Seun Kuti Steps Up

Seun Kuti Steps Up
If one word describes the Kuti family, it’s swagger. Beyond his intense political conviction and powerful dance grooves, Fela Kuti’s onstage strut made him a star. Fela’s youngest son Seun Kuti has swagger; he’s got it onstage and he’s got it on disc. But like his half brother Femi, who hasn’t released a studio album in seven years, Seun Kuti faces the challenge of being himself while satisfying those who want to see the father in the son.

In conversation, as in his music, 26-year-old Seun comes across as young and brash. But, like his relatives, he is also wise. He acknowledges the "chip off the ol’ badass block” spin being put on him and his music. "It’s not like I’m doing this because my publicist in New York is telling me. Maybe it’s the perception of who is interviewing me at that time. To me — I’m a very normal guy,” he says with a laugh. "But everybody I meet says how crazy I am — maybe the world is crazy.”

His debut disc, Many Things, carries on his father’s mission to enact social change through Afrobeat. Seun’s music is for Africans first and foremost, but he’s aware that a worldwide audience might tune out the specifics of his words. "Let me put it like this. I want the world to feel me, but I want my people to understand me,” he says. "When I say my people, I say Africans in general. Afrobeat is more than a genre, it’s a movement created for a purpose and that’s the emancipation of the black man who has to keep fighting through music. [It’s] not a movement motivated by money, [it’s] a movement motivated by music. So anybody that comes across my music is moved by my music, I’m satisfied.” Seun has achieved international success more quickly than his father or half brother, both of whom were fully-formed artists in their 30s by the time they achieved fame. Seun, on the other hand, is faced with developing his sound in front of large audiences. Despite having taken his father’s middle name "Anikulapo,” tattooing "Fela Lives” on his back, and consciously billing the band as "Fela’s Egypt 80,” Seun betrays no inner conflict about his own sensibilities. He says he wants Egypt 80 to keep playing to their strengths, except, "The only change I wanted to make was [to make them realize they were] no longer with my father, so musically I was starting all over again. That was a hard change for them, adapting to life without my father, but apart from that I wanted everything to stay the same because we believe in that music.”

The younger Kuti’s music throbs with up-tempo polyrhythms but tends toward more basic, staccato horn parts and an angry bulldog approach to vocalizing. It’s a style best experienced in concert. Like any other independent artist, he knows live performances are vital to his success, far outstripping potential record sales.

"[Success for] some artists [is measured] by winning international awards; some artists, by personal wealth; for others, it’s record sales; some it’s by how good their live performances really are. So I guess I fall in the category of live shows. I see myself as successful if I’m on tour nine months of the year.”

There’s more than meets the eye to that statement. Seun wants to connect with audiences throughout the year, not to be pigeonholed as a festival season artist. If Seun Kuti can tour North American arenas during the winter, he will have achieved with his debut album something considered nearly impossible for African stars of previous generations. Such swagger would make his father proud.