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Seun Kuti: No Holds Barred

Seun Kuti live at the New Africa Shrine in Lagos (Eyre 2017)

In January 2017 in Lagos, Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow spent a few hours with Seun Kuti at his home, talking about his career, musical life in Lagos, politics and other things. The interview was part of the research for Afropop’s ongoing Hip Deep in Nigeria series. Seun occupies a unique place in Nigeria’s cultural landscape today. He has inherited his father’s band, Egypt 80, and a good part of Fela’s contrarian mantle. The conventional street wisdom is that Seun’s older brother Femi has broken from Fela’s artistic formula, whereas Seun seeks to preserve and extend it. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the merits of each brother’s course. Meanwhile, the entire Fela Kuti-Afrobeat phenomenon is very much on the sidelines of the burgeoning Naija pop (Afrobeats!) tidal wave that is sweeping out of Lagos and across the continent.

So that’s the background for this conversation, which we now present in its full form as Seun begins a summer tour with a Fela Tribute concert at Central Park SummerStage in New York (Sun., July 16, 3 p.m.). Our Lagos guides and fixers Kazeem Akinpelu and Joe Matthews were along, and contributed some to the conversation. Oh yes, and one other thing. When we spoke with Seun, Donald Trump was just days into his presidency…

Banning: Let’s start with you and the album that’s coming out soon, right?

Seun: Yeah, we’re trying to drop it later this year. We’re almost at the final stages, so you know how it goes.

And does it include the songs from Struggle Sounds, the EP that came out last fall?

Yup, yup. The EP was the Struggle Sounds EP and the album is going to be titled Struggle Sounds.

Tell us how things flow for you these days. How much are you touring and how much do you get to chill here at home?

Well, in the years that I’m writing I can’t write while I’m touring. I’m one of those artists that has to do either one or the other, so the year that I want to write I don’t want to tour too much. I’m on the road for maybe 12 weeks max. I need to be grounded at home to gather the sound for the new record. But as soon as that is done, we accept all offers and it’s a crazy six or seven months spent touring. But playing live is the business these days, and it keeps us going.

Six or seven months; that’s pretty brutal though.

Oh, it’s hard. It’s harder in the States because the market is not as great as we wish it was, but we hope that this Lauryn Hill thing that we did will help open us up to a new audience.

Tell me about the Lauryn Hill thing. You toured with her for a while recently.

That was nice. I met her here in Lagos and she was really interested in having us come on the tour with her. After that it was only a matter of time. We would open for an hour, sometimes 45 minutes, then she would come on. I think we did about 16-19 nights with her.

Nice. That really exposes you to an audience that maybe doesn’t know about Afrobeat?

Yeah, that was the real reason. But the feedback was good, so yeah, “knock on wood” as they say.

Amen, amen! Is she going to be touring again?

Yeah, I think she is touring again, but now we’re doing our own project in Europe in more established markets and we had been touring for a whole year there so it’s time to go back.

The New Africa Shrine. All photos by Banning Eyre.

I see you’re going to be playing at the New Africa Shrine on Saturday night. How often do you play there when you’re in Lagos?

I play once a month. When I’m home, it’s time for me and the band to recharge and take things easy. We rehearse more than we play live. I play the Shrine once a month, but I’m mostly chilling, practicing my instrument, working with the band. For me that is necessary. We also have outside engagements like gigs at The Shrine but that’s a different thing.

Do you rehearse at the Shrine?

No, I can’t rehearse there. There’s too many people watching. My brother will be playing there and it’s like a show and a rehearsal. People are just having a good time while they’re working through the set. He’ll be playing on Sunday, so this way people get to see it for free. But for me, rehearsal is more like working so I do need people to not distract me during that time. We rehearse at the [Kalakuta Republic] museum.

So let’s talk about the scene in Lagos now since we’re finally able to experience it. It seems like there’s a big discrepancy versus what you hear in clubs and what you hear on the radio. We heard that there’s a lot of live reggae that happens but you don’t hear much reggae on the radio.

