Seun Kuti Strengthens The Brand
Published Jun 26, 2011It was a passing comment, but a telling one. Seun Kuti, publicly anointed heir to father Fela's band and belligerence, describes the circumstances surrounding his second album From Africa With Fury: Rise: "I think the momentum in the States is right for a new album and the momentum to push the brand there."
The Kuti brand, eh? Let's face it, he speaks the truth. That should come as no surprise given his last name. What is surprising is that Seun not only speaks truth to power, he speaks truth to his family's ever growing fame. Afrobeat, antiauthoritarianism, virility and copious ganja consumption are the qualities that made Fela an icon and, over time, a brand. Seun is calling it as we all see it. No matter what terminology he uses, he backs it up with an unfuckwithable record produced by Brian Eno, a brand in his own right.
A conversation with the second famous son of the late great Afrobeat godhead is insightful. He comes across as more confident and expansive than in his interview with Exclaim! two years ago, thanks to lessons learned personally, musically and in business.
While he doesn't hesitate to spit fire, he acknowledges his relative freedom to do so, which in turn leads to an observation on the Kuti family's sense of responsibility. "I can't say that I've ever been poor," he says. "Fela was pretty privileged. I was privileged, but the fact that we were privileged doesn't mean that we don't see that most of our brothers are in pain. They're suffering and that's what inspires me to speak about things that are happening in society not just in [one's] own house. Music should be about the majority not the minority."
The younger Kuti strikes a balance between the rhetoric of social justice and contemporary realism. If he were to continue to simply mine the same topics as his father, audiences might still respond, but the substance of his message would be somewhat passé without his own modern take on social issues.
The same goes for his music. "Brian [Eno] for me was a breath of fresh air for my music," effuses Kuti. "I already knew him for two years; he called me to play at events he'd curated. He showed me ways to open up the music. He gave me ideas about things we could do to turn the project from live music to a great live CD." Eno was responsible for a few discreet dub touches and quite a few reworked instrumental voicings to create a richer experience than his debut.
Kuti is also happier with his label situation. He's on Knitting Factory, the same label that has re-released his father's catalogue and played a major role in bringing Fela! The Musical from off Broadway to the world. Kuti the younger is impressed with the passion and knowledge of his label and their sensible strategies to apply the success of the play to his new album and tour.
Despite his satisfaction with his music and professional outlook, life isn't all smiles and sunshine. Regarding Nigeria's recent election: "Nothing has changed" he declares. "The only good thing is that now young people in Africa are interested in politics, and that's what leads to change. I don't see any success in the election. Pre-election violence in my country was high. People died. Things like this still happen, what are we celebrating? Nothing really."
In Seun's hands his father's pronouncement that "Music Is The Weapon Of The Future" will never be reduced to a simple slogan.