Apr 12, 2011

Seun Kuti Is Not Fela

There’s nothing as refreshing as a live performance after weeks of inundating your soul with deejay fare. And so it was with excitement that I made my way into Terrakulture two Saturdays ago, to see Seun Anikulapo Kuti perform. I was surprised – pleasantly though – to see that it was a modest crowd; my pleasure an upshot of that snobbish, self-congratulatory attitude native to fans of ‘niche’ music.

(At least a third of the audience was white, which is to be expected; Afrobeat is arguably Nigeria’s most successful cultural export – to the West). After spending the previous night in overcrowded nightclubs dancing to songs that encouraged me to ‘ginger the swagger’ (or perhaps that should be ‘swagger the ginger’), it was a relief to listen to something different, and to do it with so much dancing space around me. Fate had no choice As I stood there and danced and watched Seun, I couldn’t help thinking how much he dwelt in the shadow of his legendary father. Let’s even attempt to forget the striking physical resemblance for a second, and focus instead on the art. For one, he inherited his father’s Egypt 80 band, led by Baba Ani, Fela’s longtime sidekick. At the time of Fela’s death, Seun was only fourteen, and one of the more recent members of the Egypt 80 band. All he knew, and played, was Fela’s music. His mother was also a band member, one of Fela’s dancers, further evidence of how much his life was circumscribed by the Fela sound. If we therefore assumed that Fate was compelled to make a choice regarding which of the sons would be the direct inheritor of the Afrobeat legacy, we would quickly realize that Fate actually didn’t have a choice. There was only one ‘direct’ successor – Seun. The other son had long wandered off, a talented prodigal. Seun dutifully took over his father’s band, and carried on from where Fela left off. For years he satisfied audiences with his father’s songs. It wasn’t until a decade after Fela’s death that he released his debut album. By the time Fela died, Seun’s elder brother, Femi, had already been playing his own music – not Fela’s – for a decade. Femi broke off from his father’s band in 1988 to launch his own band, Positive Force, an action didn’t go down well with Fela. For years the father refused to speak to his first son. Eventually though, he came to accept Femi’s music, and appeared to resign himself to the fact that his son had to make his own way in the world. By the time of his death in 1997, Femi had released three albums. However much Femi’s sound was influenced by his father, it was distinctly Femi’s, a departure from the raw anger of Fela’s compositions.

A terrible burden You can’t watch Seun perform and not see Fela’s mischievous spirit hovering low over the band. That Saturday night, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that perhaps a good number of those present that day were actually there to see Fela perform; that it was Fela who played in their heads and pranced about on stage. I wondered how it must be for Seun, bearing the burden of Fela, unable to cast it aside, yet eager to be his own man and create his own sound. For while Fela was a creation of the Age of highlife and funk (and Black renaissance philosophy), Seun (apart from the Afrobeat inevitably in his DNA) is of the Age of hip-hop and rap and Facebook. Seun must have realized the sad truth that it is much easier for a hip-hop act to attempt to stray into Afrobeat (as D’Banj did early on in his career) than for Fela’s torchbearer to attempt the reverse journey. The burden of maintaining the sound the world came to love Fela for would prove too much a hindrance. It must be a terrible burden. For those who want Seun to be Fela, he will not quite measure up to the mark. For those who don’t want him to be his father, he will seem too much so. Yabis time Seun, mic in hand, did not fail to treat us to a session of ‘yabis’ – a creation of his father, in which he would break from music to pontificate on politics and current affairs and sundry matters, and rail against dictators and Big Men (For many fans, the yabis was as important as the music). “Seun should stop trying to do yabis and play his music instead,” a friend complained that Saturday. “He is not Fela…” Listening to Seun’s yabis that Saturday night I realized that it was less yabis than yabis-aspiring standup comedy, perhaps evidence of his realization that today’s Nigerians would rather pay to laugh at their country’s ironies than to rage at them.

Once, during a show at the Bar Beach in Lagos, it is said that Fela ordered that the 7-Up flag fluttering in the wind be pulled down, because it was a symbol of capitalist oppression. It seems unlikely that his son would ever do that – not when one of his band members proudly donned an Arsenal jersey. The theme of Seun’s yabis that Saturday night was satellite television (which one imagines his father, were he alive, would have boasted he never watched). Interestingly, he also took a dig at standup comedy, boasting that his jokes were not of the Night-of-a-Thousand-Laughs sort. Fela on Playback? No doubt, anyone who came to see Fela would have been a tad disappointed. Which would have been their fault, not Seun’s, since Seun is not Fela, was never meant to be Fela, and will only be shortchanging himself, and us, if he ever imagined he was. But then again the onstage ‘Fela On Broadway’ banner which provided a backdrop for his three dancers might have only succeeded in inspiring unfair comparisons with Fela’s much larger, far more raucous chorus. Seun ended the performance with Fela fare, which drove the audience into a frenzy, propelling them to within touching distance of Seun. Even Seun himself seemed more animated than before. Fela was in our midst. Or was he?

, published April 2010

1 comment:

  1. Ow, personally I don't agree entirely. Seun has an edge that Femi never quite managed (nor necessarily attempted to manage) and is pretty much his own. I am seeing him live again this Saturday so may have a little more to say on this. Of course I have never seen Fela live (but watched videos and documentaries) - it seems to me that each Kuti's personal style is not simply expressed in the music but in dance and attire (as one would expect from a Yoruba) - and in the main one can see significant differences between the three. Fela is raw mixing both his anger at government and the impact of the West on Africa. Femi is the eldest son - a softer approach respectful to his Nigerian roots yet does not dwell on the past in such an immediate fashion (Positive Force perhaps) - he dresses in traditional but contemporary attire exchanging his father's provocative and pre-colonial dance (when he does dance) for that of a responsible eldest son. Seun shares a little more of his father's lyrical anger but brings through a happier approach to dance - that of a cheekier younger son - a product of his age and Nigerian culture now.

    Of course similarities are huge between the three not least because they have chosen to keep to an under appreciated (though currently fashionable) genre.

    But in a time when Nigerian popular music is tipping toward American Urban (including the latters love for guns, gangsters and sexism) and there is a dearth of political comment in Nigerian culture, I am glad of the Kuti's and Tony Allens of the world - it's a shame that many Nigerians see Kuti as an insurgent to be ashamed of and that Nigerians are thin on the ground when it comes to the Afrobeat Revival.