The Nigerian system is an exact copy of the American system. It doesn’t include our way, our sophisticated way. We also have the “free press” and that’s the best name for propaganda too. Free press. Like they are free to say what they want, but not by us. Just like in America. Like CNN is telling the truth; they’ll lock up the editors or fire them for telling the truth. The Obama administration for example, locked up more whistleblowers than all American presidents combined. People know about Edward Snowden, Assange, Manning, but they don’t know about all the journalists who have been to jail under Obama’s presidency. It’s crazy, for writing the truth basically.

Well, I think that’s apt to get worse now.

For me, what is happening in America now is reactionary, not revolutionary. The real revolution would have been to stand up to the Democratic establishment when they robbed Bernie Sanders. That would have been the real revolutionary stance, not to settle for the lesser of two evils. The way your evil lost, you’re like “NO!” Whatever Trump stands for in America, that’s on Trump, but liberal America has also fed this beast in the way that… Oh wait–we’re talking about the music scene. [Laughs]

It is interesting to hear your views, though.

All right, I’ll finish then. So liberal America has not really, really stood up for what its agenda and ideology should be. They have pandered to the same corporations that feed the monster they call “the far right.” It’s weird that there is a far-right thriving in America and there is no far-left thriving. That means the conservatives put the money where their mouth is while the liberals play lip service to the ideals they hold dear while Obama has deported 2.5 million illegal immigrants in America while claiming to be a progressive liberal.

Is it the bombings of black and brown nations all over the world? The destruction of innocent lives in the name of expanding the military industrial complex, you know? These are both ideas liberals are supposed to be against. Liberals say the same thing and don’t act on it. The Clintons expanded the prison industrial complex more than any other president. They’ve created the new Jim Crow system. Well, not creating it but really expanding it to lock up black and brown people in America for the most minor offenses. I mean, people in America today under liberal watch are in debtor prison for parking tickets. You didn’t mow your lawn. Or because they are poor. And who is the most poor? The black and brown people. The people who get trapped in the system are the poorest and that is why liberal white America is able to give that tokenism. The middle class liberal America doesn’t have to pull its weight. They just say “Ah well, Obama is president, everything is O.K.” That’s what created Trump. If the liberals stood for their ideology, it would have been Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump, and that would have been a no-brainer.

Sean, Seun, Banning (Kazeem Akinpelu)

Well, we’ll see what Trump produces now…

Oh, it’s going to be a fascist regime!

But the reaction to him could be closer to what you are talking about.

Yes, this is necessary. I feel that Trump is not such a bad thing because he is a kick in the backside of people who say they stand on the side of progressive policies so now they should ask, “Is this the path? Are we going to fight Trump and or be like Trump also?” Because that is the excuse that the Democrats give to be like the Republicans. They say they can’t get the corporate sponsorships because what they stand for is anticorporate America so the corporations won’t want to donate to their party so they have to start sounding like Republicans and accepting money and doing the same things the Republicans do. I mean even Obama with the bailout, there wasn’t a single bank that was prosecuted in America. Even here in Nigeria, we prosecuted one bank.

So you figure you’re ahead, eh? [Laughing]

As bad as we say we are, at least one banker here was sent to prison. We got one! Obama: zero! Basically, he protected them throughout his presidency, filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs. I mean, come on.

Well, this is going to be the same, only much worse.

Yes it is. But the truth is, Obama did not defend the ideology that put him in power, as aggressively as Trump will defend the ideology that put him there. That is where the flaw lies. That is where we have to look at ourselves as liberals. We have to say, “Why did we make this mistake?” We had the opportunity and then we didn’t take it. Obama also had a Democratic Senate and Congress for the first two years and he was seeking for bipartisanship. So if the minority did not accept his ideas, he wouldn’t do it.

He did Obamacare and they didn’t want that, but you can see how that is turning out.

There’s still no healthcare for the poor. We only care for people with jobs, basically. In America, even with a job you can’t afford healthcare. I checked out the bronze plan and it’s basically the doctor just checks you and after that you’re on your own. So what is the bronze plan? There are bronze citizens and silver, gold. So put that aside, there are 20 million people without healthcare. For a country like America?

I agree. That’s a national shame.

