FEMI & SEUN: Sons of Afrobeat

Sons of music legend and pioneer of Afrobeat Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Femi and Seun Kuti have chosen to follow in the footsteps of their father by furthering his message against political oppression and corruption among the many issues sapping growth and freedom in Nigeria and other African nations. But carrying on Fela Kuti’s legacy is no small job.

Words: Priscilla Djirackor
Images: Delphine Fawundu Buford

Fela was many things: a bandleader, a composer, a multi-instrumentalist musician, a performer, a political activist, a true rebel, an innovator. As his son Femi Kuti defines the musical genre attributed to his father, “Afrobeat is a mix of the musical influences drawn from everywhere Fela has been.” It started with Fela’s father, Canon J.J. Ransome-Kuti, a church organist and talented composer with whom Fela learned to play the organ. “Fela also mastered our hometown traditional music. After his father’s death, he went to England where he studied the piano and composition. He then went to Ghana and learned High Life,” Femi explained.

After touring in the United States, Fela returned to Nigeria in 1970 with radical political ideas he drew from the Black Panther Party and musical influences from Jazz and Funk. While he was an exceptional musician, Fela also became a major agitator on the Nigerian socio-political scene as of a result of his experiences. He proclaimed himself the head of the Kalakuta Republic, a compound in Lagos which he declared independent from the Nigerian government, and where he devoted his life and work to the emancipation of Africans from Western imperialism.

Today, Femi, 48, and Seun, 28, respectively the eldest and youngest sons of the father of Afrobeat, maintain the legendary musician’s artistic heritage, and spread Fela’s view of the world with their own voices. But carrying on Fela’s legacy goes well beyond making Afrobeat music alone. It is about a whole philosophy of life. Both have recently released new albums— Africa for Africa for Femi and Seun’s From Africa with Fury: Rise—in which they each provoke awareness, fight injustice and spread Fela’s word. In their own ways, both brothers have managed to strike an impressive balance between authenticity and individuality. Interestingly though, while their background and ideals are similar, Femi and Seun have gone down different paths that hardly ever meet.

While Femi’s dedication to Afrobeat came instinctively, Seun’s decision to fully embrace the genre was less obvious. For Femi, the “problem was always how, not when I would be a musician. Music was always present in my life. I grew up around it. We used to always dance and sing all of Fela’s lyrics, so the influence was always there. Afrobeat was a natural choice.”

In contrast, Seun’s choice came after he considered other avenues. “As a kid, I was not sure from a musical aspect what I wanted to do because I had love for all kinds of music. When I was in college, I was making Afrobeat for the band [Egypt 80] and Hip-Hop for myself and friends. I always believed that music had to be real and stand for something. Whatever it is, you have to be real to your situation. And I saw that Hip-Hop, especially mainstream, was going away from that. And back then, I knew that in a few years, there would be no one saying anything positive or educational within Hip-Hop music that would be able to push through and be successful. So I knew that wasn’t for me anymore. And that’s when I decided to do Afrobeat fulltime.”

Seun began performing with Fela and his band Egypt 80 when he was only eight years old. “Fela,” Seun recounts, “never pushed anyone to do anything. That was one of his greatest attributes. No matter how big or small the decision, he thought of his role as an advisory one. He didn’t see himself as the conventional parent trying to impose. But as soon as I told him I wanted to play music, he was very supportive. Fela never teaches you anything though. That’s the thing. I would go to music school and just do my homework.”

After his father died in 1997, Seun took over Fela’s Egypt 80 as the lead vocalist and saxophonist. Since then “there’s never been a break. We’ve just kept playing for the past 20 years.” With his long-standing collaboration with the band, Seun built his own work directly upon the musical foundation laid by his father, although he was only a teenager when Fela died. The result is a traditional yet modern sound, with deep grooves, chanted choruses, high-speed beats and funky tones. “I think good music should be timeless, and if you truly believe in your sounds, then you will be inspired to create. Creation has to always be fresh without necessarily losing authenticity. Afrobeat music is something I believe in; it’s good music as well, thereby giving it that timeless authenticity.” Perhaps because Seun naturally replaced the great Fela at the front of the band after the elder died, is why so many believe that this young man is responsible for keep Fela’s work alive.

His critically acclaimed first album Many Things (2008) was seen as a true continuation of Fela’s music. Amazingly, Seun has lived up to the challenge to carry what some see as a burden, while clearly asserting his own individual and artistic expression. He accepts the constant comparison to his father, but refuses the pressure that comes with it. “There is nothing I can do about that,” Seun says. “Even if I was an architect, people would still expect my buildings to inspire them like my father’s music inspires people. The only problem is that some people (due to ignorance) will always look at my art with prejudice instead of listening to the music with an open mind.”

