, to which he responded “that was my spot! But my favourite place in Liverpool when I was here was The Red Bar in LIPA, but they’re actually tearing it down right now!”

On a more serious note, considering the dense political themes laced throughout his music, I wanted to excavate Seun’s stance on political reform and his opinion on the UK’s slew of protests and the government’s attempts to gag them. “No country allows protest, that’s the truth. If you come out to protest in mass in the UK, France, Africa, wherever, they’re gonna squash that shit” punching his fist into his hand. Controversially, Kuti talks about his lack of belief in activism and the common social justice warrior. “You have to really make the decision to become a revolutionary. Becoming a revolutionary has nothing to do with the mass noise of activism or social justice. It has to do with changing the system by any means necessary.” The ‘mass noise’ Kuti is referencing would include the UK junior doctors and the rail workers striking for more benefits, fairer work place environments and higher wages. What Kuti is calling for is an upheaval of the cruel and oppressive global force controlled by the minority. It’s not about asking for a bigger share, it’s about demanding effective change. Kuti throws his hands up like a satirical cheerleader chanting “Keep the oppression going!”

Though, there is hope in Kuti’s seemingly nihilistic despair in the current state of activism. There is power in numbers, but to gather those numbers there must be a collective cause to believe in. In 1979, the left wing pan-African political party Movement of the People, founded by Fela Kuti, was meant to be that collective cause. Fela said M.O.P was “to clean up society like a mop”, though due to governmental pressure resulting in the refusal of his candidature of the party and were declined official party registration, M.O.P soon became inactive. After decades of dormancy, in November 2020 Seun revived the party in full force. Last I read, M.O.P were trying to officially register as a political party, so I wanted to find out how they were progressing. Just the mention of the party’s name and I was met with an ecstatic Seun, a hug, and an exclamation of “you know Movement of the People?!” Seun tells me of the elitist nature of African politics, making it very difficult for communities to form their own representative parties unlike in the UK. One of the purposefully placed and exhaustive policies are that a political party must be national for it to be considered for official registration, an extremely expensive endeavour.

I was delighted to find out that after forty four years since the party’s conception and an extraordinary resurrection, the party officially registered just two weeks after Seun’s performance at Africa Oyé this year. Though Seun is the Chairman of the party, he modestly absolves himself of credit for M.O.P. He places his hand on the shoulder of his friend Dike to the right of him, the head of the Imo State Chapter of M.O.P, and says “It’s people like this, determined, young, old, professional, non-professional, they are the ones who understand the vision so that we could get to the national scale. It’s them not me.” The core values that the party stands for is to be at one with nature, to share, and for there to be respect in place of exploitation of both people and of nature. He also sternly yet smirkily says “It’s interesting for me to see everybody becoming a climate change warrior today. Y’all becoming Africans! Welcome! Welcome to what we’ve been trying to do for a long, long time!”

Mark McNulty

Lastly I wanted to ask Seun to share his thoughts on the state of the music industry and his response surprised even himself. “I never thought in my intellectual life that I would be quoting T-Pain!” he laughs whilst clapping his hands “but I think he said it best. He said ‘There’s more artists than chairs in the world right now.’ The reason music was so successful back in the day is because most musicians were musicians. Now it’s just about vibes and being able to capture the attention of people within a certain context. And nothing is allowed outside of that context. It used to be, how good are you as an artist? How good is your composition? And now it’s about, how many records have you sold? And at that point, musicianship went out the window.” He continues, “The music industry made $43 billion in 2017, but musicians only got 12% of that.” Pulling from this statistic, those that sit within the 88% of that revenue, clocking in at $37.8 billion, do not contain your Jay-Z’s, your Beyoncé’s or your Taylor Swifts. They sit within the initial 12%.

The music industry though still made up of some creative elements, is now largely party to the tech industry. A large portion of that 88% goes to the platforms we all choose to stream from. The majority of the rest goes to the labels that decide what you ‘should’ be spending your time listening to and bankrolling those platforms to execute it. It’s curation by code to keep us listening, it doesn’t matter what’s being fed, just as long as you stick around. Though the performer may feel empowered, the product that’s created for mass consumption is often recycled, inoffensive and forced into most users line of sight via the spending of thousands if not millions on advertising and playlist plugging. Seun notes, “Nothing is allowed to be sacred anymore, everything has to be exploited. And with exploitation comes a reduction of value.” Something has got to give, and what has been given already is the ability to earn from what Seun refers to as ‘real music’. A pretty shabby trade off that was out of both the musician’s and the public’s hands. “Real music has been omitted from music in the same way real food has been omitted from food” he laughs.

Finally I asked for advice for young musicians, I was at first met jokingly with raised shoulders and open upward palms as if to elude to the element of luck and the glaring volatility of the industry. But he soon fires into the focus of inclusivity, speaking to the the diaspora of the global African community saying “we just need to realise that we are one, and when we start to move that way we will see real changes.” Reeling back to musicians, Kuti passionately states “musicians can only inspire that change the worlds needs, we are the only ones not invited to the table in this structure of capitalism. The lawyers, the doctors, the bankers, the engineers, the psychiatrists, these are the people that will change the world. Our message has to always be inclusive and that we the musicians have a duty to inspire that change. It’s the musicians job to instil purpose to the people.”

Mark McNulty