All right, so back to what I was saying… [Laughs] So we have the “free press,” they are openly coerced sometimes but they are also playing to an agenda. The agenda in Africa is to make sure our youth are distracted from whatever’s important. So whatever conscious music, any music that makes you think, really, is frowned upon. Even in light of day, it’s just what it is. It’s propaganda. It’s part of the system. The world feels like George Orwell’s 1984 right now. Everything is part of the system of global white domination. Even in Africa where they’ve planted their stooges in different governments, societies have to look up to America, and young people are not taught to take pride in what we can create and achieve independently in Africa. Our government in Nigeria right now is pushing for a billion-dollar loan. Again! We’ve been collecting loans, they’ve been saying, “We can build and develop,” but we’ve been taking loans since 1970. Nothing is growing and developing. They are just piling more debt on future generations. So the youth majority are not even allowed the space to understand this kind of rhetoric. Right now there is infighting in the elite class of Nigera. The political and business elites are fighting because there is a new regime shift of power and the youths don’t know what is going on. The press says the president is dead, now he’s not dead. [There was a lot of press at the time of this interview about President Buhari’s location; Apparently he was in England seeking medical treatment.] They fling all this propaganda while they’re trying to borrow billions of dollars.

So they’re being distracted?

That’s what everything is! So you go to the club, you hear this music constantly. You are told as a young man, “If you don’t do these things you’re a loser.” For me as a black person, to be offended by Trump saying, “Grab her by the pussy,” is preposterous. Mainstream media establishments has embraced the worst of black people as the best of us when it comes to what we’ve made with music. The Jay-Zs, the Puff Daddys, all these black men, they give millions of dollars of endorsements. And what do they do with their music? They talk down to black women. They talk about “smacking ho’s,” “grabbing bitches,” “black bitch.” This is the art that they’re promoting. So suddenly, Trump says the same thing Jay-Z has been saying to black women and you all love Jay-Z. Trump says the same thing and I’m supposed to go crazy?

That’s pretty rough, but I hear you.

Trump says it’s O.K. to grab white women by the pussy. So this is the establishment that I’m talking about. People are distracted. Trump still won the vote of 53 percent of white women in America. The majority of that group still voted Trump. So the issue on the line is these things on TV. These movements don’t take us anywhere. They are constantly distracting people from the real issues. Basically, I tell people that the real struggle in this world is the class struggle and this is what everything is tied to. The elites poison everything. They poison the atmosphere, they poison the sea, they poison the land, they poison the food. They poison the art.

Constantly, we the people, feel the symptoms. So the distraction from that larger struggle of one percent of the world controlling 80 percent of the world’s wealth. Somebody has 58 billion while someone doesn’t even have 58 cents. So we are distracted basically with race, religion, and sex and feminism, but I believe these struggles must happen. As a black man I concentrate on the black struggle, that’s why my music isn’t radio friendly, because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of what Africans are supposed to be saying. Africans are supposed to be happy in the suffering. We are supposed to be suffering and be hopeful at the same time. We are supposed to believe that we can make it no matter what, no matter the injustice, no matter the corruption, no matter the disadvantage, no matter the disability, you can make it. Think positive. That’s what they tell us.

So this is the answer we keep hearing when asked why conscious music isn’t being played on the radio, why is it not more popular. They say, “Oh well, they face these struggles everyday, everybody knows about suffering and corruption. They want to be happy, they want to dance, they want to have fun, and that’s what people want from music. They don’t want to be educated by it; they just want to enjoy it.” But I keep thinking, back in the time when your father was making music, was that really what they wanted? Was it really so different from what people want now?

You can’t make your choice if no choices exist. I mean, all Nigerians believe one trumpet is going to sound and one guy is going to come out of the sky and suddenly everybody that has died before will rise up, and the world will end. People can believe anything! As long as they feel it constantly enough, nothing is preposterous. No matter what the evidence says, just take it and shove it up your ass! We don’t care about the evidence. It’s CNN style. I heard a joke about CNN that is really accurate. So CNN headline: “Dog Bites Man! Dog is Shot. Justice.” But the artist will say, “Dog Bites Man Because Man Has Been Abusing Dog for Past 10 Years.” Then “Dog Is Shot.” Why? [Laughs]

I like that. But I ask again, do you think expectations are different now in Nigeria from when Fela was making music?