Femi equally disregards the pressure resulting from his father’s impact. “I don’t think about the pressure from Fela. I want freedom for myself. I do what I do because I’m happy playing music. That’s all it’s about. It does come with some sacrifices. You have to be focused and fresh for each gig, but I do it because that’s what makes me happy.”

Femi started playing with his father as a saxophonist, sometime in the mid 1970s. By the late ’80s, in what seemed to be an act of rebellion, he set up his own band, Positive Force, with Dele Sosimi, the former keyboard player for Fela. Yet Femi never turned his back on Afrobeat. Staying faithful to the spirit and message of Fela’s music, he did dabble with other musical styles including Hip-Hop and Pop and collaborated with artists such as Mos Def and Common. “I am very critical of myself,” Femi says about his creative process. “And very critical of my father’s music. I find myself very hard to satisfy and can be easily bored.”

While he has more experience than his little brother Seun, Femi does not appear to be an influence or have an impact on Seun’s work. Rather, the brothers seem to be living and working in parallel, with only occasional encounters that they rarely initiate. “I see Seun at the [African] Shrine, where he has played for four or five years now,” Femi explains. “He also comes to my gigs, and we play together at Fela’s Celebration, a large annual festival in Nigeria. I don’t have a problem working with Seun. We are actually playing together at a music festival in Denmark. I was contacted by the festival organizer and agreed to perform with him.” But when it comes to being in the studio together, Femi has reservations. “I don’t know if I would record with Seun. It could happen one day. If he asks and I’m free. Yes, that’s possible.”

Afrobeat is about awareness; awareness of freedom, awareness of equality among men. And in recent years, the message of Afrobeat has been revived and brought back to the center of public attention. Re-releases of Fela’s works, a biopic directed by Steve McQueen currently in production, and more strikingly, the hugely successful off-Broadway show Fela! are indicators that Fela and his legacy are as relevant as ever. On whether this renewed interest in Afrobeat has led to some change, Femi and Seun may not exactly share the same views, but both vigorously condemn corrupt politicians.

For Femi, “change is inevitable. People in Africa are aware of the situation and are fed up with politicians. Fela was very involved with the political situation in Nigeria and alone stood up against the military. Change is everywhere, political, climatic, social. Look at what’s going on in Greece, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria. People realize they are being lied to. Look at what’s happening in the Arab world. People see that politicians are hypocritical. And now too many people are aware of what is really going on and change is happening. People are more united than they were before. In the past hundred years, a lot of awareness happened. The Internet now helps disclose so much more information. Politics are now on the dining table. With Facebook, Google etc., information is flowing freely and politicians are not ready for the change… When it comes to politicians’ behavior, I could provoke change. I do not try and change people’s minds. I try and bring awareness. If politicians do not stop stealing— the corruption— I would try and provoke change to have a better society. Politicians have to be accountable. That’s something that must change. I see no reason why they should be more important than anyone else. Why should they be more important than people that save lives or work hard to solve crises?”

Seun is just as animated with more fire, anger and resentment, as suggests the title of his latest effort. “Growing up in Nigeria, I have noticed two types of governments: autocratic and democratic. The only difference that I’ve seen between the two systems in Africa is one said to wear uniforms and the other says don’t. I don’t see any change in the ideologies or policies. Nothing is being done with access to water, transport or education and the situation is getting worse. Inflation is crazy. People cannot even afford food for the first time in my country.”

The brothers do not share the same views of democracy in Africa, however. “I don’t think it’s working anywhere,” says Femi. “Look at Greece for example. This whole system is hypocritical and you see it collapse. It’s not working in Europe, how could it work in Africa? The US wants to establish democracy everywhere but theirs is not even working. We need people to be truthful, sincere.”

Seun has a different approach. He sees democracy as an inherent component of traditional African cultures than can be (re)established on the continent. “I think African communities are very democratic— pre-colonizing, pre-relation to the West. This is how we lived in Africa, even if we didn’t have elections the way we do today, there were similar systems. In my culture, for example, the king surrounds himself with chiefs that can decide to remove him from power if the will of the people changes toward the king.”

“Now,” he says, “a few people or clique monopolize power. You can defeat the candidate, but you can’t defeat the party. The problem with Africa is that people have been marginalized for so long and power has been taken away from the people.”

While they may differ on specifics or ways of executing the same principles, both Femi and Seun are one in the same. They regret that they cannot tour African cities as much as they would want to, blaming how corruption has made it virtually impossible for them to perform there. Both follow their path, albeit separately, but both hold their passion and the mission their father has left for them in the highest regard. As the African proverb goes, in this case, make it two-fold, “A man who pays respect to the great, paves the way for his own greatness.”

Images by Delphine Fawundu Buford.

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