Seun Kuti Furthers His Father's Message On 'Black Times'

Mar 4, 2018

Seun Kuti was just 14 when he became the lead singer of Egypt 80 — the Nigerian band that had carried the infectious groove of Afrobeat worldwide under the direction of Seun's father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The musician says keeping the band together after Fela's death in 1997 was a way of sustaining his message — which often included railing against government corruption and social injustice.

"The way motherland people all over the world are viewed, the way we are led, is based on an elitist, anti-black narrative," Kuti says. "So the message of Afrobeat music is the counter of that narrative: the pro-black, pro-people, pro-motherland narrative from our own perspective."

Black Times, Seun Kuti's latest album with Egypt 80, continues in that vein, examining Africa's relationship with imperialism and nation-building — and features a legend from his father's generation, Carlos Santana, on the title track. Kuti spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne about the making of Black Times; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The infectious rhythms of West Africa exploded in the world in the 1970s with Nigeria's Fela Kuti.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZOMBIE")

FELA KUTI: (Singing in Foreign Language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing in Foreign Language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing in Foreign Language).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

MONTAGNE: Aside from Afrobeat's irresistible groove, Fela's music was also provocative, often railing against government corruption and social injustice. Fela Kuti died over 20 years ago, but his music lives on. His youngest son Seun Kuti, leading Fela's band, Egypt 80, has just released "Black Times."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORPORATE PUBLIC CONTROL DEPARTMENT (C.P.C.D)")

SEUN KUTI: (Singing) You promise jobs, and you close the factory. But there's always work in the penitentiary. Yeah, yeah. Every few years, politicians come...

MONTAGNE: Seun Kuti joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome.

KUTI: I'm good, man.

MONTAGNE: Good.

KUTI: That's some heavy sounds right there.

MONTAGNE: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, let me start with this. When your father died, you were 14 years old. And you became then the leader, in a way, of Egypt 80. But how did you manage it at that age? And, actually, how did you manage joining the band at a much earlier age? - 8 years old?

KUTI: Well, that one was because my dad was the owner of the band, you know?

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) Well, that's a start.

KUTI: Yeah. I would actually play one or two songs to open the show for my dad before he came on. I used be, like, his little mascot, opening shows for him. After his passing, you know, which was a huge cataclysmic event, the members of the band that night had decided to keep playing. We did it not because we wanted anything or because we were trying to make a name for ourselves or anything. We just knew that Fela's message needed to keep going and the band to be alive. And we just believed in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK TIMES")

KUTI: (Singing) Keep your fire burning. Let me see you butt my lighter. Spark up your righteousness. Let me see you butt my lighter - fire burning. Let me see you butt my lighter. Spark up your healing.

MONTAGNE: And when you talk about the message, break that down for us. What was the message?

KUTI: The message is - let me put it this way. The way motherland people all over the world are viewed, the way we are led is based on an elitist, anti-black narrative. So the message of Afrobeat music is the counter of that narrative, the pro-black, pro-people, pro-motherland narrative, you know, from our own perspective. And that is the message.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's listen to another song. This is titled "Last Revolutionary."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST REVOLUTIONARY")

KUTI: (Singing) I am the walking, talking struggle of my people.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing) Oh, yes. I'll be Kwame Nkrumah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing) I'll be Che Guevara.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing) Thomas Sankara.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing) I'll be Patrice Lumumba.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: (Singing) I'll be (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Marcus Garvey.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Kwame Ture.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Shaka Zulu.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Fela Kuti.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Isaac Boro.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

KUTI: I'll be Greta Koci.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Foreign Language).

MONTAGNE: Quite a list of legendary leaders, political and musical, there - you know, though, I'm wondering there are so many talented musicians that have come out of West Africa, but they often end up in places like Paris and New York. You make your home in Lagos. I mean, do you think musicians have a responsibility, in a sense, to stay, to contribute to the culture, where that culture began?

KUTI: Not just musicians - I feel all African professionals, all motherland professionals all over the world, you know - yes - it's OK to see the world, lend your skills, hone your skills. But we have to use the reward of those skills to participate in nation building. That's what I believe, you know? It doesn't really matter where you stay. You see, they are more Nigerian doctors in the state of New York alone than the whole of Nigeria combined. The brain drain of the motherland is encouraged in the name of economic advantage, in the name of being able to achieve your economic goals.

You cannot make a lot of money helping poor people in Africa get better. But if you take your skills to America, you get it. And people say, yes, that's a good thing to do. So we lose a lot of professionals and a lot of opportunities to this phenomena. But I also understand that people want to live a better life. OK, fine. But when we go and get this money, what do we want to do with it? So that's why it doesn't matter for me where an artist stays. But where does his loyalty lie and what is he trying to build? Not what he's trying to consume, you know?

MONTAGNE: Well, your music, beyond its message, is extremely danceable. If you picked one of the songs on the album for us to go out on dancing what would it be?

KUTI: "The Theory Of Goat And Yam."

MONTAGNE: All right - done.

KUTI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF EGYPT 80 SONG, "THE THEORY OF GOAT AND YAM")

MONTAGNE: Seun Kuti - his new album with Egypt 80 is called "Black Times." Thank you very much.

KUTI: Thanks for having me, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF EGYPT 80 SONG, "THE THEORY OF GOAT AND YAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.