You know, when Fela was making music, music was submitted as a weapon to the media. Nobody believed that musicians could actually change the world until musicians started changing the world and the corporations were like, “What?? Get that!” And then everybody bought up the radio. You know, there’s no value to commercial music today. You have to create a brand that corporations can work with. Musically, there’s no money to be made. No one can make the money Bob Marley made in music today. It’s sad that the corporations endorse you and invest in your show productions so you can play the stadium and have all the lights.

And you’re not going to be singing conscious music and get that.

No, because if you are going to be honest with your music you have to say the truth about what the corporations are doing to the environment and what they are doing to the people. The kind of s*** wages they are paying people all over the world.

I’ve made that exact argument to people here, and people say, “No it’s not the corporations that are preventing the artists from singing about corruption, and raping the earth and all of that. It’s the market, not the corporations.”

So people want to hear about shooting each other in the face?

No… [Laughs] We’re talking about Nigeria now. In America, I can’t explain that.

So you mean like, people want to hear about your car and how much you bought it for and how nice your house is, and how well you can f*** your wife or your girlfriend. This argument doesn’t hold. I’ve said this a long time ago, they don’t want me to say this on the radio. When there’s a big political issue, all the actors are afraid to say anything. I used to say this on the radio but they don’t even play my music now, so if they call me now I say, “Why the f*** are you calling me?” I say. “I’m busy.” I tell people, when MTV came to Africa, I was the artist that was chosen to launch it with Will Smith in South Africa. That was because they knew they had to show some authenticity. They told me, “We’re happy to work with the Kuti brand.”

I don’t knock pop music, because it has its place in the world and in the vastness of art, but it’s really wrong when every other form is discarded. If it wasn’t for government support of European cultural music, which is folk and classical music, it wouldn’t exist. The young people don’t want to listen to Mozart. The government gives them tons of publishing money, they invite them to play shows and they help keep it alive. They make sure that these things stay alive and create ways to keep the young people interested. Musical success for me is being a good musician. The narrative has always been, “How many records have you sold?” and that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It never really did mean anything. It never really did mean anything. As a musician it doesn’t, but as a businessman it does.

So the only way you can make your career work with these principles is to have the kind of touring career that you described earlier. If you just stayed in Nigeria all the time, it would be really hard to hold on to this approach right?

No, not really. I don’t have to change my tactics too much. I’d play more often at the Shrine, maybe play more venues all over town.

But you still have public support, even if it’s not on the radio.

Of course.

That’s kind of what I was saying at the beginning. There’s a real discrepancy between what’s on the airwaves and what’s really happening.

Yes, but that’s like when America was bombing Vietnam, bombing the villages. They were telling people they were freeing the villages from Vietcong control. While bombing innocent people and forcing them into slums. That they were “liberating” them with bombs. So whatever is happening on the ground is never what the mainstream media says. That’s what anybody who wants to understand life has to know. That’s why when it comes to mainstream art, there’s no way your perception of what art really is can be fulfilled. You can’t be fulfilled as a human being who appreciates mainstream art. Because it’s for the moment. You can’t even relate to the song title 10 years from the moment. You can’t remember what you did to that song. That’s what annoys me, you hear some hip-hop songs from 15 or 20 years ago today and you feel nostalgic. But when it comes to the music that they say is Nigerian music today, even some songs from five years ago, you hear it and can’t believe you were listening to that. Like, “I listened to that s***?”

Now I’m curious about that. What Naija pop music will survive five, 10 years from now?

None! Maybe five percent. To be honest, when does the lack of artistic freedom hinder development? There are a lot of talented artists in this country that are forced to bend their talent to this format because it’s the only way they can be free. In Nigeria, whatever you’re doing has to free you at that moment so you can’t blame young people for doing the best they can, for trying to succeed. I tell people that if you want to look at your society and how well you have shaped it, look at young people and what they are saying. How they run their lives and what they do. That’s the only way to the truth.

Youth is the truth.

So when you see people are saying the Nigerian youth are criminals, then that is the society that you created for them to grow up in. That is the space that you gave them. What other space can they occupy?

When you were talking about the youth and trying to meet the youth, and how radio is mostly a wasteland for interesting music, I guess the question is how much emphasis or how much of your people’s time do you put towards your social media to try to create new ways to share your songs or reach your audience themselves?

