Seun Kuti Discusses New Glasper-Produced Album
Seun Kuti always has a deliberate message in mind. At a June 11 show at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., with his Egypt 80 ensemble, the Afrobeat scion forcefully delivered his politically charged music, in the tradition of his late father, multi-instrumentalist and activist Fela Kuti.
A born showman, Kuti is known for his magnetic stage presence, antiphonic chanting and sweat-covered gyration, as well as his socially conscious lyrics, exemplified by songs like “IMF,” “African Airways” and “Black Woman.”
Kuti’s latest disc, A Long Way To The Beginning (Knitting Factory Records), was produced by Robert Glasper, who also plays keyboards throughout. And while the ever-popular Glasper wasn’t on hand at the concert, Kuti showed that he didn’t need the additional star power. During his abrupt sermons between songs—some lasting nearly 10 minutes—Kuti riffed on gender politics in Nigeria, President Obama’s use of drones and the negative effect of Western standards of beauty on African people.
On Sept. 13, Kuti and Egypt 80 will perform at the 16th annual World Music Festival in Chicago. Kuti also has upcoming concerts scheduled for Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom on Sept. 10 and the Bluebird in Bloomington, Indiana, on Sept. 12.
DownBeat caught up with Kuti in D.C., where he delved deeper into the layered meaning behind the new record’s title, the song “Black Woman” and how Glasper was an ideal collaborator.
DownBeat: Explain the meaning behind the title of your new CD, A Long Way To The Beginning.
Seun Kuti: For me it has a trifecta meaning. It’s personal; it’s political; [and] it’s musical. I just became a father, and that’s a new beginning in my life. In terms of the music, Afrobeat has been becoming even more international. The music is being covered all over the world now. It’s about time for the music to really break out and have a greater impact in terms of world music like reggae and jazz had before. We have so many Afrobeat bands all over the world. And politically in Africa, I believe this new generation is going to create a new political class because they are looking inward for a nationalistic African development. That’s why the title is A Long Way To The Beginning—because Africa itself has come a long way to where it is today.
Do you feel as if Afrobeat hasn’t gotten its props on the expansive world beat musical landscape?
I think every dog has its day. Every other world music has been explored. Like I say, it’s Afrobeat’s time. I think people are relating more to the music. People want to express themselves through Afrobeat music. That’s what has made Afrobeat such a force today. Afrobeat has grown because people have begun understanding the true meaning of the song’s messages and how the music relates not just to Africans but also to the entire global community.
Robert Glasper played a huge role on the new disc. He plays keyboards on most of the songs and he produced the disc. How did you two meet? And why did you recruit him as producer?
I had already written the songs for the record. On the last record, I worked with Brian Eno. I wanted to work with Brian again on the new record but for some reason our schedules couldn’t match. So for me, the next best thing was to work with a great musician. Brian Eno is a great producer but his specialty is sound. Working with him taught me so much. He actually influenced how I wrote the music for the new record.
So I thought, “OK, I learned a lot from Brian. What I need now is a great musician to work on the new record to bring musical ideas—not audio or sound quality-related ideas.” And Robert was the man. I’d been listening to Black Radio. I’m a huge fan.
Robert and I met and we just kicked it off. He’s a great guy. We shared ideas then went into the studio and bounced ideas off of each other. He put a lot of finishing touches to the tracks.
How did working with Glasper change you, from a musical standpoint?
Until I start writing my next album, I won’t be able to answer that question. As a musician, Robert is so great at what he does on the keyboards. Not a lot of musicians can come into Afrobeat music, grasp the groove and be able to expand upon it like he did. So for me, that’s the next step—to be able to expand the groove, like he did, in more areas of the music—not just in the rhythm section.
One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Black Woman.” During the concert, you mentioned that you wrote it after becoming a father. You also talked about gender issues in Nigeria and touched upon the negative effects that ideas of white European beauty have had on African women—how some began applying harmful bleaching cream on their skins and putting weaves into their hair. What has been the reception of that song in Nigeria?
We’ve just started pushing the record in Nigeria. Black women love their weaves in Nigeria! That’s why Nigerian women love bringing up the fact to me that white men are trying to look black because they keep on tanning. My response is that when people go out into the sun it’s natural for everyone to get darker. But it’s not natural for us to turn white. What season do we have in Africa that we all walk out and suddenly our faces and bodies turn fairer and our hair becomes straight? We are chemically altering and destroying ourselves doing that; it’s a more dangerous approach.
Some of the [Nigerian] women are losing their sense of culture. And when we lose our women, we as a nation lose our culture because our daughters grow up with their mothers. They respect their fathers, but they actually grow up with their mothers. So certain values are passed on to each generation. And with some Nigerian women not embracing themselves, we won’t even know ourselves anymore. Look at India, for example, with the caste system; people bleach their skin 20 tones lighter just to fit into society. Is this where Africa is going? I hope not. So I just have to put my two cents into that conversation.
I don’t fully believe in the gender equality drive, which says that putting women in designer clothes and allowing them to afford expensive things is the true meaning of equality. That’s such a superficial way of looking at it. We should be striving for intellectual equality between men and women. And that’s what some people are really afraid of because there’s really no money to be made in the fight for intellectual equality between men and women.
Some black women aren’t given the right role models anymore; they’re given superficial role models. I saw a poster of a black Marilyn Monroe. I was thinking: Angela Davis is already black; Nina Simone is already black. There are already so many great black women. Why not bring any of these powerful black women and put them on a poster? Why do we need a black Marilyn Monroe? Why do we need black women to suddenly be Marilyn Monroe and not be someone like Angela Davis or Maya Angelou or Nina Simone or Billie Holiday?