Seun Kuti interview: The new sound of Afrobeat

Seun Kuti to play the Englert
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 perform at the 2012 Mission Creek Festival. He returns to the Englert Theatre on July 15 at 8 p.m. — photo by Sandra L. Dyas

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Englert Theatre — July 15 at 8 p.m.

In March of this year Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 released A Long Way to the Beginning, hailed as their most politically driven album to date. The cover displays a red fist in the shape of Africa, and the back has a picture of Seun with the tattooed words, “Fela Lives,” across his back.

To understand the journey Seun has made with Egypt 80 to this point, it’s important to delve into the story of his father Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Fela was greatly influenced by the social movements in the United States that occurred in the 1960s. He assembled his signature Afrobeat sound that melded highlife and other African rhythms with the musical styles of jazz, funk and soul to address the social and political unrest in his native Nigeria. Despite the violence Fela endured from Nigerian authorities who felt threatened by the implications in his lyrics, he continued to use music as a tool to express the various issues Nigerians faced until his death in 1997.

Seun was 14 when his father died, and it was that same year that he made the decision to take up where his father left off. He took the lead of his father’s band, Egypt 80. Needless to say, this decision did not come without criticism—especially concerning how Fela’s youngest son could ever live up to his father’s legacy.

Today, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 have incorporated their own brand of Afrobeat with a modern twist of hip hop and R&B. A Long Way to the Beginning demonstrates the evolution of their sound, and like his father, Seun continues to use music as a tool to bring about social consciousness and inspire change. Through his music, Fela lives on.

In anticipation of Seun Kuti’s July 15 show at the Englert Theater, I caught up with him over the phone while he was on a tour bus headed to perform at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee.

A Long Way to the Beginning is the third album for you with Egypt 80. I saw on this one in particular that you worked with American Jazz pianist Robert Glasper as a producer as well as a guest musician on album. Was this the first time you have worked with Robert Glasper?

Yeah, the first time we worked together was on the record; it was fun.

How did you come to work together on the album? 

Our management thought that it would be a nice if we worked together on some music. So yeah, that’s how it first started. We spoke and found we had equal ideas, and we had a lot in common in terms of how we made music.

You also work with Nneka, M-1 of Dead Prez and Blitz the Ambassador. These are all socially conscious artists. How was it working with them on the album? 

These three artists are my very good friends as well, so it was fun. … We share a common message and a common teaching in music. It was kind of a brief thing working with them on the record.

I am particularly fond of Nneka and enjoyed her contribution to the song Black Woman. What inspired you to write Black Woman?

I believe that young black women need to be reminded of their true femininity . . . we should try to teach them about intellectual equality and not just sexual equality. . . Intellectual equality is important. I wanted young black women of the world to be our strength. … And to remember that she heals.

After listening to A Long Way to the Beginning and listening to your previous album With Africa with fury: Rise, I can hear a slight change in sound. The root of Afrobeat is there of course, but on your new album there is also a hip-hop feel in its approach, which I feel ties into the title of the album, A Long Way to the Beginning. Can you talk a little about the approach and sound of the album and how you came up with the title? 

For me, as soon as I release one album, I start to think about the next one, and I’ll at least try to go a year before the next CD comes out. With our first two albums, we found the opportunity to establish ourselves, and I found that I want my family first, and it took us a while to get back to where we are today. That’s why I called the album A Long Way to the Beginning.

You know, politically in Africa, our future roots thrive. A lot of young black people in Africa have become more conscious and there’s an understanding of change in Africa. We need to continue our political consciousness … we are in need of awareness for young black people to be bold. And that’s a new beginning for Africa as well … and it’s been a long time coming. That is also why I called the album A Long Way to the Beginning.

How has the reception of the new album been so far on the road?

It’s been really good. We’ve been having many good shows. And the performance is up.

Last time you played in Iowa City, your set began with a cover of your father’s classic track “Zombie”: Why did you choose to open the show with that song?

I pick a different song for every tour, and I don’t think about it until the tour. The bottom line is that I start my shows that way because of my father … and in respect to the band. It could be any track, there’s not one that I use all the time. And on this tour it’s gonna be “V.I.P.” … “Vagabonds in Power.”

Scarlett Cerna has been fortunate to fulfill her goal of working for a public radio station, and has been with Iowa Public Radio’s Studio One for the past four years.


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