Social media for me is one of our best mediums to get our message out there. But at the same time, social media is so loud. There’s a lot of noise happening. There’s a lot of destruction. I can’t afford the kind of publicity that puts me on everybody’s page. Yeah, we can boost some posts and spend maybe 200 to 400 dollars a month, like when we’re on tour and there are some real good shows we want to push, but we don’t have that extra financial backing. Now that I’m getting older, I don’t like going to awards shows or going to events. I don’t like red carpets. For me, what I owe my fans is my music. Maybe my message, but I don’t owe it to them: I feel like I have to do it for myself. My message, my music, I really feel like whatever else is happening in my life is irrelevant. Absolutely irrelevant.

When I talked to you on on the phone a couple months ago about the EP, you gave me a very interesting answer. But I want to ask you again to follow up, how do you feel about the fact that this new movement of music has adopted the name “Afrobeats”?

I feel there’s a bit of lack of confidence in the way the music is being pushed to the audience. I think there’s talent there and I think they should just be brave to be pop artists. Afrobeat being the most famous thing musically out of Nigeria and Africa, maybe Nigerian music shines. Like everybody is influenced by Fela. I think Afrobeats for them is the way to also get that Fela platform but I don’t see coming from Nigeria any relation between the two genres, really. In terms of what they speak about and the way the music is. I can understand though, for dancehall to exist, reggae must exist. Dancehall used to be called ragga for a long time to try to tap into that reggae movement of Bob Marley and the other reggae legends like Tosh and Burning Spear. But now it’s dancehall. Now that they found their feet and they’re more confident in what they’re doing, they call it dancehall out of respect. They don’t even want to be called ragga artists anymore. They want to be known as dancehall. So I think Afrobeats is going to come to that.

You think it’s a temporary name?

Yeah, definitely. Just like ragga, it’s too… like they just put an “s” behind it.

It’s confusing, isn’t it?

It’s confusing and I don’t even think it’s proper English because “beats” can’t be plural can it?

Well, that hasn’t stopped pop music before, has it? [Laughs] Grammar has never been a big deal.

Well, there is Beats by Dre! That’s beats. [LAUGHING]

That’s interesting though. You think it’s more of a confidence booster, but once they find their footing it might change. The word Afrobeats came from DJs in the U.K. originally, didn’t it? Because when we were Ghana a few years ago, no one was using it but now everyone seems to be using it.

I think that’s why it’s called Afrobeats, because it’s not one country. It’s not one beat. Yes, that’s it. They’re not talking about just beats.

We saw that they brought you on stage in Brooklyn last summer for the One Africa Fest, a kind of Afrobeats blowout.

Yeah, I did a Fela cover. It was a cool experience. But that was the show that everyone came in one after the other. When I play shows, I want to be there and just do my show. He [Paul Okoye, producer of the One Africa Music Festival] is a good guy and I understand what he’s trying to do. There’s a market for what they’re doing.

That seems to be the format now, very short sets. You do two or three songs and it’s a very different vibe. Most of the African groups that we came up with like to play for four or five hours.

Well you know, to each his own. I just feel like people are not giving the right range of artistic brilliance that is available to them in Africa. I mean no one in Nigeria knows who Tiken Jah Fakoly is. Do you know who he is? [Directed towards Kazeem and Joe, our Lagos fixers.]

Kazeem Akinpelu: No, I haven’t heard of him

Exactly, this is what I’m saying. This is what is really wrong about the way music is being spread in Africa. There are so many great, amazing legends basically. Less than an hour’s flight away and no one in Nigeria knows who he is. If Tiken Jah Fakoly did a show in Nigeria, no one would come. Except maybe if he did a show at the Shrine with me, them maybe people would come to see me and listen to him too.

He should do it anyway, man.

Oh yeah no, I agree, For me that’s what I don’t understand. Why can’t African youths be given a chance to marvel in the wide range of musical talents and forms that they can also aspire to because they need to know that there isn’t only one kind of music that can make you successful.

But you know, on the Afrobeats thing, something that its champions put forward is that it is opening up countries to each other. We actually heard this other day driving around with the radio on. They were playing a song from Kenya, then Uganda…

But are those the only kinds of songs from these places? This is what you should ask. So before these guys started to make these songs, there were no songs from Ghana, no songs from Uganda, we didn’t know anything about music. Oh but now it’s time for these new Afrobeats guys to bring music to Uganda, and Kenya, and Burkina and all these African nations. Oh, we thank you very much! [Laughs]

So now it’s O.K. because all the music sounds more or less the same?

It feeds the format and the message basically just tells young people in Africa, “Yeah, whatever, this is what’s happening here, don’t have an African dream, don’t think about developing your nation, don’t look inward.” They think everybody needs to focus on the American dream. Acquire, consume, acquire, consume. Yeah, the more you can consume the bigger the man you are. That’s the message basically. I mean the message isn’t much bigger than that. Just buy! Where’s your gold chain? You don’t have a gold chain so your girlfriend isn’t happy. That’s why our politicians can f*** all our pretty young girls.

As I say to people, as bad as it is for a poor man, it’s 20 times worse for a poor woman. Because a poor man can just wake up and brush his teeth and go out. But women are made to feel inferior, even with the way they look. These beauty standards, all the products you have to use in order to be considered a civilized woman at all. Just imagine what a poor woman has to go through buying all these things so she can have what the world sees as beauty. It’s difficult, it’s really difficult. Young girls in Africa are aspiring to buy $2,000 bags made by some French guy because Nicki Minaj just told them that without it they are nothing but broke ho’s. All black people now are tied to the amount of European things and American things we can’t afford or buy. They want to know about the next Louis Vuitton shoe. That Moet, Ace of Spades, and Ciroc are the best ways to drink. That’s what people think they need to know. People want to forget they are sold it.

Femi Kuti at the New Africa Shrine

Femi Kuti at the New Africa Shrine

I want to bring it home here for a second and ask about your family. I remember when I first met you and Femi, it was not long after your father died and there was a lot of tension and friction but it seems like by the time I met you both during the Broadway Fela! show, you were really coming together to be on the same side and now it seems like a smooth-running operation. How do you think things have evolved over the years?

For me, I just think that Fela’s passing was traumatic for everybody and we all dealt with it in different ways. At a certain point though, everyone was over it and we were able to see things clearly. There was nothing standing in our way at that point to keep us from, as you put it, operating smoothly. We are cool now. I think the problem is that people are always expecting that my brother and I should always be together, hanging out, you know brotherly love and all that. But the fact that we were raised very individualistically was the big elephant in the room. There’s 20-year gap between us. We’re from two different generations, we don’t have the same interests, I always tell him he’s one of the most boring people I know. He knows too, I can say it to him. He’s old! He’s going to be 60 in less than 5 years. I’m 34! What do you guys want from us? We don’t have the same interests, we don’t have mutual friends. I go and see him and we’re cool but people just need to tone down the expectations. The expectations are too high. They think we’re two brothers that always hang out but he’s 20 years my senior. Twenty years! Give us a break! He could be my dad! [Laughing] Come on guys, give us a break.

Yeah, he’s got some white hair coming in.

Oh, not some! He’s got a lot of grey! Don’t patronize him. Femi Kuti has a lot of grey hair. This is what I’m talking about, this free press.

Femi Kuti

Femi Kuti

What do you mean by free press?

This is what they call the Western propaganda system. BBC, CNN, Fox News. Everybody is running the state agenda. But free press? “Oh believe us! We are completely unbiased! We are speaking the truth! It’s those Russians!”

I can tell you the narrative, I mean all the polls said Brexit will not happen. I said Brexit will happen and it happened. All the polls said Trump can not win, in fact he was 20 points behind. Have you seen my Okay Africa snippet? For some reason they just released it. Maybe they held on to it because they thought I was crazy. I was telling them when I came in August or July that Trump is going to win the election. I was telling them this in July.

Oh yeah, Sean said he thought that too, but I didn’t believe him.

He understands the system then! He knows what’s going on! Everybody that understands the system knew that Trump was going to win. CNN, even Fox, was putting him at 20 points back because they’re the establishment. So I slept, I was waiting for the election but I was tired. I was following the news until like 10 p.m., but then I slept and I dreamed that Trump was defeating Hillary in the electoral college by like 40 points. I woke up from my dream and went to see what was happening and saw it was like 50 points! [Laughs] I called all my friends and said, “Oh, I told you so, I told you so!” “Hello, it’s me!”

At least you had something to feel good about.

Oh no, I wasn’t really calling to gloat. I was telling them that they need to wake up. Although some people are really hurt or pained. I did really have to gloat around those ones. All these people have been telling me for the past eight years that Obama can’t do anything for Nigeria because he isn’t a Nigerian president. That Obama has no power to help Africa. But suddenly they want me to believe that Trump has the power to destroy Africa? Just suddenly?

Oh that’s what people say here, that Trump’s going to destroy Africa?

Yeah, they say it’s going to be so bad for Africa.

I don’t think it will make much difference really.

Exactly! There’s nothing Trump will do to us that Obama has not done.

Aside from the immigration thing, that could be worse.

If Trump would employ me as an advisor, I would tell him to please send back all these Africans that are washing dishes, driving taxis, doing all the menial jobs because they are too big to do it for black people in Africa. They don’t want to do that here because we are black. They don’t want to wash our dishes but they want to go to America. Why would you leave Africa to go to America to wash dishes? Why? What is the point? They are too ashamed to come back because they are brainwashed.

You might fit in pretty well in Trump’s cabinet then. [Laughing] He could use the demographic!

Maybe if I trick him into sending back the menial job ones, then we can go to the next step. All these African doctors are moving and getting jobs in America. We need good doctors in Africa. There are more Nigerian doctors in the state of New York alone than in all of Nigeria combined. I repeat: there are more Nigerian doctors in the state of New York alone than in all of Nigeria combined.

Really? So you think they should all be rounded up and sent back to Nigeria then?

Not all, maybe they should do a pool. And the lucky ones can come and treat us. Give us health care here. You know we deserve it! We deserve their expertise. I keep telling people, one of the ways Africa can develop is to reach the banks of China, the banks of India, and give loans to Chinese and Indian businesses. We need African banks to give loans to African-Americans to develop the inner cities. In that, we develop a relationship with them looking towards our continent. With their good education and expertise, we could maybe find a way to lure them home. This is the only peaceful way I could see to get them to come home. To get them to invest in their own development.

But they’d rather use it to buy private jets and throw a million dollars in a white man’s account or go to the club. I think in Nigeria in a week, they spend $5,000,000 drinking alcohol. At least. The amount of champagne and Ciroc that we drink. With all this behavior we don’t think about how we can develop the country, technically and economically especially. We are being pushed from an underdeveloped society straight to a service economy. We cannot compete in the service economy, we cannot continue to run our economy based on services. We need a real core growth of manufacturing and not just hoping that we can afford to consume. For me as an African, if you work in America washing plates and driving taxis, please come home. If you are a doctor or an engineer, this is what I’m saying.

Do you ever sing about this?

In my song “African Dream,” this is basically what I’m saying. If we’re living in Nigeria today, and you’re a talented nuclear physicist, you have to leave the country. You understand? Because there is no program. There is nothing we can do for you.

But a doctor?

A doctor is a different thing. But if you’re a rocket scientist, I understand. If you’re a computer engineer, I understand. But at the same time, the West opens its doors to the best of us while rejecting the worst of us. It shows that it’s a deliberate act by the system to take the best of us. If people are here and can’t get access to use their talents, they will cause agitation. There will be more agitation in society. So the West allowing them leave is a pressure valve, to allow their studies makes it easier for them to control our society. Even myself, I’m spending most of my time playing Europe and Australia, but I understand that despite what we’re doing, we have to give back. The majority of people do not see and understand that because they are made to feel that they are better than everyone because that is why they have the opportunity to leave. They convince them that their own people have neglected them, which is why they should leave. Many Africans feel more American than Americans themselves. Because their home country has never done anything for them. Nigerians themselves are not Nigerians. It’s…how do I put it…

It’s an invention?

Yeah, but an invention you can touch. The Nigerian is a concept. No one is truly a Nigerian, it’s merely a concept. There is no real loyalty to the nation and no one really feels patriotism the way it should be. Your great-grandfather was not a Nigerian. Most people’s grandfathers were maybe Nigerian when they turned 25.

Big parts of the country have never really accepted it. Like we’re going to Kano and Port Harcourt…

That’s what I’m saying. We don’t have this kind of homogenous society that can withstand this constant, brutal withdrawal of ideas. But Africans need to look at how they can pull their weight and see what they can do for the continent in terms of bringing their intelligence and their resources help the continent by pooling their energy and resources to also help in the development of their nation. It’s not just to stay in Europe and be criticizing.

Sean Barlow: To a more mundane question, can you give us a snapshot of Lagos? How the live music scene is here?

I feel that the Lagos live music scene is very underground still. The majority is underground, but it is powerful. There is lots of talent and powerful music that really doesn’t push because it’s not commercially viable. Art is not about being commercially viable and I feel like we have to get past that. The Lagos live scene right now is one of the most energetic underground music scenes in the world. You just have to come and discover it yourself. There are so many great bands, so many great spots like the Shrine and Freedom Park being the best ones in Lagos at the moment.

When you say underground, do you mean small clubs that don’t publicize? Like you have to just know about it?

Yeah, most of the time. I found a big reggae party in Lekki that’s held every Tuesday and I just found it by chance. I didn’t know that most everyone I knew already knew about this place. It’s real cozy and there are pure reggae vibes all night. You just wouldn’t know about it.

Sean: We know there’s a lot of live fuji music still happening.

Yeah, of course, man. I mean, as I said Africa is always represented by these little cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Abuja, Freetown, Joburg, you know. But this isn’t the majority of Africa. We city-dwellers are still in the minority. The majority of Africans live in the outskirts, in the rural areas we call villages still. That’s where the majority of Africans are, they’re not in the big cities. These places have a different taste but the music gets there. If the city-dwellers are loving it, then it gets there but they have their own music and forms of entertainment as well.

Sean: You’d do a great job as a Lagos promoter. “Come here! You’ll have a great time!” You just have to find the party though.

As long as you know someone here though, they’ll help you out. They’ll take you to all the parties.

Sean: I’ve gotten to know some people who want to make it cool to farm again. They want kids to feel like they have choices and that they don’t have to live in the big city but can build up a farming career. I’ve mentioned it to several Nigerians and they’ve liked the idea, but how does that strike you?

It works for me. Politically speaking, the government is not really winning at changing the mindset of the youth to one of production and local content. There are so many jobless youths that could be taken into cooperatives. Like farming or steel but the government has to really invest. The government doesn’t want to invest in the young people of this country. They want to hold the money to buy luxuries and a comfortable life. They are diligent servants to the system and I don’t think they are worried too much about that. Our cultural engineers are not really being spoken about in black communities the way they should be. Everybody just has to pick their favorite celebrity and try to be like him.

You want Charles Barkley? Or you want Jay-Z? Or you want Bill Cosby? Regarding the latter we’ve been covering our asses for too long. We haven’t been listening for the last 30 years but now we are ready to listen. Bill Cosby is such a disgrace. That’s the kind of person who can get elevated in the black community. Do you want to be Shaquille O’Neal? Or Oprah? But nobody with radical ideology on emancipation and growth has been elevated. I was 33 years old before I knew of Dr. Amos Wilson and I feel like that’s a travesty as a black man. I know the solutions he spoke of towards our own economic development and his ideas. Why have these things not been spoken of in black communities, especially in countries that have black governments? These are the kinds of questions that we need to ask as a society in terms of understanding why we are really afraid to grow. No one is going to support that. Things are done by our government to keep them in control and allow them to have a monopoly. That is when local production is truly important to them.

Kazeem Akinpelu and Joe Matthews

Kazeem Akinpelu and Joe Matthews

Joe Matthews: Why is it that radio stations don’t play your music? Is it because it’s conscious or that you don’t pay them to play your songs?

I say that I make terrible, s*** music that doesn’t deserve to be played on the radio. That’s the most believable answer I can come up with.

Joe: That’s not true, but you’re not going to pay them to play your music anyway, right?

I just don’t have the money, I would pay but I don’t have extra money for these things. You know what, maybe I’ll go out and take a loan. [Laughing] Watch out radio stations, here I come!

Seun Kuti and Mark LeVine

Seun Kuti and Mark LeVine

 

 

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  • Baset Sekhmet-Iyabinghi

    Following in the footsteps of his great father Fela. Go on Seun Kuti!

  • Alfia J

    Yes-O!! Thank you Seun for your powerful words of enlightenment, and music that speaks the truth!